modern art history online courses

Whether you’re looking to develop skills for your career or simply have fun, you won’t regret signing up for an online art history class. Striking the perfect balance between entertainment and education, art history classes let you travel through time and space as they immerse you in the cultures of different regions and eras. These classes can also teach you to think critically about your daily interactions with art, which can enhance your appreciation for it.

Right here on College Learners, you are privy to a litany of relevant information on art certificate programs online, art history courses online free, Best Free Art History Course for Beginners and so much more. Take out time to visit our catalog for more information on similar topics.

art history courses online free

Art history is a fascinating part of the liberal arts education, but how do you learn about it? Some people read books. Others take online art history courses from universities like Harvard or free eLearning websites like Wondrium.

Whether you are studying art history in college, or just looking to explore new ideas, there are many free online courses to take. Here are the top 9 free online art history courses, according to our expert research team.

Best Free Art History Course for Beginners

1. How to Look at and Understand Great Art (Wondrium)

If you are just beginning your journey into the field of art history, then you should check out the free online courses from Wondrium. The site offers many art history courses that will help you “see” art in a whole new way. This free online art history course from Wondrium includes several classes on great works of art. You will reach new levels of appreciation by looking at the artwork in different ways. And you will learn what makes some pieces unforgettable, how to tell if something is fake, and so much more.

Benefits of This Course

– Learn how to see art in a new way.

– Gain insights into the techniques of famous artists.

– Be able to appreciate artwork on a deeper level.

Best Free Course for Art History Lovers

2. The Cathedral (Wondrium)

In addition to having the best online course for beginners, Wondrium offers several free courses for art history lovers. In this course from Wondrium, you will learn how to experience art history for what it really is. Most of us have always wanted to travel the world and see all sorts of interesting places. Unfortunately, we do not get to travel as much as we would like to. This online course makes it possible for art history lovers to experience the world’s greatest cathedrals without leaving home.

In this free art history course from Wondrium, you will explore Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral, Amiens Cathedral, and Canterbury Cathedral. And your love for art history will grow even more when you take incredible tours of over 20 cathedrals from around the globe. You can learn about these historic buildings while exploring them yourself. Each cathedral tour comes with its own unique features and stunning videos and pictures.

Benefits of This Course

– Get to know cathedrals without the hassle of traveling.

– Learn about architecture, art, and history in this online course from Wondrium.

– Explore the world’s most beautiful buildings from home. 

– Experience the awe that these structures inspire through immersive 3-D tours.

Best Free Course for Art Historians

3. Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance (Wondrium)

Many students consider art history to be easy because they only need to memorize the names of famous artists and their works. But Wondrium’s online courses for art historians prove that there is more than just that. In this course, you will learn about Renaissance art in much more detail than what your textbook or art history professor could ever tell you. The paintings are so vivid and detailed that it feels like you are standing right in front of them. You will learn exactly why these masterpieces have stood the test of time as some of the greatest pieces ever created.

Benefits of This Course

– Learn about the Renaissance and its artists.

– Gain a sense of accomplishment from studying these great works of art. 

– See how beautiful the world can be when you take time to appreciate it. 

– Expand your knowledge on some of the greatest painters in history.

Best Free Art History Course for Museum Curators

4. Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks and Artifacts (Harvard University via edX)

If you are a museum curator looking for the best art history course, then you should consider this free course from Harvard. Most people think that studying art history means reading about famous paintings. But the study of art is more than what you see on the surface. Art historians have to know different things like how artists work and what historical context they were working in.

This online art history course from Harvard will teach you all these skills and more. It provides a hands-on experience where you get to explore real objects from Harvard’s collections. And you will learn how to interpret works of art through exercises and projects. By the end of this course, you will be able to read about great works of art and enjoy them.

Benefits of This Course

– Learn about the history of art museums in this free online course from Harvard University via edX.

– Gain an appreciation for art and artifacts. 

– Better understand how material objects shape academic disciplines.

Best Free Art History Course for Architects

5. The World’s Greatest Churches (Wondrium)

Architects who want to explore the world’s greatest Christian churches should consider this art history course. This course from Wondrium is a fantastic experience for both Christians and non-Christians alike. Wondrium has done all the hard work of finding great churches for this art history course. In this course, you will explore the world’s most amazing churches, basilicas, and cathedrals.

For example, you will learn about St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This course has high-quality video footage from inside these beautiful buildings. And you will get access to hours of video content along with detailed written descriptions, giving you everything you need to know.

Benefits of This Course

– Gain a better understanding of the history and significance of churches.

– Learn about the architectural styles, interior design, and artworks that make these buildings so remarkable. 

– Explore some of the most famous cathedrals in Europe in this online art history course from Wondium.

– Discover what makes these buildings so unique and beautiful.

art history online course

Missing your days as an art history undergraduate? Or never had those days at all? Here’s your chance to go back to school, sans the price tag. (You can still wear your pajamas to class, though.) These 10 online courses—which primarily focus on the Western world—range from foundational to niche: Beginners can trace the development of art from cavemen to Alexander Calder, while more seasoned students can delve into fashion design or activist art.

Ways of Seeing with art critic John Berger

Best for:

Art historians with a contrarian streak. One critic dubbed this four-part BBC series “Mao’s Little Red Book for a generation of art students,” and its opening shot reflects that revolutionary attitude—in it, art historian Berger takes a box cutter to a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c. 1485). Of course, some of the shock value has faded since it was filmed in 1972 (an episode unpacking the ways European artists represented female nudes is today a commonly discussed topic with a designated term: the “male gaze”), but the series still offers a valuable primer in how to look at art—and, more broadly, the myriad images we encounter each day in advertisements and on TV.

What you get:

Four 30-minute episodes, all available on YouTube. For further reading, there’s a book born out of the series (also titled Ways of Seeing and published in 1972) that’s become a staple of art history classrooms around the world.  

History of Western Art and Civilization: Prehistory through the Middle Ages with Beth Harris and Steven Zucker of Smarthistory

Best for:

The (motivated) beginner. Smarthistory describes itself as an “open textbook” that offers students a thorough introduction to art history using contributions from more than 200 scholars. This particular course offers a no-frills approach—learners are guided by a 16-page, heavily linked syllabus. And once you’ve completed the first course, Smarthistory has compiled two additional syllabi (“History of Western Art: Late Gothic to Neoclassicism” and “Modern Art in Europe and North America”) that whisk learners through centuries, concluding in the 1960s with Pop Art.

What you get:

A comprehensive syllabus that links out to videos and articles for each subject.

Modern Art & Ideas with Lisa Mazzola of MoMA’s Department of Education

Best for:

Anyone wondering about the difference between modern and contemporary art. And who better to explain it than the Museum of Modern Art itself? Mazzola guides learners through four major themes—Places & Spaces, Art & Identity, Transforming Everyday Objects, and Art & Society—using works from the museum’s collection to highlight how art has evolved over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What you get:

Five-week course with two hours of video lectures, readings, and assessments per week. Like many Coursera offerings, it’s free—unless you want a course certificate, in which case there is a fee.

European Paintings: From Leonardo to Rembrandt to Goya with Alejandro Vergara and Jennifer Calles, both of Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

Best for:

Enhancing your stroll through the Louvre. This course discusses the most famous European painters and paintings between the 15th and 19th centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci to Johannes Vermeer to Francisco de Goya. The lectures come in digestible, 8- to 10-minute portions that offer both a biographical look at the artist and a framework for critically examining their works.

What you get:

Nine-week course with three hours of video lectures and quizzes per week. This course is archived, so students can no longer receive a verification certificate.

Seeing Through Photographs with Sarah Meister of MoMA’s Department of Photography

Best for:

When Instagram isn’t enough. Between social media, newspapers and magazines, and even television, we’re constantly inundated with photographs. This course aims to give learners the tools to understand them, whether they’re displayed in a museum or not. Topics range from classic examples of documentary photography (including Dorothea Lange’s 1936 Migrant Mother) to more contemporary projects (like Nicholas Nixon’s four-decade series of portraits of the Brown sisters).  

What you get:

Six-week course with one to two hours of video lectures, readings, and graded assignments per week.

Online Art History classes from across the globe 4x3

art certificate programs online

Plus, when more people with diverse backgrounds study art, the world of art itself gains a vaster, more inclusive perspective. This is because highly artistic and theoretical realms of study tend to be dominated by people with more privileged backgrounds. However, by de-privatizing knowledge and making education more accessible and affordable, e-learning can help break down the walls surrounding the art world. 

It is important to remember top-notch art history courses go beyond encouraging you to remember the facts, dates, and style types of art — they also teach you how an artwork interacted with different places and points in time, as well as how they challenged or reinforced pre-existing ideologies. Exceptional art history classes can also show you how art has developed from era to era and what external socio-political forces catalyzed those changes. Most importantly, epic art history courses grant you the freedom to formulate your own informed opinions about art.

The 14 best art history classes you can take online: 

  • Museums & Public Art
  • Prehistoric Art
  • Ancient Art
  • Early Modern Period
  • 19th Century Art
  • Modern & Contemporary Art
  • Architecture
  • Functional Art

Museums & Public Art


Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You

Through an examination of Harvard-owned artifacts, this course unravels the mysteries of museums, archives, and libraries. You will learn about the curator’s role in maintaining collections, the processes behind curatorial decisions, and how to discern the intention behind collections — whether it be for monetary purposes, memory preservation, or some other reason. 

You will also learn how the arrangement of objects affects how a collection is perceived and interpreted by viewers. This knowledge is particularly valuable since one of the most important powers a curator wields is the ability to frame and contextualize conversations surrounding art — a power rooted largely in the build and organization of their collections.

Enroll for free or earn a certificate for $49.

Cloud Gate in Chicago by Alex Powell

ART of the MOOC: Public Art and Pedagogy

If you’ve ever seen a sculpture in a park or strolled by a colorful mural on the side of a building, you’ve encountered public art. Public art installations may seem like a straightforward concept, but it has a history of being controversial, from Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This Duke course will help you learn about the dialogue and efforts surrounding public art’s implementation, reception, and purpose.

This course acknowledges public art as socially engaged art, which is important considering how public art production typically requires consideration of the collective’s needs as opposed to the individual artist’s needs. Thus, you will learn how public art can incite educational discussions and consequently fuel criticism of pre-existing understandings of art. Amid exploring the intersection of space and art, students will also have the opportunity to conduct their own experiments related to spatial politics.

Enroll for free or earn a certificate for $49.

Prehistoric Art

Prehistoric Art: Beginning Art for Artists and Designers

When it comes to art history, you will often find a slew of courses covering topics such as Renaissance and modern art. This is largely thanks to the preservation of historical records from these time periods. Since being prehistoric means existing before recorded history, courses on prehistoric art aren’t afforded the same luxury as their successors and tend to be more elusive. However, it’s the era’s lack of documentation that helps make prehistoric art so captivating. 

Topics you will study in this course include art from the Ice Age, Spain’s Cave of Altamira, Prehistoric America, and Aboriginal Australians. The cave drawings and other carvings you will learn about are crucial, as they grant insight into the thoughts, actions, and daily lives of those who roamed the earth long before us. Prehistoric art may at first appear to be an enigma, but once deciphered, it can greatly inform our understanding of the human experience’s early days and development.

Enroll and earn a certificate of completion for $11.99.

Ancient Art

Parthenon by Spencer Davis

30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World 

Amazon Prime members have access to affordable classes designed by The Great Courses via  Prime Video. 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World course begins by contextualizing the relevance of ancient art studies and what it means to be dubbed a “masterpiece,” then moves on to examine specific works from across the globe. The lesson wraps up by placing ancient masterpieces in conversation with contemporary works of art. 

This course is remarkably entertaining because it’s like a virtual travel experience — both geographically and temporally. You’ll be transported across the world as you learn about intriguing artifacts, from The Standard of Ur, which depicts scenes of Sumerian life in Mesopotamia, to the Olmec Colossal Heads, stone sculptures found on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. You’ll learn about Ancient China’s bronzes and how they relate to the excavated tomb of female military leader, Fu Hao, as well as how abstract art can be traced back to Ancient Andean Textiles — long before the style became a global phenomenon through mid-20th century artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

Buy the entire season in SD for $58.99 or in HD for $88.99.

Pyramids by David McEachan

Pyramids of Giza: Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology

The Pyramids of Giza are one of the greatest enigmas in the world — chances are you’ve heard a conspiracy theory or two about how these enormous, enduring structures came into existence. If you’re looking to demystify the Pyramids’ history, this course is the perfect launchpad for your expedition into the curious, overlapping worlds of art history and archaeology. 

By examining the findings of archaeologists who explored the Pyramids, decoding hieroglyphics, and analyzing Egyptian art from the same time the pyramids were created, this course constructs a vivid image of Ancient Egyptian life. It considers the Pyramids not only as perennial architectural feats but also as important cultural and religious objects. There’s also a modern element to the course, since you’ll learn how advancements in tech are shaping the future of Egyptology.

Enroll for free or earn a certificate for $149.

Early Modern Period

The Louvre Museum in Paris, France by Silvia Trigo

European Paintings: From Leonardo to Rembrandt to Goya

This course encompasses the Early Modern period of European Art, focusing specifically on paintings. It examines the lives and works of Leonardo da Vinci (Italian polymath), Caravaggio (Italian painter), Velázquez (Spanish Baroque painter), Rembrandt (Dutch painter), Vermeer (Dutch Baroque painter), and Goya (Spanish Romanticism painter). 

During the Early Modern period, realistic art that demonstrated an artists’ superior technical skill was highly revered and paintings were typically created to depict a story. However, since a painting could only show a snapshot of the plot, viewers were expected to possess a certain level of background knowledge in order to understand the paintings’ stories. This course will provide you with the knowledge needed to identify and interpret Early Modern art, as well the language and philosophies to properly engage in conversations surrounding the art.

Enroll or free or earn a certificate for $99.

19th Century Art

Japan by Tomáš Malík

Words Spun Out of Images: Visual and Literary Culture in Nineteenth Century Japan 

As an avid manga reader, I enrolled in this course to gain a better understanding of Japan’s long history of employing words and images simultaneously to fully tell a story. Artists covered in this University of Tokyo course include painter Watanabe Kazan, writer Yoshida Shōin, and painter Takahashi Yuichi. The instructor, professor Robert Campbell, creates an engaging learning environment by weaving the course material into a wonderful storytelling experience.

In this class, you will learn how samurai often inscribed personal messages on their personal portraits, as well as how artists wrote directly onto their art to describe the occurrences in fictional depictions. Figures portrayed in Japanese paintings were often attributed backstories or context so anyone viewing the art could accurately interpret what they were seeing. This combination of art and text to make art understandable to any viewer stands in stark juxtaposition with Early Modern European artists’ expectation that people possess a certain degree of background knowledge when viewing art.

Enroll for free or earn a certificate for $49.

Modern & Contemporary Art

Cameras by Alex Andrews

Modern and Contemporary Art and Design Specialization

Offered by the Museum of Modern Art, this specialization emulates a museum tour and consists of four courses: Modern Art & Ideas, Seeing Through Photographs, What Is Contemporary Art?, and Fashion as Design. The course material is a combination of audio interviews, films, and readings.

Modern art is typically understood to encompass works produced around the later half of the 19th century until the early half of the twentieth century. Throughout Modern Art & Ideas, you will explore how an artwork interacts with its environment and the external socio-political issues of a given time. 

Seeing Through Photographs is all about understanding photography’s history and development. While examining photos from the MOMA’s collection, you will learn about the different artistic, scientific, historical, and journalistic uses of photography.

Contemporary art encompasses art created from around the later half of the 20th century until the present day. What Is Contemporary Art? lets you virtually step inside artists’ studios and learn about the materials and intent behind contemporary artworks.

The final course of this specialization, Fashion as Design, explores the cultural importance of clothing and ethical issues surrounding the fashion industry. You will learn how fashion can mirror or catalyze wider-scoped movements, values, and societal trends.

Enroll for free or pay $40 a month until you complete the course to earn a certificate.


Surrealism is all about depicting the mind’s subconscious and liberating the deepest recesses of the human imagination, which means some wildly creative pieces have come out of the movement. An offshoot of Dadaism, Surrealism bestows realistic qualities to unrealistic scenes,  embracing the phantasmic and abandoning the rational.

If you’re fascinated by the bizarre dream landscapes you sometimes enter while asleep, you should check out Khan Academy’s free readings and videos on Surrealism. After all, the movement’s artwork is commonly described as dreamlike. The material covers influential artists such as Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, and Man Ray. You will learn about Surrealism’s manifestation in mediums such as painting, sculpture, collage, and photography, as well as the role of women, psychoanalysis, and automatism in its creation.

Access to class material is free.

Globe focusing on Africa by Nothing Ahead

Global Africa: Creative Cultures

MIT has made efforts to publish a considerable amount of its course materials online via MIT OpenCourseWare. Global Africa: Creative Cultures is taught by MIT professor M. Amah Edoh, and the syllabus combines anthropology, history, and social theory to provide an expansive view of Africa’s material and visual culture. The course also shows how Africa’s literary, musical, and artistic productions affect and reflect its positioning and interactions within global politics. 

Through a combination of videos and readings, you will study ideas put forth by intellectuals such as Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, Stanford professor Paulla A. Ebron, and acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Under the Instructor Insights course tab, you can read more about the professor’s understanding and goals of the course — such as what she means when she refers to Africa as a category of thought. If you’re looking to unpack the unspoken power and political dynamics embedded within visual culture, this course material is worth exploring.

Access to class material is free.

In the Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting

After the destruction of war, artistic style always seems to go through a reconceptualization and reinvention period. Art can also be propaganda used to either support or oppose war causes. Art and war are thus curious partners, and this course explores their complex relationship.

After World War II and amid Cold War tensions, American art underwent a drastic change as the Abstract Expressionism movement gained footing. The creation of abstract art was considered a prominent ideological front of the Cold War. Due to its divergence from realism, abstract art came to embody ideas related to independence, freedom, and self-expression — all of which America wanted to be associated with its democracy. 

Aside from its relation to political conflict, abstract art is also important because it put New York City on the art map since it was the first major art movements to originate in the U.S. With the opportunity to complete studio work and study prominent New York School artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Yayoi Kusama, you’re sure to be well-versed in abstract painting after completing this course. 

Enroll for free or earn a certificate for $49.


Westminster Abbey by Dominika Gregušová

The Cathedrals

Cathedrals are important architectural feats that embody the historical intersection of art, religion, politics, culture, and authority. Not all cathedrals are Gothic, but Gothic-style Cathedrals are the most common and therefore often the most recognized. From the origins of cathedrals in the 1st century to the revival of Gothic architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries, this course explores the five formative phases of Gothic architecture — Romanesque, Early Gothic, High Gothic, Late Gothic, Neo-Gothic. 

The earliest stage of Gothic architecture may be dubbed “Romanesque” to pay homage to its Roman roots, but this course follows the history of Gothic cathedrals into their modern-day presence in countries such as South Africa and the United States. 3D cathedral tours make this course a standout immersive learning experience, allowing you to consume the art more authentically than if they were to be shown as 2D photos. 

Buy the entire season in SD for $49.99 or in HD for $59.99.

Functional Art

Photo of Person Weaving Using Hand Loom by Karolina Grabowska

Art, Craft, Science

Some artworks are created solely to be viewed — others are created to be used and viewed. Objects of the latter category are often dubbed “crafts.” Available through MIT OpenCourseWare, this course is taught by professor Heather Paxson and examines both the historical and contemporary creation, consumption, commodification, and value of crafts. The course employs three main methods for analyzing craft art, viewing the examined works through historical, theoretical, and anthropological lenses.

Possessing both exhibition and function value, craft art is uniquely positioned in the art world because rather than being created to serve the art world, it is created to serve people in their daily lives. Examples of disciplines explored in this course include glassblowing, quilting, and the culinary arts — so if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about cheesemaking, this is the course for you. Overall, you’ll be provided with the intellectual toolkit needed to formulate and articulate your own ideas on craft art’s interactions with a given culture.

Access to class material is free.

Picture books photo by Sarah Toscano

Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

Visual culture’s dominance is constantly growing amid our world of social and digital media. Yet, even before rapid tech advancements, visual culture has long played an important role in childhood development thanks to the traditional picture book’s value as an education tool. After all, mediums that combine words and images can be helpful when learning how to link speech to actions, behaviors, or feelings. 

In this course, you will examine trends in children’s visual culture, specifically pertaining to picture books, comics, film, and television, as well as the creation and consumption of these mediums. As you learn to think critically about these highly-utilized artworks, you will come to recognize them as functional art. You will also gain a deeper understanding of how access to these creative productions can significantly impact a child’s development and imaginative capacities. If you have the means, you may even find yourself inspired to donate children’s books to a local school or foundation.

Enroll for free or earn a certificate for $44.

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