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Designing the decorative arts: Drawings and the process of making European decorative arts 1500-1900


Admission requirements

Admission to MA Arts and Culture: Museum Studies / Art History, research master Arts and Culture, research master Arts, Literature and Media. Priority is given to students of the MA Arts and Culture.


This MA course investigates the role of drawings in the conception, realization, selling and recording of works of the decorative arts, on the basis of the newly formed collection of drawings of this kind at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the subject of the exhibition Process. Design Drawings from the Rijksmuseum 1500-1900, held in Den Bosch and Paris in 2022-2023.

The course will address the concept of design, a word based on the Italian ‘disegno’, which means drawing. For Vasari and many subsequent authors, ‘disegno’ was the father of all the arts – painting, architecture, sculpture and so on. By considering design, we will also interrogate the idea of ‘decorative arts’. What are they, why have art historians begun to separate them from the other arts, and which is the role drawings – inventions on paper – played in their conception? To familiarize ourselves with the decorative arts, the collections of the Rijksmuseum will be visited.

The exhibition Process, and its accompanying catalogue, proposes an imaginary ‘design itinerary’, seeking to allocate to each drawing its position within the process that went from imagining a work of art on paper, to recording it in a drawing because it was old and therefore of interest. This is a largely speculative enterprise, and participants in the course will be asked to address a drawing or group of drawings – either in the Rijksmuseum or elsewhere – from this particular vantage point. There will be an excursion to study a representative group of drawings in the Rijksmuseum print room.

Of central significance to many matters raised in this course is the question as to what kind of artists created the drawings of objects that we are studying. By posing a more or less rigid separation between ‘artists’, known painters and sculptors who were able to invent works of art, and ‘craftsmen’, who executed or generally followed artist’s ideas, the artistic contribution of the latter group has been neglected, and this has significantly influenced the way art history considers the members of that group. We will investigate the role of artists and artisans as designers in subsequent eras. It is encouraged that participants in the course choose a subject for their paper that in some way touches on this essential question.

Course objectives

  • Students will gain an insight in the nature of decorative arts, through gaining knowledge concerning the role drawings played for their conception.

  • Students will obtain an insight in the ways and means by which the collection of design drawings of the Rijksmuseum was formed, and be encouraged to question the function of this collection, and of the exhibition of a selection from it.

  • Students will learn to recognize and produce productive research on the questions raised during the course, starting from an object-based investigation.

  • Students will learn to initiate and carry out a modest research project in which they explicitly frame their own reading, and situate themselves critically within modern and contemporary scholarly and artistic debates.


The timetables are available through My Timetable

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

  • Excursion

  • Engaging in and commenting on each other’s presentations

Assessment method

  • Paper, including oral presentation of its subject (80 %)

  • Oral presentation on a work of art (20 %)

Each ResMA student must fulfil an extra assignment, in order to demonstrate their ability to address more advanced theoretical and disciplinary question beyond the normal MA level; to be decided by lecturer and student.


The final grade is the average of the two grades (20 % and 80 %). A student passes the course if the weighed average is 6.0 or higher (marks under 5.0 are not allowed).


The resit consists of rewriting or adjusting the paper (80 %).

Reading list

Beth Holman, ‘Introduction’, in: Beth Holman (ed.), exhibition catalogue Disegno. Italian Renaissance Designs for the Decorative Arts, New York (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum) 1997, pp. 1-14

Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, Objects of Virtue. Art in Renaissance Italy, London 2001, chapter 4: ‘The Value of Disegno’’, pp. 133-181

Reinier Baarsen, ‘Johannes Lutma de Oude als tekenaar’, Tijdschrift voor Interieurgeschiedenis en Design 42 (2020), pp. 83-98

Reinier Baarsen, ‘Process’, in exhibition catalogue Process. Design Drawings from the Rijksmuseum 1500-1900, Den Bosch (Design Museum) and Paris (Fondation Custodia) 2022-2023, pp. 12-31

Claire Jones, Sculptors and Design Reform in France, 1848 to 1895, Farnham 2014, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-15