Writing Essays in Art History
These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.
Last Edited: 2016-03-01 09:17:11
Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis
Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.
A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?
Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?
A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.
Methods & Theories To Consider:
Social Art History
Visual Cultural Studies
Stylistic Analysis Example:
The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.” Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall. Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.
Compare and Contrast Essay
Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.
Compare and Contrast Example:
Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’
Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.
Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.
Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"
Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.
Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.
Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality? Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?
The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.
- Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
- Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
- Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
- Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
- Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
- Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
- Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion.
- The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
- Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage.
Before writing, I highly recommend that you write an outline for your paper. This is a way to organize your thoughts and to make sure that your structure is logical. It also can make the writing process much faster and easier, since you have a roadmap of where you are heading. The more detailed your outlines, the more they help! This may seem like a waste of time, but I promise you it will save you time in the end.
Thesis – You must have one! A thesis is a clear statement of what you plan to argue. It should be identifiable from your first paragraph. This thesis must be original and supportable. You should be able to connect every paragraph in your essay to this idea. If you cannot connect a passage to your thesis, it is either extraneous or in need of explanation. A thesis is a statement of the idea you will be trying to prove. An essay is an argument, an attempt to prove an original assertion through the use of various types of evidence.
Evidence – In Art History essays, there are several forms of evidence you might rely on. First and foremost, there is the visual evidence of the works of art. You may also contextualize the work with primary source texts (that is, texts from the same period as the works of art you are discussion). Then, you should read secondary sources (texts written by modern historians) about the works of art, their artists (if known) and their periods. Finally, you can read theoretical treatments of the vital themes in the works. This final category is generally not needed for introductory courses, but can be a great help in upper division work.
Argument – Be sure to venture beyond formal description of your images. Provide analysis that considers the meaning or meanings which we may draw from these works. Do not be afraid to offer multiple interpretations of an image or set of images. This can often by very effective, so long as the various interpretations are incorporated into a single, overarching argument. Most importantly, be sure that every sentence of your paper can be connected to your thesis.
Conclusion – Your papers should end with some form of concluding remarks. These need not take the form of hackneyed conventions (ie. “In conclusion, I would like to state…”), and you should avoid grand overstatements (ie. “This work shows how incredible the Middle Ages were.”) but should show the reader where they have just been and why this journey was important.
Formatting – Your professors will all have their own specifics, so be sure to read their guidelines in full. Generally, though, standard procedure is to use Times New Roman, 12-point font, 1-inch margins all around, double-spacing, and page numbers in the header or footer. See here for an example page. Papers must have regular citations. Most Art Historians will ask for footnotes in the Chicago style. The two most important aspects of citation are consistency and traceability. Can your reader easily find the text you are citing? Have you given all the necessary information? Have you been honest in giving credit where it is due?
Proofreading – Don’t rely on your spell-checking and grammar-checking software to do your proofreading for you. Many typos are also words, and therefore not picked up. I once read a paper in which the student referred repeatedly to St. Mark’s loin, intending to write about his symbol, the lion. Such errors are distracting. When proofreading, look for various issues, from spelling and grammar through language to overall essay structure. Ask yourself: Have I presented my argument in the best possible order? Are all of my main points clear and well-stated? Does one portion of my argument flow smoothly into the next? If not, try to fix it!
Title – When you have finished all of this, give your paper a title! This can be descriptive (Images of the Sword in the Bayeux Tapestry) or evocative (Slicing and Dicing) or both (Slicing and Dicing: Images of the Sword in the Bayeux Tapestry).
Images – It is often a good idea to include images of any works of art you discuss at length that are not from your class or the textbook. Be sure to clearly and carefully label your images, and put references to them in your text, as on the Example Page.
For an excellent site similarly dedicated to teaching students how to write about art, see Marjorie Munsterberg’s Writing About Art.