How To Write An Essay About Artwork

Writing Essays in Art History

Summary:

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.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble
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:

Expressionism

Instructuralism

Naturalism

Feminism

Formalism

Postmodernism

Social Art History

Biographical Approach

Poststructuralism

Museum Studies

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’

Compare:

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.

Contrast:

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"

Compare:

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.

Contrast:

Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.

Iconography

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. 

Introduction

This text is intended to help students improve their ability to write about visual things.  I explain the most common types of analysis used by art historians and a little bit about how these methods developed.  This is not a history of art history, however, nor is it an introduction to the theory and methods of art history.  Major scholars are not mentioned and complicated ideas have been presented only in terms relevant to their practical application.  It also is not a guide to learning how to look at art.  For that, Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look remains unsurpassed.3

Almost all of my examples come from texts written in English.  Translations change exactly what is of greatest interest here: the words and concepts used by good writers about art. Furthermore, there is a history to the language used in English by art historians.  Sometimes this has shaped the meaning of a term, occasionally in significant ways.  A few examples will be discussed below.  Even in their use of ordinary words, however, these writers can serve as models.  Their vocabulary and ideas offer a wealth of contributions to the internal resources upon which we all draw when we write.  The more developed these resources are, the more fluent and expressive writing based upon them will be.

Painting, sculpture, and architecture have been considered the major forms of the fine arts during much of the Western tradition.  They have attracted many of the most ambitious artists and, consequently, more attention from art historians.  Architecture, however, like video and electronic mediums, requires a specialized descriptive and analytical vocabulary.  Just as the art historical methods I explain are the ones most commonly used, so the forms of art discussed in the passages I have selected are those most frequently covered in art history courses.  For the same reason, most of the art analyzed in the text comes from the West.

I have not included any reproductions, in the hope that more attention will be given to the passages quoted.  Glancing at a picture and then skimming text about it is not the same as trying to create a mental image of something from words alone.  The absence of illustrations also should make it easier for each reader to decide which words seem particularly effective in communicating information about visual things.  However, I have given enough information about each work so that a picture of it can be found without difficulty. Many of them will be familiar from art history surveys.

Another editorial decision I made was to cite the names of the authors quoted within my text.  The normal practice of putting that information in the notes makes it easier for the reader, who is given a smoothly flowing argument instead of one constantly interrupted by names and book titles.  Here, however, since my subject is writing, identifying the writer with the passage seemed useful.  The most important art historians of the past have birth and death dates in parentheses after the first mention of their names.

This is a guide to writing about art, not to writing itself.  It is no substitute for a book like The Elements of Style, the classic but still inspiring text by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.4 Nonetheless, I would like to begin with a few fundamental principles.  Paragraphs should be the basic organizing unit of any essay.  Each one should develop a single idea, introduced at the beginning of the paragraph by a topic sentence.  The paragraphs should be organized so that the ideas follow one another in a logical sequence. This means that the topic sentences should form an outline of what the writer intends to express.  Sentences should be complete, and grammar and spelling must be correct.  Words should convey the writer’s meaning as directly as possible.

The choice of which verb tenses to use must be consistent throughout a single piece of writing.  My personal choice is to use the present tense for anything that still exists, like a work of art or a book, and the past tense for a completed action.  In other words, Michelangelo sculpted David (because he did it centuries ago), but David shows Michelangelo's interest in the Classical conception of the nude male body (because it still does).  This seems to me the most logical approach, although sometimes it leads to awkward phrasing.  Many people use the present tense for both cases.  In other words, Michelangelo uses the Classical conception of the nude male body in his sculpture David.  Whatever the choice, it must be adhered to throughout any particular essay.

To be effective, a paper must be directed toward a single goal.  The purpose matters to the writer and it matters to the reader, who will have expectations about what comes next based on what has been promised.  Writing intended to evoke a vivid impression of a work of art has to present very different information from an interpretation of the subject that depends upon detailed historical arguments.  For this reason, it is important to let the reader know as soon as possible what kind of analysis will follow.  Every aspect of the paper should contribute to it.

Success is measured by how well the intended meaning has been communicated to the intended reader.  There is no substitute for having someone read a draft, or for putting a paper aside and returning to revise it later.  Even before that, though, a writer should try to assess the clarity and logic of the presentation.  Underlining topic sentences to see if they really do outline the argument is helpful. Quickly sketching elements mentioned in a visual description is another revealing exercise. If there is no place in the drawing for a particular detail, it has been introduced at the wrong point in the essay or essential elements have been neglected. Most of all, the writer should be prepared to revise and revise and revise.  Good papers never just happen.

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