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.
Variety is the principle of using contrasting elements to create a work of art that is beautiful, successful, and, most of all, different than works before it. Every artist from Vincent Van Gogh to Leonardo da Vinci to Pablo Picasso, to name a few famous ones everyone has heard of, has used variety throughout their artwork. Van Gogh contrasted colors and da Vinci differentiated between light and dark. Sometimes artists use variety in the same way but use it to their own advantage. Even pieces from two different centuries can be similar. Such is the case with Antoine Carons Augustus and the Sibyl and Francesco Albanis The Baptism of Christ. Both used the principle of variety similarly to create successful art, but of course the works are not completely the same, as marketed by the variety differences.
Artists use line in their pieces usually to guide a viewer through it, from one part to another. This is true with both Caron and Albanis paintings. They both use different lines, some bold, some straight, others skinny, others curvy, to take the audience on a specific journey throughout the paintings. For example, in Augustus and the Sibyl, Caron uses the outlines of the columns and one persons arm that is stretched upwards to let the reader look towards the upper right, where one can see the holy sight. Similarly, The Baptism of Christ shows one man holding a staff that directs the eyes up to the heavenly scene, but also the indicated lines of the rain shadows of the storm clouds lean the view back towards the center of the painting, including both a horizontal fence and a pointing woman that can be seen veering towards the center as well. There are other lines in both paintings, too, such as the staircases in Augustus that lead up to the scene on the very top stair and the diagonal lines of the trees in Albanis piece that stretch out and help the reader view the sight in the sky.
Line is not the only element of art used to guide the audience throughout artwork. Artists use the principle of movement to move the eyes throughout the art. Caron and Albani use different scenes with different people who seem to have nothing in common with each other to come together into the main focal point of the paintings. In Augustus and the Sibyl, the people on the top of the staircase towards the left seem to moving towards the two people towards the right, where one person can be see pointing towards the sky, then the holy light points back towards the ground, towards people standing upon a balcony that leads towards what seems to be people waiting in a massive line to get into the very open space where very few people can be seen, which is then geared towards the animals on the very right, to the animal on the staircase, which then ends right back to the person pointing their arm up towards the sky. The Baptism of Christ does generally the same thing, but a bit more simplistic than Carons piece. Albani seems to have the trees trying to stretch their branches up towards the sky where their storm clouds have the heavenly scene shining through them, where it leads to the center of the painting, then the eyes travel towards the people standing behind the fence, which then ends to the woman painting towards the center once again. Of course there is also the movement of what seems to be entertainment in Augustus and the Sibyl and the movement of the staff and the mountain heading towards the sky in Albanis artwork.
When artists put objects into their pieces, they either have shape or form that are defined by their space. There is, of course, negative and positive space, and if there is any media upon a canvas, then that makes it positive. Both Caron and Albanis artworks only have positive space. This is indicated in Albanis The Baptism of Christ by how the dark shadows from the tree is completely filled in all the way towards the branches stretching towards the completely blue sky that gear towards the storm clouds where God resides which head down, along with the mountain to the right, to the ground where the main scene is happening, whilst leaving no negative space anywhere in the painting. Augustus and the Sibyl is the same but much more complex. Even the background which doesnt hold as much significance as the foreground is given tiny details. In fact, one fourth of the background on the right is being lighted upon by the heavenly picture above it, which is probably symbolic for the artwork. No ounce of negative space exists in either of these paintings, which works successfully for both of them.
Artists use color to give their pieces personality and, of course, variety. As is the case with both of these paintings as well. Both Augustus and the Sibyl and The Baptism of Christ use cool colors in contrast with warm colors to apply an effective and bold image to the audience. They use it in the same exact way, too. In Carons piece, he uses the dark storm clouds that seem to hold a negative effect to contrast with the warm colors of the holy light that shine down upon the town below to let the two parts of the town, the lighted side and the darker side, to also contrast with one another. In Albanis piece, he uses cool colors in the sky, although bright and cheery in difference to Augustus stormy atmosphere, to head towards the warm colors of what is also a holy scene. Of course, there are other places where the colors contrast, such as in both the colors of the clothes are bold and dark compared to the skin which is smooth and bright.
Although both these paintings have many similarities in the way they use the elements of art and the principles of design, there are also many differences that can be plainly seen. One of the differences the artists use is how they produce value into their artwork. As described in how they used color similarly, the way they use value in their skies is heavily different. For example, in Augustus and the Sibyl, Caron uses a darker value in the dark, stormy sky to lead towards the lighter value of the holy light. However, in Albanis The Baptism of Christ, he used a lighter value of the sky blue atmosphere to head towards the darker value of the storm clouds that hold the heavenly scene. Of course, that is not the only difference the two artists make.
Emphasis is used when the artist wants to make one part of their artwork more dominant over another. While Albani uses this technique sufficiently throughout The Baptism of Christ, Caron veers away from it in Augustus and the Sibyl. In Albanis painting, he tries to make sure the focal point is near the center, where the baptism is happening and where you can see the holy light where God resides. The artist does this effectively by making the part brighter and more colorful than the rest of the painting. However, Caron seems to not care as much where your eye is mainly. Instead, he wants the viewer to scan the whole area of his work, to every inch, because each part holds something different. While there is something going on top of the stairs, there is also the light towards the upper right corner, and the obelisk towards the back that stands tall, there is the animals playing in the street, and the people being entertained towards the middle left in the background. The way the artists use emphasis is likewise to how they use balance.
An artist uses balance to set the elements either in harmony or not to create a successful work of art. While Carons Augustus and the Sibyl use balance symmetrically, Albanis The Baptism of Christ is asymmetrical. Carons painting could be divided in half and it would show that there seems to be as much happening on the left side as there is the right side. While one side shows a fight, the other shows a shining golden-like river. On the other hand, there is Albanis painting, where it seems if it were to be lined down the middle, the two would sides would not match up as easily. While the left side is more barren, the right side shows people conversing and witnessing the baptism. Both artists use the difference in balance to make their art their own.
Perhaps one of the less seen differences is how Caron and Albani use shape in their paintings. While Augustus and the Sibyl uses more geometric shapes throughout the artwork, The Baptism of Christ uses organic shapes. Carons use of geometric shapes form the painting. The use of the rectangle stairs is similar to the squares of the background flooring. There are circles throughout the columns and status and even the lighted scene shown above is made of the circular geometric shape. Unlike Carons painting, however, Albani uses very organic shapes in his The Baptism of Christ. It is not easy to spy any possible regular, geometric shapes someone would recognize. We see trees, we see people, and we see clouds. In fact, not even the staff the man in the focal point is holding is very rectangular in shape, but crooked and out of shape as if it had been used for years. It is amazing how both geometric and organic shapes can create something that looks almost as real as a photograph.
Both artists paintings have become successful throughout the years. Through their similar use of color, movement, line, and space, they have created paintings that will be seen by many a different audience. However, it is their dissimilar use of shapes, balance, emphasis, and value that have made their artwork different from one another but beautiful nonetheless. It gives the world a message to be different instead of following the crowd so maybe one day you, too, could be as successful as these painters.