How To Write An Essay About An 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. 

What is the purpose of an art essay?

Generally, an art essay is an essay that talks about art in sculpture, paintings, architecture, music and portraits.

These kinds of essays are used for:

  • Painting visual pictures: an art essay is an essay that showcases visual arts and creative ideas that people have come up with.
  • Improving creativity: the whole purpose of art essays is to provide a platform for students to tap into their creative side and vividly paint a picture of a certain image using words.

 

Art essay topic choice

Like every other essay, there are general tips that should be considered when coming up with an art essay writing topic.

  • The type of art: this may include a painting, a sculpture or just a simple hand diagram. The type of art is important as it sets out what you are supposed to write about.
  • What intrigues you about the art: this is the most important part of the essay. The whole art essay is based on what you want others to know about the piece of art.
  • Personal interests: what you, as a writer, love is very important as it narrows down the topic. It is easier to write on topics that are well-known to you.

There are a number of art essay writing topics to choose from.

Below is a list of topics for an art essay

  • Differences between Picasso’s concepts and Matisse’s
  • The history of art in the Netherlands
  • Differences between Bernini and Borromini
  • The inspiration behind famous painting
  • The Mona Lisa
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Ancient Roman structures
  • The sculptures of nude women
  • Impressionism era of art in Netherlands
  • The graphics of modern day art
  • Insinuations behind ‘The Thinker’
  • The Pieta of Michelangelo
  • The contribution of Vincent Van Gogh and Piet Mondrian
  • Flemish Baroque in the 17th century.

The above are some of the good topics for an art essay.

Structure of an art essay

The art essay topics determine the kind of structure to build on. However, most have a standard art essay structure.

Sample of art essay outline

Introduction

The Mona Lisa is one of the most known paintings in the world. This is the painting of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco Del Giocondo, believed to have been painted in the 16th century. It is the work of Leonardo da Vinci and it was purchased by King Francis I. The Mona Lisa is currently under the ownership of the French government.

Thesis statement

The Mona Lisa has had a great impact towards the contribution of art in France:

(i)    It is one of the most famous paintings in the world. The Mona Lisa is the painting that everyone wants to see. It is so precious that only a copy of it is actually showcased in the museum.

(ii)    It has led to the growth of art. The Mona Lisa has inspired artists all over France. There has been a rise of many artists including Camille Pissarro, a painter, and Etienne-Jules Marey, a photographer.

Conclusion

It is clear that the Mona Lisa is the soft spot in France. The French take pride in it and have used it to improve their lives. Besides its contribution to art, it has also placed France among the leading countries that celebrate art. This has therefore created a culture of being drawn to art and it is reflected in their way of life.

The above is a sample of outline for an art essay.

Arts essay tips on writing the introduction

An art essay introduction identifies the art and the artist. Art is diverse, as it could be sculptures, architecture, performing arts or paintings in it. This is where you state why you chose that topic.  It also contains a history of the said art and brief details, like who the artist is, the year, the location, etc.

The introduction for an art essay states the thesis. It may be a general statement about the art or a specific aspect of it.

Tips on thesis writing

The thesis statement should be simple and easy to write about. Too complex statements tend to be confusing.

  • Pick a statement that is closer to your understanding.
  • Ensure it is as simple as possible.
  • To avoid irrelevancy, one can have an art essay draft that they can build on.

Tips on the body (transitions, paragraphs, and length)

This is the main part of the essay where you derive analysis based on your point of view.  Describe why the art is so appealing to you. Ensure that your defense covers an angle that has not already been covered for uniqueness. For example, one can focus only on the strokes of a portrait. However, ensure that what you describe is relevant to the thesis of your art essay topics.

The essay should not be too long. The sentence construction should also be well done. For this reason, it is advisable to have your points arranged into paragraphs. Ensure that each paragraph is independent and speaks volumes. This ensures that the art essay hooks the reader.

The transition from one paragraph to the next should also be smooth. Using cliché transitions makes the essay boring; therefore, you need to be creative.

Tips on conclusion writing

In an art essay conclusion, one needs to state their opinion. What you think the artists` feelings were and why they decided to paint it the way they did. At this point, you can state the events that contributed to the artist coming up with that art. The conclusion for an art essay requires a lot of research into the background of both the art and the artist(s). For this reason, the references and sources of the information should be cited.

Advice for writers

In art essay writing it is important to first do your research. Art is so diverse and this can be sometimes confusing. The topic to write on should be related to your interests, for example, as a musician, you would find it easier to write about performing arts and music. Besides this, do not plagiarize any work done. Cite and state all sources, making sure that you observe all rules of patent and copyrights.

For you to be a good writer, these art essay tips will be very helpful.  The best writer is the one who admits to being in a need of help. The art essay writing guide can also be used to find more about art essay writing steps. Different sources could give different art essay outlines so you need to be careful.

Finalizing the essay

After writing the art essay, it is important to have a clean essay. This calls for proofreading and editing. Proofreading ensures that you do not have any grammatical errors, the art essay outlining is as required, your sentence construction is good and the language used is the required one. Some sites offer art essay writing guide for use when one gets stuck.  Proofreading also ensures that the art essay structure is followed. After this is done, ensure that the format used is correct whether APA, MLA or Chicago.

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