Writing Art History

"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all." - Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo, Moses from the Tomb of Pope Julius II, c. 1513 - 1515.











"It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous—which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. However, just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness."
- Jennifer L. Roberts
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665.











The Questions Art Historians Ask
  • Chronology = When was it made? How old is it?
  • Provenance = Where was it made? Who paid for it, and when?
  • Artist = Who made it? Under what conditions was the work conceived?
  • Style = How does it look? Is that look particular to a time, place or artist?
  • Subject = Who and what is depicted? What story is being told?
  • Iconography = What symbols are used and what do they mean?
  • Form = How was the work composed and made?
Consider the formal elements such as composition, materials, technique, line, color, texture, space, mass, volume, perspective, foreshortening, proportion, scale, etc.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, Giovanna Cenami, 1434.























Art Historical Methodologies
considers the visual elements of a work such as line, composition, color, media to interpret meaning
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identifies the symbols in a work, and uses their definition to interpret meaning
identifies symbols in a work, and considers why they mean what they mean to interpret meaning
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considers the socio-economic position of women represented, implied, making, or viewing the work, as well as issues of equality and power (or the lack thereof) to interpret meaning
considers economic factors related to Marx's theory of class and power to interpret meaning
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considers the life of the artist, and/ or significant events in their lives to interpret meaning
considers the unconscious effects of traumatic events or experiences in the life of the artist or viewer, or shared by a society, to interpret meaning
It is always a good idea to also consider a work's historical context.



Methodology Flash Cards
Understanding How to Use the Art Historical Methodologies
Writing about art
Approaches to Art essay











To analyze a work of art:
Describe the work
Choose a method to better understand the work
  • Remember, you the viewer, use the method to better understand the artwork. Sometimes the artist uses a method to make the work, but the work NEVER uses the methods because it's a thing, not a person.
Develop an argument
Defend your argument
  • Use credible sources that agree with & expand upon your ideas
  • Offer visual evidence
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, Giovanna Cenami, 1434.











George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey's, 1909











Works Cited vs. Footnotes
Thomas Eakins, The Wrestlers, 1899.











Chicago Manual of Style Footnote citations (no Bibliography)

1. Author’s First name, Last name, Title of Book (Place of publication: Publisher, Year of publication), page number.

Corresponding Bibliography Entry:
Last Name, First name. Title of Book. Place of publication: Publisher, Year of publication.
Single Author Book

2. Steven T. Brown, Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 124.

Magazine or Journal Article

3. Bill Wasik, “#Riot: How Social Media Fuels Social Unrest,” Wired, January 2012: 76-83, URL.

Journal Article Accessed through Online Database or Website
4. Erwin Panofsky, “Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 64, no. 372 (1934): 117-119, & 122-127, http://www.theslideprojector.com/pdffiles/art261/janvaneycksarnolfiniportrait.pdf
Additional Resources:
Purdue OWL CMS style guide
Berkeley's guide to evaluating sources