How Art Communicates

allegory = the representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.


Essay 1 due date extended, and is now due on Scalar Monday, October 12!

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c. 1630s.











Writing Art History











Modern Language Association
  • Uses "in text" citations, i.e.: (Johnson, 9)
    • Full bibliographic information is given at the end of the paper in a "Works Cited" section
Chicago Manual of Style
  • Uses footnote citations
    • Full bibliographic information is given in the footnote
    • A "Bibliography" may be included at the end of the paper to guide your readers to additional sources
Gordon Parks, Eartha Kitt, 1952











Chicago Manual of Style Footnote Citations

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,
Additional Resources:
Writing Art History
Purdue OWL CMS style guide
Berkeley's guide to evaluating sources













Art presents us with puzzles to solve...



"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











Analyzing a work of art is like solving a puzzle with a number of resolutions. Here is a recommended method:



Start your analysis with visual description.

  • What do you see?

  • What materials is the work made out of?

  • What kind of artwork are you looking at?

  • How was it made?

  • What elements (shapes, colors, textures, etc.) are repeated? What stands out?

  • Is the work typical or expected? If so, is the work a part of a series, or related to other works? If not, what makes the work exceptional or unusual?











Describe what you see.
Look at the work closely and free associate. What ideas, connections, stories/myths, histories, sensations, or other works come to mind, and may be a relevant path to explore?
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610.











Describe what you see.
Free associate.
What do you want/need to know about the work to better understand it?
  • Who made it?
  • When was it made?
  • What movement was the artist associated with?
  • What were some of the important concerns at the time that the work was made?
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610.
As you begin to write about the work, remember to use the following format when introducing it to your reader: Artist, Title, Date.











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.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Rhetoric, 1650.











Historic Context
Beginning of Protestant Reformation
Death of Raphael
Sack of Rome - end of High Renaissance
Henry VIII breaks from Catholic Church and establishes Church of England
Copernicus publishes theory in which planets revolve around sun
First scientific study of human anatomy based on dissections published
1545 - 1563
Counter Reformation begins with Council of Trent
Giorgio Vasari publishes The Lives of the Artists
1558 - 1603
Elizabeth I reigns in England
1564 - 1616
William Shakespeare
Netherlands declare independence from Spain
1643 -1715
Reign of Louis XIV - "The Sun King"











The Protestant Reformation

Four Apostles

1517 Luther post the "95 Theses"
95 Reforms he demands the Catholic Church make
  • Strove to rid the Church of pagan practice and ritual
  • Promoted importance of individual faith
  • Viewed devotion to the saints as distracting
  • Critical of the sale of indulgences
Albrecht Dürer, Four Apostles, 1526.











Counter Reformation = the movement of self-renewal and reform within the Roman Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century and attempting to combat its influence. Its principles were formulated and adopted at the Council of Trent, 1545 - 1563.

Contrelli Chapel

Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome.











Baroque period
end of the 16th century - 1750

Characteristics of the Baroque Style:
  • Interest in light and space
  • Rich use of color and dramatic contrasts
  • Innovative illusionism
  • More emphasis on emotion than reason
  • Multi-media sensory overload
Lavinia Fontana, The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion, 1576.











Describe what you see.
Free associate.
What do you want/need to know about the work to better understand it?
Let your questions from above guide your research.
  • As you gather information, start to formulate a thesis = a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to argue or prove with evidence.
Writing a Thesis Statement
  • You will find evidence in the artwork itself, as well as from the sources of information you have gathered.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1610.











Art Historical Methodologies
"Approaches to Art" essay
Methodology Flash Cards
Contextual Analysis
considers significant historical events and important ideas in a period of time, usually when the artwork was made, and how those events and ways of seeing the world may have influenced the way a work of art looks and how it is used.
the concept that a work's artistic value is entirely determined by its form; the way the artwork is made, its purely visual aspects, and its medium.
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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. Semiotic theory breaks down individual elements of the work (subjects, signs, contexts) in order to make sense of the whole.
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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.
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considers the social, economic, and cultural positions of subjects who are represented, implied, making, or viewing works of art, as well as issues of equality and power (or the lack thereof) related to gender and sex to interpret meaning. Feminism seeks equality and uses Marxism, Semiotics, Psychoanalysis and historical context to analyze and critique the dynamics of power.

considers the relationship between power, economics and class as depicted in a work of art, or otherwise relative to the work’s reception or the artist’s biography to interpret meaning in a work of art.