Using the Art Historical Methodologies


Rodeo New York City

Robert Frank, Rodeo-New York City, 1955 - 1956.



Art Historical Methodologies
- considers the visual elements of a work such as line, composition, color, media to interpret meaning
- 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
- 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
- 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 necessary to consider context when using each of these tools
Methodology Flash Cards











Methodology Toolbox
Historical Context






























































John Berger's Ways of Seeing











Biography & Autobiography






















Start your analysis with a visual description of the work
Think of yourself as describing the work to someone who is blind



Remember to use the following format when writing about a work:
Artist, Title, Date
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #48, 1979
"In the work, Untitled #48, Sherman dresses up as a young girl on a dark road."











Rodeo New York City

Robert Frank, Rodeo- New York City, 1955 - 1956.



Using the Art Historical Methodologies
a formalist approach considers the form of the artwork and its purely visual characteristics.  Because I require an in-depth description of the work you are discussing, the formalist approach is often covered in the description portion of your paper.  When discussing an artwork's form the writer should:
A cowboy leans non-chalantly against a wire trash can, lighting a cigarette on a busy city street. He is mysterious because we do not see his face and he appears so out of place. Using a hand-held camera and available light, the photographer composes an image that is fairly gray in tone and un-startling in its details. Frank has not used dramatic contrasts, lighting or subject matter to catch our eye.  Instead, we are encouraged to look deeper into the image by the absurdity of a western icon in the middle of the Big Apple.  The viewer's gaze fixes onto the vertical body of the lone hero, scanning the figure for information to explain his strange location.  Instead, the arrow-like downward curve of the cowboy's hat, the cigarette that he lights and his pointy boots just lead the viewer out of the picture plane and back to their own space.
Begin by brainstorming descriptive words/ adjectives that identify important qualities and elements of the work
non-chalant, care-free, laid back, rebel, wrong city, dirty, busy, mysterious, heroic
Identify the period or art historical style the photo adheres to
Frank created this work in the midst of significant cultural change in the U.S. The work refutes the Social Documentary style popular before WWII and introduces "street photography" with a Beat Generation sensibility
Decide whether the work is abstract or representational
representational and figurative (includes a human figure)
Consider the photographer’s use of light, shade, and when appropriate, color
black and white photo, taken outside with available light only
Describe line and shape quality (for example, hard & thick or light and delicate)
the image is slightly grainy because it was taken from a distance then enlarged; no one element stands out dramatically from the others; the downward pointing hat, oval belt buckle, pointy shoes and elongated body of the cowboy keep the viewer's attention and stand in opposition to the rectangular vehicles in the background
Identify important compositional features like rhythm, balance, and repetition
circles are repeated in the cowboy's hat and belt buckle and the trash can that he leans on; a significant portion of the photo is comprised by the virtually empty but grimey street; the debris and grime in the street are mirrored on the clothing of the cowboy and the traffic behind him
Discuss remarkable or eye catching features
a man in the distance stares back at the cowboy and photographer on an otherwise empty sidewalk
Be sure to also discuss elements like texture, contrast, use of blur and space
while in focus, only the cowboy is in sharp focus because he is in the foreground; the pattern of the cowboy's shirt contrasts with the dark, monochrome clothing of the man in the background and the buildings; the cowboy's figure dominates the left half of the image, extending most of the length of the photo and almost passing into the viewer's realm at the tip of the cowboy's boot


Understanding Formal Analysis

Analyzing Photographs Formally

Formalism in Modern Art




an iconographic approach considers the meaning of content and subject matter in the work
The cowboy represents the rebelious, free-spirited, independent and self-sufficient character that Americans so often identify themselves with and imagine themselves to be. He is a rough, working class person who isn't afraid of hard labor and getting his boots dirty. He is a rule-breaker, as is evident in his smoking habit and laid back body language.  He doesn't care what you think and doesn't offer you any answers as to why he is in a large, eastern city.


Iconographic Analysis

Iconography, Iconology, and Style Analysis




a Marxist approach considers the economic factors effecting artistic production and meaning
The cowboy's agrarian, small town way of life contrasts with the hussle and bussle of a large urban metropolis.  The cowboy leans against an empty trash can without a care and is seemingly unconcerned by the disparity between the wages earned by the trash collectors who emptied the can and the higher wages we assume the renters of the apartments that line the sidewalk make. His body language suggests some priveledge.  He has not been burdened by the worries of inner city life, racism, sexism and class distinction in America.

On the other hand, the photographer was an emigre to the United States and likely encountered poverty upon his entry into the country and/ or on his travels taking these photos.  He applied and won a grant to create this photographic project, which suggests he was not a wealthy person.  However, the works that he produced with this grant would become famous and demand high prices from collectors.  Those collectors are likely wealthy and therefore afforded many of the opportunities that the working class cowboy and possibly the photographer would not have had access to.


A Quick Discussion on Marxism and Art

Marxism, Art, and the Artist




a feminist analysis considers the social, cultural and economic elements of the work as they relate to the gender of depicted subjects and imagined/ actual viewers
With his Stetson hat, shiney belt buckle, pointy leather cowboy shoes and skin-tight jeans, the cowboy stands as a symbol of masculinity. The confidence communicated in his carefree lean suggests that he has easy access to the world and what it offers. On the other hand, the absence of women in the image might imply that the public street is not their realm. Instead, they have been relegated to the domestic interior and are entirely cut out of the dialogue between the viewer and cowboy.

The viewer notices a man looking in the background while the male photographer surveys the landscape with his camera. The male gaze is ever present, but are women also being invited to look? Perhaps if they are heterosexual women attracted to rugged bad boys.


Feminist Art

Women, Art, and Art History: Gender and Feminist Analyses

12 Step Guide to Feminist Art, Art History, and Criticism




a semiotic analysis considers the manner in which signs within the work communicate particular meanings to the viewer (how and why the signs signify specific ideas)

The cowboy's attire communicates his hard work, independence and confidence.  He is not afraid to get dirty as he makes an "honest" living. He represents the American campaign of Manifest Destiny that encouraged easterners to travel west, conquer the wild frontier and annhilate the Native Americans in their quest to obtain the territory and resources that they reasoned were their God given right and responsibility.  The cowboy often characterizes the American identity.  He often represents what we value in ourselves as a nation and a culture - freedom, individuality, independence, hard work, the working class man, democracy and the ability to accomlish what we set our minds to.

Yet the careful viewer notices that the cowboy is not working.  Indeed, it may be impossible for our hero to find work in the Big City. And so, he becomes a symbol of contradiction.  He is out-of-place, out-of-fashion, and out-of-touch.


Semiotics for Beginners

Art and the Semiotics of Images: Three Questions About Visual Meaning





Biography & Autobiography
a biographic or autobiographic analysis uses the details of an artists life to infer meaning in their work
Robert Frank immigrated to the U.S. in 1947 and quickly became friends with Beat Generation figures like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to travel across the country in a borrowed car along the U.S. highway system. Along the way, he captured everyday Americans doing typical "American" things like viewing a parde, attending political rallies, gazing at movie stars, eating dinner, relaxing in the park and driving the family car.  But because he was an outsider to this culture, he was able to capture the America that was marginalized, forgotten, alienated and mistreated. He offered an outsider's perspective of America and a valuable critique of American culture that Americans had long ignored and were reluctant to face.


Biograpy and Art




a psychoanalytic approach combines elements of all of the approaches to glean a deeper, psychological understanding of the work and its effects on the viewer
When I look at this image, I am reminded of Led Zepplin's Robert Plant and his infamous habit of wearing provocatively tight jeans. The memory of my father's cheap, musky cologne lingers as I consider the masculine characteristics of the cowboy's attire and body language.  These personal connections lead me to critique the cowboy and what he stands for - the idea of the rugged, brooding, solitary individual who in American culture is almost always imagined to be male.  I realize that I am supposed to be attracted to this bad boy, and am a little embarassed that I am! Yet, I am fully aware that he represents a position, social standing, economic standing and opportunities that I, as a woman would not have equal access to.


An Analysis of Psychoanalytic Interpretation in Modern Art

Art and Psychoanalysis