Some professors prefer to take a less traditional approach to the assignments they write, and they may be looking for less traditional responses from their students.
Start by reading the assignment carefully to see what is being asked see our handout on understanding assignments for further tips. Some professors in introductory classes will start with at least one of the following assignments at the beginning of the semester in order to get you thinking like an art historian.
Your primary concern in this assignment is to attempt to explain how the artist arranges and uses these various elements. Usually you have to go and look at the object for a long time and then write down what you see. As you will quickly see from the page length of the assignment, your instructor expects a highly detailed description of the object. Why would your instructor ask you to do this assignment?
First, translating something from a visual language to a textual language is one of the most vital tasks of the art historian.
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Most art historians at some point describe fully and accurately their objects of study in order to communicate their ideas about them. You may already have found this tendency helpful in reading your textbook or other assigned readings. Second, your instructors realize that you are not accustomed to scrutinizing objects in this way and know that you need practice doing so. Instructors who assign formal analyses want you to look—and look carefully.
Think of the object as a series of decisions that an artist made. Your job is to figure out and describe, explain, and interpret those decisions and why the artist may have made them. Here are a couple of options:.
Some instructors want your formal analysis to consist of pure description with little or no interpretation. In this case, you should just describe your object. Others will expect you to go further and comment on the significance of what you have observed.
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Find out which way your instructor wants you to write your formal analysis in your particular assignment. Most art historians include formal analysis at some point in their essays, so there are a lot of examples to look at in the textbook and other readings, but you will probably have to be more in-depth than they are. You may be asked to look at an object and talk about style. Some instructors will want you to discuss how an object fits into a particular stylistic category—for example, Impressionism, Renaissance, or early Macedonian. More often, they will ask you to compare two works in either the same or very different stylistic categories—e.
You will still focus on the formal qualities of the objects, but this time you will probably be expected to make a conclusion about one of the following:.
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A stylistic analysis will acquaint you with some of the larger historical trends and forces in the culture and how they influenced the development of art. This kind of assignment occurs in courses covering art before the Modern period. Here you will look for a particular element that occurs in the object an object, action, gesture, pose and explain either:.
For example, there have been thousands of paintings of Hercules choosing between Virtue and Vice. You do not have to focus on the actual making of the object here, but instead on the way the subject is represented: Carracci has Virtue and Vice in Ancient clothing, but Veronese shows them in contemporary Venetian costumes.
Then, you might have to say what that means: Carracci spent a lot of time in Rome looking at Ancient art, so he was interested in using Ancient art works as models in his paintings, but Veronese was showing off one of the main industries of Venice textiles —or, Veronese wanted his patrons to think about how they might fit into the scenario instead of keeping the story in the past.
Art historians study iconography and iconology so often that they have compiled reference texts that list many of the famous works that show particular themes—you might use these as a resource, so ask the art librarian about them. These assignments focus on either:.
The assignment may also ask you to comment on the significance of this history. All four of the previous assignment types focus on the object itself the painting, sculpture, drawing, or building. However, in some courses, particularly in Modern Art courses, you may be asked to look beyond or through the object toward theoretical, historical, or social contexts of the object, artist, or time period.
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