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“So You’re Taking an Art History Course”: A Description of Writing Characteristics Valued in Art History

Art history is rooted in the study of visual, performed, and material expression. Goals for our work include interpretation, producing frameworks, narratives, and histories to understand the human experience and condition, and the expansion of what is considered “art”. We want you to know that there are some key things that we value in our field. We value the complexity of seeing and the diversity of different ways of seeing. We tend not to value or prioritize subjective opinion and unsubstantiated claims.

What is considered effective or good writing in our field varies by genre and purpose, but overall we expect to see:

  • a direct address of the subject or work of art.
  • an interpretive analysis of a work of art backed by research from credible sources.
  • engagement with significant interpretive and theoretical frameworks.

Writers in our field must provide evidence for their claims. We understand evidence to include:

  • Formal analysis. Formal analysis is the description of the visual and material features of an object to support an argument. It can include a consideration of color, line, size, weight, form, shape, depth. Formal analysis is often a place to generate questions for research.
  • Biographical records or artists’ statements
  • Archival records
  • Ethnographic data
  • Historical events
  • Significant secondary literature
  • Adjacent artistic and cultural production (music, literature, theatre, etc.)

Writers in our field seem credible when they:

  • Address current and historical debates about the interpretation of a topic
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the historical and cultural context of a topic
  • Cite credible sources accurately. Credible sources include peer-reviewed journals, books, or websites from reputable institutions and organizations.
  • For more information on citing sources accurately, see the “Quick Guide to Citations for Art Historical Writing

This is How We Write and Do Research in Art History

Art historical writing is about analyzing works of art to make a point or argument. Not every student in our classes needs to be able to write in the professional way of the field. However, depending on the reasons for taking our courses, we want students to become proficient and comfortable with analyzing art and the important place writing occupies in that process. Students taking an art history course should expect to write in the following genres:

  • research papers
  • exhibition reviews/evaluations
  • book reviews
  • visual analyses
  • reading reflection/canvas posts
  • museum labels
  • essay exams

Writing goals and outcomes are different depending on the level of the course. For example:

  • Undergraduates taking Miami Plan (100-level) or elective courses should recognize the relationship between how to develop a thesis and employ visual evidence in support of that thesis. Such a skill is undoubtedly useful for all students since looking closely coupled with the ability to make sense of what one sees are crucial for many other kinds of writing and ways of thinking. We argue the complexity and diversity of “looking deeply” is too often taken for granted in the visual world in which we live. In 100-level classes, students start to become familiar with how to write and think about art.
  • Undergraduates majoring in our field should recognize that art historical writing is approached as a conversation or dialogue. As students progress through the major, being able to place a topic and research paper within previous published and ongoing debates is crucial. In other words, students should start to understand that writing in Art History is about creating a dialog between one’s ideas and the sources the student engages. We also want our students to understand the value of inserting their own voice when writing. Over time, majors will need to become skilled at synthesizing their ideas and arguments with original research. This very process is how objects tell us something distinctive about their historical context and their value within human history.  

Resources for Art History Writers

Annotated Sample of Writing from Art History (ART 188)

The following is a student paper from the course ART 188: History of Western Art (Renaissance to Modern). Miami faculty from Art History have inserted comments to indicate and explain disciplinary writing conventions in Art History.

This sample contains 8 comments. These comments appear within the text of the article and are noted with bold text, brackets [ ], and the word "comment" before the text they refer to. You can also view these annotations and the original paper in a Google Doc format.

Sample Annotated Student Essay for ART 188

The Essay Prompt

Compare Hyacinthe Rigaud’s painting Louis XIV (1701) (on the left) to Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793) (on the right). Both of these artworks were made for explicitly political purposes, though they clearly depict very different types of figures and employ very different styles. Compare these two artworks in terms of how they convey their particular political message to the viewer. What strategies does each artist employ and why? What are they trying to communicate to the viewer about the state?

Painting titled Louis XIV ; by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Louis XIV stands in front of a red velvet curtain, ornate column, dressed in white tights and an ermine and blue velvet robe, embroidered with gold fleur de lis. He holds a straight cane. An ornate sword is belted at his side. His crown sits on a small table covered with the same material as the cape. A painting titled "Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David. Marat is dead, hanging over the side of a white bath tub. He appears to have been writing, he holds a pen, and an ink pot and paper with writing are nearby. He wears a white turban, and white material is draped over the tub. The material is spotted with splashes of blood and a bloody knife lays on the floor. The top half of the painting is empty, showing only a dark green wall. Marat and his bath, mostly in white, take up the lower half of the painting.

Introduction (2 comments)

A Martyr of Royal Proportions

[Comment 1: Introduction sets the context without making claims that are too broad or general. Also sets the tone for a focus on class conflict.] For the majority of the eighteenth-century, French farmers stayed starving and cold while an elite class of nobility consumed them. For years, the upper echelon of French society relied on the blood and sweat of the layman to provide them with ample nourishment. But after the spring of 1791, the fields would be nourished by the blood of laymen and aristocrat alike, and the old ways would be no more. A revolution had begun, and revolutionary figures like Jean Paul Marat would be painted in stark contrast to the grandiose portraiture of King Louis the Fourteenth nearly a century prior. [Comment 2: Clear thesis signals what the argument will be and why comparing these two paintings is worthwhile.] Indeed, the transition in composition from the early eighteenth century spoke to more than simple brushstrokes. It represented the political enlightenment of the French people attempting to secure for themselves unalienable liberties they had been denied so long. Marat, therefore, was not simply a brutalized revolutionary lying lifeless in his bathtub; The Death of Marat depicts the efforts of the enlightenment revolution ferociously contesting with the old paradigm of French government.

Analysis (6 comments)

[Comment 3: Clear topic sentences signal what each paragraph will analyze.] When comparing two pieces it is important to recognize their respective contexts first. The Louis XIV portrait is painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud during the early Enlightenment period of France in 1701. This painting has King Louis XIV surrounded by opulence in a very stately posture. Louis states, “I am the state,” reinforcing his role as monarch of France for anyone viewing his kingly grandeur. The Death of Marat, however, imparts a very different sentiment. Painted by French revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David in 1793, The Death of Marat displays the infamous revolutionary writer is lifeless in a tub. At the height of the French revolution, he is soaking in a mixture of medicinal sulfur used to treat a rare skin condition he contracted in the sewers of France. Indeed, this disease that Marat contracted in the sewers placed him in the tub he would be murdered in. In this way, the poverty that drove him into the sewers also drove him to his demise; the French aristocracy could expunge the poor from the streets, but they could never extricate the ideas Marat imbued. The piece evoked compassion and provided justification to the many rebellious Parisians for whom he spoke. Furthermore, the painting immortalized Marat as a martyr and freedom fighter in the eyes of his fellow revolutionaries. The Louis XIV portrait flaunts power and status while The Death of Marat condemns monarchical rule in France.

After examining context, it is crucial to integrate the content of the works to get at their underlying meaning. Examining the content of the Louis XIV portrait gives the viewer an idea of the intentions and priorities of the French king. It is especially apparent that the king has a lot of money. [Comment 4: Descriptive prose points to specific aspects in the work of art.] His encrusted sword and outrageously fanciful robe serve to bolster his status and wealth. It would almost seem that in a secondary effort to avoid being directly arrogant, these items are also imbued with a national relevance. The ludicrous robe displays the three-pronged lily representing the French monarchy, and his encrusted sword represents French military might. It is his shoes that cannot be accounted for. The king, old and sickly as he actually was, adorns some stylish footwear to juxtapose his position as self-proclaimed “Sun King” with some suave contemporary sneakers and a cheeky flash of the thigh. As powerful and sophisticated as he may have been, this portraiture shows [Comment 5: Returns the analysis of symbols within the painting to the context of class conflict signaled in the introduction.] a clear separation from reality; the wealth and power of “France” depicted in Louis’ portrait was not representative of the people who actually lived there. It was only relatable to the fancifully rich. Comparatively, the Marat portrait makes King Louis look like a bad attempt at humor. The Death of Marat was something extremely real and very relatable. It illustrated a man who suffered dearly at the hand of the monarchy and was ultimately killed by those who supported its rule. The rich and famous could never relate to The Death of Marat in the same way Parisians did; Marat would have been more honorable in the eyes of the public than any would-be king. Marat is shown in his tub, papers under arm and his quill in hand. It would appear that he was working on some enlightenment literature when he received a letter which tricked him into granting his killer access to him. Similar to the Louis XIV portrait, Marat’s body is sculpted with the precision and attention expected of the neoclassical age. The sickly and bleeding body of Marat elicits a specific emotional reaction of resentment and remorse. That the Marat painting gained the popularity that it did supports the idea that people began to relate more with enlightenment concepts and less of the idea of a king.

The skillful hand of each artist has a unique place in the message of each painting. The separate pieces are painted with unique and very different forms. Looking at the Louis XIV painting one notices that it is very full. This is assumed to be an intentional detail, as a king would surely have many possessions. Small shadows hide in the creases of cloth behind him. The only true shadow that rivals that of the king is in the very back of the painting almost out of sight. It would not be a stretch to say that the painting is full of cloth, and every cloth is radiant with color. [Comment 6: Attention to formal detail reasserts and supports the main argument about class and the king’s presentation within the painting.] Light comes from the right-side illuminating Louis the XIV making him look larger with his robe on. The piece is extremely skilled but has some element of blurring when looked at closely. The overall atmosphere is one of style, color, and power regarding the king. The Marat piece does not share much with the Louis portrait; it is of a bath tub, a man, and a desk. The details of Marat are more vivid and retain their integrity upon close inspection. Marat himself is so realistic, he truly looks lifeless. [Comment 7: Formal analysis here connects to prior class content, and points to the art historical references within the painting.] His posture is very reminiscent of pieta, reinforcing his martyr status in a Christ-like fashion. Despite the detail and realism of Marat, [Comment 8: Looks not only to what is in the painting, but how absences are treated, considering the entire composition.] the stark ambiguity of the upper half of the painting is both unconventional and genius. With a black top half, there is nothing but Marat himself to focus on, the only thing one can really see and feel is Marat. As a result, the piece evokes keeps the viewers attention and feeling on the death of the man. One might ask who would do such a thing. Then answer inevitably reached is the monarchy.

Conclusion (0 comments)

The differences in context, content, and form of The Death of Marat and Louis XIV vary widely. These aspects are essential to the message and reception of the works. Their comparison brings out everything that is right, or wrong, with the messages they impart. In the case of David’s painting, it simply elicits the exact emotions people needed to feel; the emotions they needed reassurance of if they were to carry out their cause. The power of The Death of Marat inspired people to carry on fighting for the French Revolution. The influence of art certainly stretches beyond the construct of the mind, art is part and parcel of society, and should be regarded so dearly.

Annotated Sample of Read, Look, Reflect Essay

The following is a student paper from the course ART 188: History of Western Art (Renaissance to Modern). Miami faculty from Art History have inserted comments to indicate and explain disciplinary writing conventions in Art History.

This sample contains 10 comments. These comments appear within the text of the article and are noted with bold text, brackets [ ], and the word "comment" before the text they refer to. You can also view these annotations and the original paper in a Google Doc format.

Assignment Context

As a student in ART 188, you might be asked to write a series of Read, Look, Reflect papers. The following paper is an example of exemplary student work. For this assignment, students are asked to read two sonnets by Michelangelo and look closely at Michelangelo’s sculpture Awakening Slave. Then they are asked to reflect on the questions below. This is a paper in which all students referenced the same assigned texts. No outside research was necessary, so footnotes were not required. Only clear references to the specific sonnet being discussed were necessary.

The Essay Prompt

How does the allusion to the creative process in Michelangelo’s poems help us understand his philosophy of carving sculpture? How is that process visually apparent in the sculpture, Awakening Slave?

Introduction (3 comments)

Read, Look, Reflect: Michelangelo’s Awakening Slave

[Comment 1: This introductory paragraph is effective because it begins providing an answer to the essay prompt. The author begins to explain a connection between hand and mind, which suggests a particular approach to the creative process.] [Comment 2: The author also gets straight to the point without making any sweeping historical claims or claims about beauty or greatness of a work of art.] Michelangelo’s sonnets give insight into his beliefs about the mind’s vision and the hand’s product. Using sonnets to discuss the creative process and its resulting translation to Michelangelo’s sculptures is a testament to Michelangelo’s own mental capabilities, for both forms of art are quite difficult to produce well. Poetry and art require excessive refinement and revision on the part of the creator to convey what he or she wants to with a finished product. In the sonnet numbered 151, Michelangelo describes the “hand that obeys the intellect”, [Comment 3: Here’s one place where the author provides an interpretation of a specific quote.] an indication that he believes that the mind is central to sculpting a vision from inspiration before the hand sculpts the stone itself. Further, Michelangelo’s choice of words here shows his reverence for the mind in its central creative role. In this paper, demonstrate how Michelangelo’s sonnets and the sculpture, Awakening Slave, express a tension between idea and execution.

Analysis (7 comments)

With this in mind, Michelangelo’s second sonnet, numbered 152, delves further into the carving process. [Comment 4: The author focuses on a specific part of the poem here.] Michelangelo speaks of a living figure “that grows larger wherever the stone decreases” in this poem, a more direct allusion to what stone is literally subtracted as artistic additions are made to the stone. From there, the sonnet further describes the process of addition, discussing how one cannot see his or her own good in the same way that others can. [Comment 5: The author comes to a thoughtful interpretation of the quote here.] Rather, according to Michelangelo, other people seem to see the good in an individual and can bring it out to the surface in a way that the individual is unable to introspectively. [Comment 6: The author continues to reflect on the significance of that interpretation to the creative process.] This is a powerful observation both psychologically and artistically, and though Michelangelo is commenting on both, the latter alludes more to the creative process. Artistically, it seems like Michelangelo is alluding to his personal definition of inspiration. When artists like himself create, they seek to bring out qualities worth displaying, whether they be qualities like grace and beauty, or in the case of his sculpture, Awakening Slave, a quality like the beauty of struggle.

Because Michelangelo’s sculpture, Awakening Slave, is still very much confined to the stone, viewers can see his poetic description of replacing raw stone with a mental vision in artistic practice. It could be argued that the sculpture is either intentionally or accidentally unfinished, but with the information from the sonnets, the former seems to be a more accurate reflection of Michelangelo’s beliefs in this art. For Michelangelo, crafting a seemingly unfinished sculpture can successfully show the struggles of the creative process, especially conflicts with inspiration itself. Conflicts could entail a situation such as if inspiration were to run dry, or a time when the pressure on the creator to produce a fully developed vision becomes too much.

The man who is supposed to be awakening in the sculpture is facing a personal struggle that he cannot escape from. [Comment 7: The author makes a clear and specific observation about the sculpture.] It is worth noting that a body is more clearly defined in the sculpture than a head. [Comment 8: The author suggests a possible interpretation of the observation above.] This structural observation could mean that the head, and therefore the mind, is the source of the struggle for the man depicted in the stone. [Comment 9: The author again makes a specific observation in the next sentence and then moves into interpretation for the rest of the paragraph.] The central parts of the body are more prominent in the stone than the upper and lower regions of the body, giving the sculpture a warped look on the top, but also a little bit on the bottom as well. This further enhances the theme of struggle and the overtaking of the mind by said struggle. The all- consuming nature of struggle is made more powerful and central to the sculpture by that design choice, especially since viewers know that Michelangelo’s anatomical accuracy was part of what has made many of his other works so respected.

[Comment 10: This paragraph does a great job of picking up on the theme of struggle (based on the observations above) and suggesting a greater significance for that. Struggle is argued to be THE creative process for Michelangelo.] Continuing with the assumption that the sculpture is intentionally unfinished, the rugged look to the art can be explained by the artist’s creative process. As the artist, Michelangelo must’ve felt that it was worth showing struggle in a new light. Rather than just showing a figure in turmoil, the more traditional option at the time, he alludes to turmoil on the part of the artist as well because sculpting is about the relationship between the stone and the craftsman. It is difficult to work away and model the stone to achieve the glorious end results famously associated with the name ‘Michelangelo’ today. The challenge of overcoming struggle is inherent in the duties of an artist like Michelangelo; one must produce admirable works of art and continue to please society by showcasing those talents. The struggle of the artist as a creator crosses the mind less because the artist is not what one typically sees when he or she views a work of art. Constructing Awakening Slave seems to challenge that thought, as the practice of sculpting highlights the role of the creator more than something like a painting would be able to.

Conclusion (0 comments)

The ability that viewers have to pair Michelangelo’s Awakening Slave with written explanations from the artist centuries later undoubtedly adds to one’s interpretation of the art. Michelangelo’s decision to reflect on his own creative process shows that while he was a renowned artist, the talent was accompanied by other highly developed talents, too. In more than one respect, Michelangelo continues to succeed in making critics and common viewers alike understand the complexity of the artistic profession.

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