Writing Essays in Art History
These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.
Last Edited: 2016-03-01 09:17:11
Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis
Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.
A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?
Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?
A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.
Methods & Theories To Consider:
Social Art History
Visual Cultural Studies
Stylistic Analysis Example:
The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.” Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall. Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.
Compare and Contrast Essay
Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.
Compare and Contrast Example:
Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’
Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.
Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.
Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"
Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.
Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.
Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality? Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?
The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.
- Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
- Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
- Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
- Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
- Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
- Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
- Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion.
- The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
- Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage.
As you probably already know by this point in your high school career, Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams are administered each year under the oversight of the College Board.
The Art History AP exam is one of the least common exams taken among self-studiers and enrolled students alike. In 2015, only about 23,000 of the 4.4 million students taking AP exams took the Art History AP exam. If you are interested in taking the Art History AP exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.
About the Exam
The Art History AP course teaches students the nature of art, its uses, meanings, and production, and societal responses to art throughout history. It seeks to immerse students in rich artistic traditions across cultures dating from prehistory to the present, while fostering an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the history of art. In this class you can expect to learn “visual, contextual, and comparative analysis applied to a variety of art forms, understanding of individual works and connections between processes and products throughout history.” Although there are no official prerequisites for the coursework, students who have excelled in the humanities, such as literature or history, or in studio art classes, will find that these experiences enrich their perspective as they undertake the studying of art history.
The Art History AP course was redesigned for the 2015-2016 school year. Though much of the course content remains the same, it is now presented alongside clear learning objectives for the exam. The scope was also narrowed to focus more on conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and analysis skills, with less emphasis placed on knowledge of specific artworks. The course does still require that students become familiar with a set of specific artwork, but this set shrunk from over 500 pieces on the previous curriculum to 250 included on the course redesign. The exam format has also been changed. It now includes fewer multiple-choice questions and the six 10-minute short answers have been reformatted to four 15-minute short answers. The two 30-minute essays remain the same.
The Art History AP exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours. It is comprised of two sections. The first section lasts one hour, is made up of 80 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 50% of your total score. Of these 80 questions, there are approximately 35 individual questions while the rest are grouped into eight sets with each set based on a different color image. The second section is the free-response section, which lasts for two hours, includes six questions, and accounts for the remaining 50% of your total score. This section is divided into two 30-minute essays, and four 15-minute essays. which often include images of art as stimuli for the given prompt.
The Art History AP exam is a tough one to master, though many students pass it with average scores. In 2016, 61.7% of students who took the Art History AP received a score of 3 or higher. Of these, only 11.1% of students received the top score of 5, with another 22.6% scoring a 4. Almost one-third of all test-takers received a score of 3, contributing greatly to the exam’s pass rate. Almost another third of students received a score of 2, while 11% of test-takers scored a 1 on the exam.
Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Though a score of 3 is typically considered passing, it is not always enough to receive credit. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities can be found here.
A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the exam can be found in the College Board course description.
Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.
Step 1: Assess Your Skills
It’s important to start your studying off with a good understanding of your existing knowledge. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?
Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. Although the College Board Art History AP website provides a number of sample test questions and exam tips, it does not provide a complete sample test. Because the exam was so recently redesigned, it is difficult to find updated practice tests. Your best bet is to use those provided in one of the many commercial study guides. Alternatively, you can find an older version of test questions from the College Board’s 2011 exam or image-based questions from the 2013 exam to get a general idea of the test’s structure and content.
Step 2: Study the material
The content and curriculum of the Art History AP course are based on three sets of big ideas and essential questions. These overarching concepts are intended to encourage critical thinking, analysis, and appreciation of art throughout time and place, and to foster your understanding of the field of art history. The big ideas and their associated essential questions are:
- Big Idea 1: Artists manipulate materials and ideas to create an aesthetic object, act, or event.Essential Question: What is art and how is it made?
- Big Idea 2: Art making is shaped by tradition and change. Essential Question: Why and how does art change?
- Big Idea 3: Interpretations of art are variable. Essential Question: How do we describe our thinking about art?
To guide your studying and the teacher’s instruction of the AP Art History course, the College Board also provides 12 learning objectives, each with a statement that explains how students can demonstrate their mastery. In addition to these learning objectives, you will also need to be familiar with the official AP Art History image set which contains “250 works of art categorized by geographic and chronological designations, beginning with works from global prehistory and ending with global contemporary works.” These works and a description of the 12 learning objectives can be found in the College Board AP Art History Course Description.
Given how recently it was redesigned, there are not many updated study resources for the Art History AP exam. The College Board does, however, refer students to Khan Academy’s comprehensive AP Art History Study Guide. This website has a wealth of free material for effectively and efficiently learning what you’ll need to know for the exam. The College Board also provides on the AP Art History teacher site a series of useful videos that give an overview of curricular framework, exam format, and writing tips.
For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you should consider using an updated commercial study guide. Because the AP Art History course was so recently redesigned and remains one of the less popular courses amongst students, there are not yet many choices of updated commercial study guides. The AP® Art History Crash Course Book and Barron’s AP Art History, 3rd Edition are two options. Of these, Barron’s is regarded as the stronger option for long-term studying of the material, while the Crash Course, as the name indicates, is often regarded as a better option for quick test practice and review.
There are also a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. Be careful when accessing these, as many will be from previous versions of the exam.
Finally, another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one – their quality varies widely.
Step 3: Practice Multiple Choice Questions
Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice questions. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple-choice section of another practice exam.
The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple choice questions along with explanations of their answers. There are additional questions available in commercial study guides. As you go through these, try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Focus on understanding what each question is asking and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.
Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions
All free-response questions on the AP Art History exam include either images of works of art (from the required course content, except in the case of attribution questions) or a list of works from the required course content to prompt student responses. For questions that ask you to identify a piece of work, you should try to include all available identifiers including title or designation, name of the artist and/or culture of origin, date of creation, and materials. You should be able to provide at least two correct identifiers, but you will not be penalized for any additional identifiers that are incorrect. There are two types of free response questions on the exam.
Two questions are long essays for which you will have 30 minutes each. The long essay questions solicit a multi-focused perspective in the response and allow you to explore topics in depth. These questions are designed to give you the opportunity to demonstrate deep understanding of the course material through persuasive, evidence-based theses and arguments. On these questions, you also have the choice to include in your response works of art that are outside of the required course content.
Four questions are short essays for which you will have 15 minutes each. The short essay questions are more limited in scope and are designed to elicit a focused response exploring specific works of art, along with art historical concepts and relationships.
On the free response section of the AP Art History exam a distinct emphasis is placed on the strength of writing. To be successful, you will need to use clear, appropriate, and descriptive language. Your ideas should be organized logically with coherent evidence to support your assertions. You will need to make fact-based inferences and closely align your writing with the prompt’s directives.
As you complete the free response questions, make sure to keep an eye on the time. Though you will be reminded of time remaining by the exam proctor, you will not be forced to move on to another question. Make sure you stay on track to address each section of every question. No points can be awarded for answers left completely blank when time runs out.
For examples of the scoring rubric used on this section, make sure to read the sample exam questions and scoring guidelines provided in the Course Description. Also be sure to read the authentic student responses with scoring explanations from the 2016 exam.
Step 5: Take another practice test
As you did at the very beginning of your studying, take a practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge, and it’s likely that you will see patterns identifying which areas have improved the most and which areas still need improvement.
If you have time, repeat each of the steps above to incrementally increase your score.
Step 6: Exam day specifics
In 2017, the Art History AP Exam will be administered on Tuesday, May 2 at 12 PM.
For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).
For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?
If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.
For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.