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Contributors:Margaret Sheble.
Summary:

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.

Writing in Art History

The following resource includes writing strategies for anyone within the art history discipline. Many of these sources pertain to assignments that students might face either at the introductory level or in intermediate art history or museum studies courses. This resource provides sources on how to write a museum catalog entry, how to write a museum title card, art history formal and stylistic analysis, studying iconography, compare and contrast essay, taking notes, citing art, and preparing for an exam, as well as academic sources for anyone in the art history discipline.

See the links to the left for resources about museum catalogs, museum title cards, art history essays, and notes and exams.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble.
Summary:

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.

Writing a Museum Catalog

A museum catalog is typically a book written in regards to a current exhibition. For example, an exhibition of Victorian paintings concerning the legend of King Arthur could be on display at the British Art Museum. The title could be: The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur. While the museum exhibit itself might have wall text with a brief introduction to the exhibit as well as having text panels for each piece, anyone wanting more information on the theme of the exhibit might be interested in purchasing a catalog.

Title Page & Table of Contents

The title page of a museum catalog is crucial – you need to think of an image that completely encompasses the theme of your exhibition. Many times the more famous or iconic work of art in the exhibition is on the title page with the title. For The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur an image of King Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone would be the best candidate in this regard.

Always provide a table of contents for the museum catalog. Include the introduction, main scholarly essays, a list of the work of arts, notes/bibliography section.

Museum Gallery Guide

Depending on the scope of the project one might choose to provide a gallery guide for your audience – a visual representation of where the pieces will be on display. Having an exhibit in a large space could lead individuals to find specific works of art they might want to see, whereas a smaller space means that a guide would not be necessary.  

Include visuals of the exhibit space, an outline of the shape of the objects and where they are located, including building structures such as exit signs, and a key for your user.

Museum Catalog Introduction

Museum catalogs begin with an introductory essay to the theme of the exhibition. Often parts of the introduction are reprinted and displayed with the exhibition itself while the longer introduction is contained in the catalog.

Approaching the introduction to the exhibition is similar to tackling any typical research essay. First, grab the audience’s attention and provide some sort of thesis statement concerning the exhibition. What is the main goal of the exhibition? To back up a thesis statement consider what piece of art to include. The pieces of work on display do not exist in a vacuum. Similar to providing textual quotes to argue a literary essay, art historians use ‘art’ as their evidence to argue their thesis as well as providing primary and secondary sources. It is best to introduce some of these major works of art in the introduction. The following examples include an introductory grader and the thesis or purpose of the exhibition:

Grabber: At the end of the legend made most famously by Thomas Malory in 1469, King Arthur lies in a bloody field with a broken body and spirit…The tragic story of Arthur, frequently referred to as The Once and Future King, is a story with no definite ending. Subsequently, the legend is reinvented countless times, often during times in history when the mythology can be re-defined to fit into modern context.

Thesis: The museum exhibit titled The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur surveys Victorian England’s fascination with the medieval past as seen through the art movement of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothic Revival, and Romanticism. Queen Victoria is studied in association with the ideas of a model monarchy and the ideal relationship expected between the sexes. Along with those ideas, the exhibit scrutinizes the dangers associated with women who tried to break away from their traditional roles.  Lastly, the exhibit focuses on the Arthurian legend becoming something “real” and tangible to which the everyday individual can truly relate and aspire to.

Another strategy to consider in an introduction is the use of segments. Many times an introduction can be broken into segments – the main point of the introduction is to introduce the focal pieces of the exhibition and how they relate to the theme of the exhibition. 

Segments for this example would consist of a few pages to discuss the Pre-Raphaelites, Gothic Revival, Romanticism, Queen Victoria, Albert the Good, and Arthurian character descriptions. These topics can be discussed furthermore in the actual focal pieces but by providing information in the introduction more of your analysis can focus on the art piece and only mentioning historical context – but that is up to your own discretion.  If you mention a main work of art in the introduction and discuss later in the catalog it is best to write [Figure 1] and when you cite the work of art provide before the information [Fig 1], etc.

Typically pieces that are not on display but are relevant to the exhibition can be cited in this section. For example – when discussing Victorian art culture in relation to King Arthur it would be important to discuss Gothic architecture and then provide an image as an example. The introduction should provide historical and thematic context for the exhibit.

Museum Catalog Entry

Depending on the project a museum catalog will either contain small academic essays or decide to focus on the pieces of work in the exhibition. In the case of academic essays just keep in mind that catalogs typically focus on ‘mini themes’ in the exhibit. For The Marriage of History and Legend: The Victorian Revival of King Arthur it would be beneficial to have one essay on Tennyson’s literary work  that would then contain pieces of art work (mostly in the exhibition but some can be provided as outside examples) and how Tennyson’s work relates to the theme of the exhibit.

If you want to just focus on art pieces and not academic essays, catalog entries are typically no more than 500 words and include a brief historical scope of the piece as well as a formal analysis of the piece.

For information on how to cite a work of art in MLA, see the OWL page MLA Works Cited: Other Sources.

Catalog Entry Example:

Painting,

Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, 1874-76. Oil on Canvas. Board of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight)

A contrasting Vivien from the time is the Edward Burne-Jones version titled The Beguiling of Merlin, in which his Vivien again takes the name Nimue. In this version, Burne-Jones depicts Nimue as a maiden striving to protect her virtue. She is seen more as an anguished deity than a demonic villainess (Silver, 258). Her costume is typical of a Greek goddess and she wears a serpent headdress similar to Medusa. The serpentine forms of her snaky headdress are repeated in the folds of her indigo dress, in the roots of the trees, and “branches while like tentacles surround the failing man.” (Whitaker, 245) The model for Merlin was the American journalist W.J. Stillman whose face was damaged in a childhood accident, making his hair unusually white for his age. Nimue was Maria Zambaco, who Edward Burne-Jones was deeply in love with; when their relationship was over, Burne-Jones was depressed for many years, and Zambaco was suicidal. In a letter written during 1893, Burne-Jones wrote to his friend Helen Gaskell saying, “I was being turned into a hawthorn bush in the forest of Broceliande- every year when the hawthorn buds it is the soul of Merlin trying to live again the world and speak- for he left so much unsaid” (245). Vivien stands in the foreground, a dominant position that is usually reserved for men. She holds in her hand Merlin’s book of spells, towering over Merlin who cowers under her powerful gaze. Burne-Jones uses his art to express a psychological problem of an artist who is “reduced to impotence by a woman’s supremacy and his own lust” (245).

Works Cited

Silver, Carole “Victorian Spellbinders: Arthurian Women and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle,” in The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition (New York: Garland Pub., 1988), 257.

Whitaker, Muriel A. The Legends of King Arthur in Art, 245.

Bibliography

Make sure to include a bibliography for a complete work of artwork used and cite any primary or secondary sources used in your research.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble.
Summary:

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.

Writing a Museum Title Card

Although in the art history discipline one might not curate a museum exhibition or write a catalog, if you want to work in the museum profession, you will most likely at some point write a museum text panel. These are the small white cards that are typically next to a work of art.

A text panel consists of the following information – typically in this order:

Title of the Piece

Date of piece or date of dynasty, etc (depends on the specific piece)

Artist (Often provide date of their life)

Material of piece, ie painting, sculpture, etc.

Not every text panel is the same and often it depends on the piece of work: Do you provide the dimensions of the piece? The origin of the artist? Who currently owns the piece (person or institution)? All of these questions are something to consider when making a text panel.

If providing more material for the reader one should be as brief as possible (the individual does not have all day to read the panel) as well as using accessible language – if the description is too theory based the reader will get stuck in formalist jargon and no one will learn anything from the work unless they are an art historian themselves. The text panel is just to suggest something to the reader instead of stating your analysis as fact – what are some things you want your audience to take away? Think of this in relation to your museum catalog entries – how much information do you want to provide? Entries should be about 200 – 300 words maximum. Often, many museums provide nothing for their reader. On one hand this allows readers to make their own assumptions on the work of art but it also means an individual might not be able to take away anything from viewing the work or miss the larger context of the art piece.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble.
Summary:

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.

Writing Essays in Art History

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:

Expressionism

Instructuralism

Naturalism

Feminism

Formalism

Postmodernism

Social Art History

Biographical Approach

Poststructuralism

Museum Studies

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’

Compare:

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.

Contrast:

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"

Compare:

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.

Contrast:

Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.

Iconography

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.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble.
Summary:

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.

Taking Notes & Preparing for an Exam

Taking Notes

Taking notes in an art history class is crucial. It is not just enough to read the required textbook but often in class a teacher’s lecture on the work is enriched with their background knowledge of other scholars work, academic articles, their own research, etc.

First, write down the slide identification (that most teachers provide) or begin writing down the title when mentioned, date, medium of the work, and location, as these details will most likely be on the text. Next, it is best to do shorthand notes as the teacher will most likely cover a large amount of information. It is not enough to just discuss the image as a whole but to narrow in on some details of the work that the teacher will often outline. Also it is best to include any historical information given one can later use in an essay as well as history often helps identify style.

Notes Example:

Botticelli, Birth of Venus: 1480 Botticelli painting. Created for Medici family, reflects the Medici interest in Classical themes and the revival of Plato’s philosophy that had led to the founding of the Platonic Academy in Florence.  Relaxed pose suggest just waking up. Wind coming from left. Possible same model of Prima Vera but opposite sides of it (two were probably hung together). Aphrodite born from sea foam. Venus floating to shore, flowers blowing. Figure on right is wreathed in laurel, given Aphrodite robe, symbol of life and reincarnation.

Preparing for an Exam

There are various ways to prepare for an art history exam. The best course of action to take is to make flashcards with the image on one side and the title, artist, medium, location, and at least 5 facts on the other side that could include historical information, style, iconography, etc. For remembering dates a timeline might come in handy. Then, it is just a matter of reviewing your cards and memorizing the information – repetition, repetition, repetition.

Since the exam will most likely have a compare and contrast essay, also begin making comparisons between the works of art studied in class and how each piece can possibly relate to one another.