Knowing how to write a formal analysis of a work of art is a fundamental skill learned in an art appreciation-level class. Students in art history survey and upper-level classes further develop this skill. Use this sheet as a guide when writing a formal analysis paper.Consider the following when analyzing a work of art. Not everything applies to every work of art, nor is it always useful to consider things in the order given. In any analysis, keep in mind the following: HOW and WHY is this a significant work of art?
Part I – General Information
- In many cases, this information can be found on a label or in a gallery guidebook. There may be an artist’s statement available in the gallery. If so, indicate in your text or by a footnote or endnote to your paper where you got the information.
- Subject Matter (Who or What is Represented?)
- Artist or Architect (What person or group made it? Often this is not known. If there is a name, refer to this person as the artist or architect, not “author.” Refer to this person by their last name, not familiarly by their first name.)
- Date (When was it made? Is it a copy of something older? Was it made before or after other similar works?)
- Provenance (Where was it made? For whom? Is it typical of the art of a geographical area?)
- Location (Where is the work of art now? Where was it originally located? Does the viewer look up at it, or down at it? If it is not in its original location, does the viewer see it as the artist intended? Can it be seen on all sides, or just on one?)
- Technique and Medium (What materials is it made of? How was it executed? How big or small is it?)
Part II – Brief Description
In a few sentences describe the work. What does it look like? Is it a representation of something? Tell what is shown. Is it an abstraction of something? Tell what the subject is and what aspects are emphasized. Is it a non-objective work? Tell what elements are dominant. This section is not an analysis of the work yet, though some terms used in Part III might be used here. This section is primarily a few sentences to give the reader a sense of what the work looks like.
Part III – Form
This is the key part of your paper. It should be the longest section of the paper. Be sure and think about whether the work of art selected is a two-dimensional or three-dimensional work.
- Line (straight, curved, angular, flowing, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, contour, thick, thin, implied etc.)
- Shape (what shapes are created and how)
- Light and Value (source, flat, strong, contrasting, even, values, emphasis, shadows)
- Color (primary, secondary, mixed, complimentary, warm, cool, decorative, values)
- Texture and Pattern (real, implied, repeating)
- Space (depth, overlapping, kinds of perspective)
- Time and Motion
Principles of Design
- Unity and Variety
- Balance (symmetry, asymmetry)
- Emphasis and Subordination
- Scale and Proportion (weight, how objects or figures relate to each other and the setting)
- Mass/Volume (three-dimensional art)
- Function/Setting (architecture)
- Interior/Exterior Relationship (architecture)
Part IV – Opinions and Conclusions
This is the part of the paper where you go beyond description and offer a conclusion and your own informed opinion about the work. Any statements you make about the work should be based on the analysis in Part III above.
- In this section, discuss how and why the key elements and principles of art used by the artist create meaning.
- Support your discussion of content with facts about the work.
- Pay attention to the date the paper is due.
- Your instructor may have a list of “approved works” for you to write about, and you must be aware of when the UALR Galleries, or the Arkansas Arts Center Galleries, or other exhibition areas, are open to the public.
- You should allow time to view the work you plan to write about and take notes.
- Always italicize or underline titles of works of art. If the title is long, you must use the full title the first time you mention it, but may shorten the title for subsequent listings.
- Use the present tense in describing works of art.
- Be specific: don’t refer to a “picture” or “artwork” if “drawing” or “painting” or “photograph” is more exact.
- Remember that any information you use from another source, whether it be your textbook, a wall panel, a museum catalogue, a dictionary of art, the internet, must be documented with a footnote. Failure to do so is considered plagiarism, and violates the behavioral standards of the university. If you do not understand what plagiarism is, refer to this link at the UALR Copyright Central web site: http://www.ualr.edu/copyright/articles/?ID=4
- For proper footnote form, refer to the UALR Department of Art website, or to Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art, which is based on the Chicago Manual of Style. MLA style is not acceptable for papers in art history.
- Allow time to proofread your paper. Read it out loud and see if it makes sense. If you need help on the technical aspects of writing, use the University Writing Center (569-8343) or On-Line Writing Lab. http://ualr.edu/writingcenter/
- Ask your instructor for help if needed.
For further information and more discussions about writing a formal analysis, see the following. Some of these sources also give a lot of information about writing a research paper in art history, that is, a paper more ambitious in scope than a formal analysis.
M. Getlein, Gilbert’s Living with Art (10th edition, 2013), pp. 136-139 is a very short analysis of one work.
M. Stokstad and M. W. Cothren, Art History (5th edition, 2014), “Starter Kit,” pp. xxii-xxv is a brief outline.
S. Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art (9th edition, 2008), pp. 113-134 is about formal analysis; the entire book is excellent for all kinds of writing assignments.
R. J. Belton, Art History: A Preliminary Handbookhttp://www.ubc.ca/okanagan/fccs/about/links/resources/arthistory.html is probably more useful for a research paper in art history, but parts of this outline relate to discussing the form of a work of art.
Embodying the freedom and curiosity of the French Enlightenment, Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) developed an exuberant and fluid manner as a painter, draftsman, and printmaker. Prolific and inventive, he abandoned early on the conventional career path dictated by the hierarchical structure of the Royal Academy, working largely for private patrons. His work constitutes a further elaboration of the Rococo idiom established by Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, a manner perfectly suited to his subjects, which favored the playful, the erotic, and the joys of domesticity.
Early Training in Paris and Italy
Born in the Provençal city of Grasse, Fragonard moved with his family to Paris in 1738. He spent some time in the busy studio of François Boucher before successfully competing for the Prix de Rome in 1752. He then pursued studies at the École Royale des Élèves Protégés in Paris, following the standard training for a history painter.
In 1756, Fragonard was sent to Italy as a pensioner of the crown; he remained at the French Academy in Rome until 1761. From the numerous black chalk copies he executed there, it is clear that he held masters of the Baroque in the highest esteem, copying works in Rome, Naples, and Venice. Many, such as Saint Celestine V Renouncing the Papacy (1987.239), were made with eventual publication as prints in mind. He also produced brilliant red chalk drawings of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli and painted small cabinet-size paintings for French private collectors living in Rome. The Stolen Kiss (56.100.1) was painted for the bailiff of Breteuil, French ambassador to the Order of Malta in Rome. As in the pastorals of his former master Boucher, Fragonard’s rustic protagonists are envisioned with billowing silk clothing, engaged in amorous pursuits.
Official and Commercial Success
Back in Paris in 1761, Fragonard found an eager market for his cabinet pictures, which melded the influences of Italian Baroque painting and seventeenth-century Dutch landscape. The spectacular critical success of Coresus and Callirhoë (Musée du Louvre, Paris), which he submitted to the Royal Academy in 1765, led to high hopes that he would be the salvation of history painting in France. However, it was a promise he chose not to fulfill, neglecting royal commissions in favor of work for private collectors.
During this period, he further developed the painterly surface of his canvases, working with great rapidity and little blending, giving pictorial form to the qualities of “fire” and “genius” so admired by contemporary collectors. Woman with a Dog (37.118) is related to an inventive series of virtuoso imaginary portraits referred to collectively as the Figures de fantaisie. They feature archaic costumes, often vaguely Spanish or Rubensian in inspiration, and brushwork so rapid and undisguised that it would have previously been associated with oil sketches rather than finished works.
Similar achievements can be cited in the realm of drawing. A Gathering at Wood’s Edge (1995.101), like many sheets Fragonard made for the increasingly active collector’s market, is not a study for a painting, but a finished work of art on paper. In its unhesitating technique and varied range of graphic notation, it is testimony to Fragonard’s unmatched mastery of the red chalk medium and to his endearing vision of nature as welcoming and wondrous.
Fragonard’s masterpiece of this period is the series of large panel paintings commissioned by Madame du Barry, the official mistress of Louis XV, for the château de Louveciennes (The Lover Crowned, The Frick Collection, New York). While the iconography of the series continues to be debated by scholars, the subjects can generally be described as lovers in various stages of romantic involvement in lush, overgrown gardens full of mythological statuary, potted plants, and cascading flowers. A dispute with the patron led to the paintings being returned to the artist and replaced by a more Neoclassical series by Joseph Marie Vien (1716–1809).
Shortly after the disappointment of Madame du Barry’s rejection of the Louveciennes panels, Fragonard agreed to embark on a second trip to Italy (1773–74) as artistic companion to Pierre-Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt, a wealthy fermier général. A great many drawings are associated with this trip, their style quite distinct from those Fragonard made on his first trip. Seated Man Reading (1978.516.1) probably belongs to a series of informal red chalk portraits Fragonard drew of Bergeret’s friends and acquaintances along the way. A Fisherman Pulling a Net and A Fisherman Leaning on an Oar (2006.353.1) must have been made during the two months the party spent in Naples in the spring of 1774. He also adopted at this time the technique of brush and brown wash, which he employed with a freedom and facility paralleling his oil paintings of the 1760s.
After his return to France, Fragonard made various attempts to remake his style in the newly popular Neoclassical manner with its planar compositions and smooth surfaces, although the tide of changing taste was ultimately too strong for him. After the French Revolution, he held administrative positions at the Louvre, but his work had fallen from favor and he died in relative obscurity in 1806.
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art