Hey so I am thinking of trying a personal project where I kind of analysis a painting and explain what is going on, it's significance, what was going on at the time etc. Do you have any advice how I make this interesting and engaging?
Great question, Anon! Your inquiry gets to the heart of art historical practice. How we analyze works of art, and how we can make our analyses interesting – rather than a series of stale facts and surface observations – are among the first questions art historians ask when setting out to write.
For me, part of what makes writing good is the questions that are asked by the author. I have not written anything for years, but before depression hit, my method for writing about art was almost ritualistic. First, I would sit in front of the artwork (or a picture of it) and write down all of my observations – whatever comes to mind about the work. In doing so, it is important to practice slow looking, meaning to look carefully and intentionally at the artistic decisions made (e.g. formal qualities), the subject matter, the manner in which the subject is portrayed, and so on. Think, too, about how the painting makes you feel, what emotions any figures in the work are feeling, and if there are any formal elements that relay tone. You can practice slow looking from several minutes to hours to days or longer (e.g. TJ Clark’s The Art of Death, 2006).
Next, I would research the history of the artwork, the artist who created it, its historical context, and familiarize myself with any recent scholarship. This is where you need to branch out from the four corners of the painting itself through reading about it, learning about the culture in which it was created, and looking at similar artworks created by the painting’s creator (to give it artistic and historical context within his/her oeuvre & life) and their contemporaries and predecessors (to give the painting context within the history of art). For instance, if I was writing about
Caravaggio’s paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome (1599-1600; below), some of what I would seek to find out is how the Calling of St. Matthew, Inspiration of St. Matthew, and Martyrdom of St. Matthew were depicted in Italian art history before Caravaggio was active and while he was working in Rome.
This way, I would have context for assessing how his depictions of these subjects are similar or different from any established conventions. I would also compare the works to any works Caravaggio made before 1599, paying close attention to any symbolic, stylistic, or technical changes. My comparisons would be informed and bolstered by my research into Caravaggio’s life and seventeenth-century Italy. Comparing and contrasting can often help us describe works of art with more conviction. Additionally, for works of art with patrons, like the Contarelli Chapel, it’s a good idea to also look into any contractual stipulations regarding how subject matter should be portrayed, as this could help you to more vividly describe the history of the work and why it looks the way it does. Finally, researching the technical history of your chosen painting can help you discern any changes an artist might have made to the composition (as is the case with the Martyrdom, for instance). I hope this short example gives you a sense of what I mean when I say you should research the work’s context.
(Also: You could reverse slow looking and research; personally, I like to record my instinctive reactions first, then refine and enhance my initial observations with research.)
Another step in my writing ‘ritual’ is to consider the contemporary viewer and their interaction with, and perception of, the work I am writing about. Knowledge of the artwork’s historical context comes in handy here. For instance, Caravaggio’s paintings have been in situ in the Contarelli Chapel since their inception, and I could draw on my research to understand how a pious viewer might have reacted to this work and interpreted it within the context of Counter-Reformation spirituality. The practice I describe here isn’t necessarily transferrable to all art (it hinges largely on who the audience of your chosen painting was/is and where it was/is originally displayed), but this could be useful in helping you spice up your narrative.
Finally, I would begin the writing process. I have answered asks about writing papers before; I recommend crafting an outline first, as this will help you keep your observations and arguments about the painting organized and cohesive. Academic writing tends to have a more formal tone than popular writing, so for your project, you should use whatever style of writing is best for your goals and audience. If you are writing for school, for example, your professor might have specific guidelines you need to abide by, whereas if you are writing for yourself, how you write should only matter to you! Don’t be afraid to experiment with descriptive language, either. Lastly, drawing on primary sources to bolster your analysis is another way to make your narrative compelling.
An understanding of formal analysis and the various methods of art historical inquiry will serve you well in making your project interesting and engaging. In addition to the practices I talk about above, there are art historians who have dedicated significant portions of their careers to exploring and teaching how to be a good art historian and writer. Thus, for more specifics than I can offer here, I point you to their work. Here is a list of books I highly recommend:
Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing about Art. Boston; Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.
Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk. Art History: A critical introduction to its methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.
Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939. (Here is a PDF of the Introduction.)
Pop, Andrei. How to Do Things with Pictures: A Guide to Writing in Art History. Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, 2008.
Taylor, Joshua C. Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
I hope this helps, anon! Best of luck in your project!