how to “read” artwork: the very basics of art history

(granted, i can’t cover ever aspect of art history in one post, but i want to give a brief introduction to the subject.)

critically viewing any work of art means inspecting many different elements of that work. this includes (of course) the content and style of the piece, but also extends to line, medium, shape, value (how light are the shades? how dark?), texture, perspective, color, space (is the piece cluttered? are there “empty” areas?), and composition (the way things are arranged).

these elements, in conjunction with one another, are key in interpreting exactly what is going on in a painting, sculpture, or photograph. often, these elements are deliberate choices made by the artist (sometimes subconsciously) to reflect a greater meaning in the piece.

when analyzing artwork, art historians typically write a formal analysis. here is a comprehensive outline of what that usually includes.

to illustrate how this works, i am now going to do a quick “informal” formal analysis.

we will examine jacques-louis david’s “oath of the horatii,” oil on canvas (medium), 1784 (year).

without actually knowing the story behind the painting, what can the viewer infer?

first, we examine the content of the painting. clearly, this takes place in a neoclassical setting- note the doric (square, non-elborate caps) columns behind the figures. the figures also appear to be wearing robes typical of greco-roman style. we can, then, best classify this painting as “neoclassical.” three men, who judging by their spears and helmets seem to be warriors, stand to the left of the painting, all facing a central figure. four women appear to be crying on each other’s shoulders on the right.

now that we have an idea of who is in the painting, we can begin to examine the other elements of the image. the colors in the painting are muted. the only color that stands out is red, which is reminiscent of blood (this makes sense based upon the fact that the men are outfitted for war). the connection to blood is strengthened when we take into account that the women on the side are crying- perhaps mourning or preparing for the fact that they will have to mourn. it is clear that the central action in the painting focuses around the three men on the left and the man in the center because they are 1. the most illuminated figures in the painting and 2. the eye is drawn between both parties, from the hands to the swords and the feet- they move the eye back and forth to examine the 3 men and then the man holding the swords. as briefly mentioned before, these men have the most light on them in the painting, which is relatively dark in general. on the side of the work with the women, one set of women is in the light, while the other is in the dark. this may be the artist’s way of explaining that these women’s male loved ones will die, or that these women may fall in harm’s way.

the actual story behind this painting is that the horatii are three brothers from ancient roman times (the three men on the left). the man in the center is their father. they are taking an oath of loyalty to their father, who is sending them to war against another city, represented by three other brothers. one of women on the right is from the rival city and married to one of the horatii brothers, while the other is sister of the horatii and married to one of the rival brother (these women are presumably the ones in the shadow). (source)

while this information offers clarification, it is nothing that the observer could not figure out on his own. david is able to convey exactly what is going on without the viewer having background knowledge about the piece.

to learn more about art history and criticism in detail, beyond what i will be posting, i strongly suggest you pick up a book on the subject. the best art history book that i have come across (by far) is gardner’s art through the ages. it is a massive book, also available broken down into two separate volumes. (while extremely informative, it was unfortunately heavy and cumbersome when i attempted to bring it to class.) another book that is more budget-friendly (and smaller) is the annotated mona lisa. i have found it to be an invaluable resource.

This entry was written by picturesofmeghan and published on January 27, 2012 at 12:48 am. It’s filed under art history, meghan's posts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “how to “read” artwork: the very basics of art history

  1. Love your analysis of the painting and how you explain and help the rest of us understand what to look for. This/these (if you’re doing more, which it sounds like you are) sound like they will definitely help us in this class.

    • i will be doing more of these 🙂 i plan on branching out to more contemporary work and covering other aspects of analysis.. next up is probably going to be about commissioned work and how an artist reflects the identity of the purchaser in the work.

      • I love it! I’m going to love reading all of this! It’s, like, giving validity to my instinctual guesses. That, and I just might use some of what you say in my MA Project, when I take a look at how people present themselves through images. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this post on how to “read” images! I would love to get your feedback on some of the photographs I choose to talk about. Although I took a visual art course that included several basic analyses papers, I have been having trouble how to decipher my area of interest–photographs of the natural world (including animals, landscapes, nature, space, and microorganisms). Because the images are so straightforward, and not representational, it is difficult for me to figure out the aspects of the picture that the photographer wants to emphasize, or what he/she intends to convey. I will try to talk about some of the elements you mention: line, value, shape, space, etc. I will also try to look at the source/time period of the picture to see if that provides any insight. I’m excited to see what other pieces of art you discuss!

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