Museum Assignment: Formal Analysis and Interpretation

Museum Assignment: Formal Analysis and Interpretation

Art History 206: Enlightenment to Contemporary


-Times New Roman, 12pt font

– Double-spaced with one-inch margins

– 4 to 5 full pages


Overview: You will be writing a formal analysis paper based on a work of art



Cheyenne Encampment




Ralph Blakelock (American, 1847-1919)


For those of you who are unfamiliar with formal analysis, also known as visual analysis, it is

essentially an essay in which you use only what you see to write about a work of art. The paper

you will write however will stray from the traditional format because you will also have a section

in which you connect your chosen art object to what we have covered in class. Essentially, you

will describe the most basic elements of the work of art, analyze the purpose of those elements,

interpret the overall meaning based on this visual evidence, and then situate it into the history of


Here is an outline for you to start with that should also clarify the different components of the


Title: (Something interesting that also makes the subject of your paper clear)

I. Introduction: The introduction needs to serve as a guide for your reader, so they know what to

expect and why your paper is significant. You want to introduce the artwork you are going to

talk about (artist, title, date, and medium), explain how you are going to examine it, and declare a

thesis or theme that will be threaded throughout the body of your paper. The thesis should be the

main point you want to make.

II. Description—an objective description of exactly what you see. This would be a good time to

use new vocabulary you have acquired in the course.

III. Analysis—what do those elements suggest (examples: Is there a pervasive use of red? Does

the artist repeat any visual elements? How does the perspective connect or disconnect the viewer

from the scene? etc.)

IV. Interpretation—the artwork is about… (as supported by the visual evidence you just

gathered, as well as clues you might have from the title or wall label. How do the visual clues

reinforce what you might learn from the wall label or title?). Try to keep how you feel about the

piece (i.e. This piece makes me feel sad) out of this.



V. Relationship to Art History — Please use comparisons to other artworks and artists. If you say,

“the painting is Symbolist” you need to explain how and why, with ample detail (i.e. visual

evidence). You can’t simply say “because it’s by Odilon Redon.”

Given painting was from 1873, then it will correspond to The Age of Positivism: Realism,

Impressionism, and the Pre-Raphaelites (1848-1885).

VI. Conclusion: You need one to wrap things up. You can give an overview and/or discuss

where this could go next (i.e. questions that you might want to investigate further, your future

plans for looking at art, etc.). Make sure there is some sort of closure.


• Transitions: Please use clear transitions to move between topics. Writing an outline for

your paper will help you organize your thoughts.

• Keep in mind that a poorly written paper distracts from your brilliant content.

• Read your paper aloud to yourself and/or a friend to check for awkward phrasing and

whether or not you are being clear.

• Don’t assume what your reader knows anything. This gives you an opportunity to show

off just how much you know!

• Choose your words wisely. Do not try to be too poetic—this is more likely to harm than

help. Say what you mean and mean what you say!

• Don’t forget to put the titles of art objects in italics.

• After you mention the artist’s full name once, please refer to him/her by his/her last name

(except for certain exceptions, like Michelangelo).

• Avoid colloquial language, personal pronouns, and contractions.

• Do not use trite language such as “beautiful”, “good”, or “interesting”—expand on your

ideas and give details!

• Quotes are meant to be a support, not something that can stand alone. That often means

that when you use a quote, you need to unpack the quote, explain why it is relevant

and/or what it means.


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