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1.7: Analyzing Art

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    Most art is visually compelling. While materials and technique determine the range of what is possible, the final appearance of a work is the product of numerous additional choices made by the artist. An artist painting a portrait of a woman in oil on canvas must decide on the size and shape of the canvas, the scale of the woman and where to place her, and the types of forms, lines, colors, and brushstrokes to use in representing the sitter and her surroundings. In a compelling work of art, myriad variables such as these come together to create an engaging visual experience.

    Visual (or Formal) Analysis

    Art historians use visual analysis to describe and understand this experience. Often called formal analysis because it focuses on form rather than subject matter or historical context, this typically consists of two parts: description of the visual features of a work and analysis of their effects. To describe visual properties systematically, art historians rely on an established set of terms and concepts. These include characteristics such as format, scale, composition, and viewpoint; treatment of the human figure and space; and the use of form, line, color, light, and texture.

    In describing visual qualities, formal analysis usually identifies certain features as contributing to the overall impression of the work. For example, a prominent linear form might suggest strength if straight and vertical, grace or sensuality if sinuous, or stability and calm if long and horizontal. Sharp contrasts in light and dark may make an image feel bold and dramatic whereas subdued lighting might suggest gentleness or intimacy. In the past, formal analysis assumed there was some elementary level of universality in the human response to visual form and tried to describe these effects. Today, the method is understood as more subjective, but still valued as a critical exercise and means of analyzing visual experience, especially in introductory art history courses.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784. Oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25 m. Painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785. Musée du Louvre, Paris. (Photo via Smarthistory) David's style is characterized by clean lines and clear composition that emphasize straightforward storytelling.

    While formal analysis will be the main focus of this course, other kinds of analysis are often explored for better understanding works of art.

    Contextual Analysis

    Contextual Analysis investigates the context of an artwork. This includes many factors, such as the time, place, and culture in which a work of art was created. For example, if a work of art was created in Paris, France in 1402, what was happening politically and economically during that time and place? What significant events around that time may have informed the work? What were the values and beliefs of the culture? How does the work affirm or challenge the norms of that time? These are the kinds of questions we ask when considering a work's context.

    Expressive Analysis

    Expressive Analysis emphasizes the emotional, psychological, and spiritual states of the artist. What intuitive drives may have been operating in the artist? How did those drives (whether conscious, subconscious, unconscious) come to express something that may not only be personal to the artist but also reflective of the greater culture or of the human condition at large? Of course Expressive Analyses may overlap with Contextual Analyses as the historical factors of time, place, culture, economics, and so on, also influence the state of the artist.

    Iconographical Analysis

    Iconographical Analysis seeks to understand the use of symbols within an artwork, which also requires understanding the symbolic meaning within the culture of the work's original place and time. In order for a symbol to work, a society has to agree upon what it represents. However, some symbols are more personal. This type of analysis also overlaps with Contextual Analyses because knowledge about the cultural meaning of symbols is paramount. One challenge of this approach is knowing whether the artist intended the symbols or not.

    The section on Visual Analysis was adapted from:

    1.7: Analyzing Art is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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