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Analysis of an Original Artwork (Sample Assignment)

A. Purpose
The purpose of this assignment is to allow you to develop your skills through the analysis of an original work of art; a secondary purpose is to expand your awareness of the museum’s role in the display of art.

  • Write a two-to-three page, double-spaced, word-processed essay on one of the paintings from the list provided at the end of this assignment (not included here.)
  • Your paper must address the following and you must formulate an argument as to why you’ve chosen to discuss the aspects you have:
  • The context of the object's display.
  • A thorough analysis of one of the formal elements: line, shape, light/dark, space, color, or principles of design.
  • Some discussion of the medium and technique employed in the work.

B. Choosing and Observing the Work:
Examine several of the works of art from the list provided. The paintings are all in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Most works are in the West Building; the 20th-Century paintings are in the East Building.

Formal Analysis: After locating and examining several of the works from the list (and check the accession numbers following the titles on the list below to ascertain that you’ve found the correct object), you must choose the one you wish to analyze.

Remember that this exercise is to be a formal analysis, not a description of subject matter.

  • Look carefully at the work.
  • Ask yourself questions about it and record your observations.
  • Looking at the work, you should try to ascertain which is the most important visual element. For example, if it is a painting involving large areas of color, then perhaps line is not particularly relevant to the student’s discussion.
  • You should concentrate on those elements that are of particular relevance to the specific work chosen and eliminate those that are not. You will undoubtedly discover that one visual element is linked to another (e.g. color helps to create a coherent composition).
  • It is fine for you to call attention to how these elements interrelate, but the paper must not focus on more than one of them.

Observation and Analysis: Consider that an essay is not just a list of observations: you must expand upon them by analyzing what the artist has done in order to achieve the observed effect or why the observed effect is important to the form (not the subject matter) of the work as a whole. Here are suggestions that you can use for getting at that kind of information.

  • When you record an observation (e.g.: there’s a lot of red in this painting) ask why the artist did what he did to achieve the effect noted.
  • What difference does it make to the form of the work?

Medium and Technique:

  • What do you notice about the medium and technique (this is more difficult to do when looking at slides or plates in the book)?
  • Are there ways in which the medium or technique contribute to the visual element you have chosen to analyze?
  • What about the painted or sculpted surface?
  • What about the support (the canvas or panel)?
  • Does the artist take advantage of the specific traits of the medium or does s/he seem more to resist them?

Museum Context: Now you must consider the way in which the work is installed.

  • What is its scale?
  • How is it placed?
  • How do things like the frame or lighting affect your perception of the work?
  • What is it displayed with?
  • How is the room arranged?
  • How do the nearby works affect your perception of your chosen work?
  • What does the label provide?

Reflection and Revisit: After spending some time analyzing your chosen work, you may wish to leave it and take a break.

  • Then return to the work to see if any new observations occur to you or if your initial observations hold up.
  • Start consolidating your material into some sort of organized format before you leave the gallery. If you return home with a disjointed list of observations, you may find it difficult to organize them later into a paper without having the object in front of you.