Basic Guidelines for Writing Art History Papers:

Basic Guidelines for Writing Art History Papers:.


For this Historical Essay, you will provide a formal analysis and the historical context for a work of art in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. You may choose a work from any time period, medium, geography or culture. Due to COVID, you are not required to see the work of art in person. The museum documents its collection through its database, including high resolution images and information regarding the artist, date, dimensions, and materials used in the artwork.

Start here to examine works of art in the Art Institute’s collection:

If you are interested in the painter El Greco, there is a virtual tour of his painting The Assumption from 1577 here: A part of the Art Institute’s permanent collection.

Select your object and post on assigned Discussion Board by Monday, April 19th, 11:30PM

Download a photograph from the Art Institute website and simply post it with the artist’s name, title, and date on the Discussion Board. Once everyone posts their objects, I will suggest some sources and offer comments, which I hope will help you get started. By selecting your object for the Historical Essay by the beginning of week four gives you time to do research and complete the paper by the end of the quarter. This assignment is not graded, but five points will be deducted from the final paper if not completed.

Take a careful look at your selected object online and make notes based on the prompts for the assignment listed below.

Once you have compiled your observations and researched your object, write a five to six page paper based on the questions asked below. Be sure the text is double-spaced and uses 12-point font. 

Four research sources are required. (Details of how to find materials can be found below.) When you paraphrase or directly quote any sources, you must provide a citation. (Formatting guidelines provided below)

Research Sources:

Do not use Google searches for research. Wikipedia may be used to track down sources, but cannot be used as a source in its own right. Blogs, commercial gallery websites, and the Art Story, are not considered credible sources. Here is a list of recommended resources available at DePaul.

  1. The Art Institute’s website devoted to its collections ( You can do a search for the artist you have chosen. When you have found the work you have selected, click on it and any bibliography pertinent to the work will be revealed under “Publication History.” There may also be museum label text included in the database entry.
  2. Online scholarly catalogues from the Art Institute of Chicago. See: for a complete list of texts.
    1. Grove Art Online, Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Oxford Art 
    2.  Catalogues from the Art Institute of Chicago. (Do search on online catalogue with Art Institute of Chicago as author)
      1. The Art Institute of Chicago, The Essential Guide. Chicago: The Art Institute, 2003. R.708.17311 A784a2003 (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library)
      2. Master Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: The Art Institute, 1988). R750.74 A784m 1988. (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library)
      3. The Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture (Chicago: The Art Institute, 1996). R709.4 W876a 1996 (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library)
      4. African-Americans in Art: Selections from the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: The Art Institute, 1999). R704.0396073 A784a 1999 (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library).
      5. Asian Art in the Art Institute of Chicago. (Chicago: The Art Institute, 1993). R.708.17311 A784a1993 (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library)
      6. Italian Paintings Before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago. (Chicago: The Art Institute, 1993). R.759.5074 A784i1993 (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library)
      7. Surrealist Art, The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: The Art Institute, 1997). R709.04 A232 S1997 (Chicago Collection, Richardson Library)
    3. Books devoted to the artist you are studying. 

Other resources for writing art history papers (posted as pdfs below):

Be sure to draw on appropriate art historical vocabulary utilized in lecturettes and discussions, as well as this chapter: Anne D’Alleva, Look! The Fundamentals of Art History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: 2004), chapter 2.

Also see: Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: 2011), 3rd edition, 46-68. This chapter offers a sample formal analysis essay, which may be useful for students new to this type of assignment.

Questions to be addressed in the Historical Essay:

  • Begin your paper with an introduction, including a thesis statement. What is the title of the work of art you are writing about? Who is the artist? What year was it created? What will we learn about your selected object from the Art Institute of Chicago?
  • Please note that the biography of the artist should only be addressed if pertinent to your chosen artwork, otherwise it should not be discussed.
  • Formal Analysis:
    • The Formal Analysis is equivalent to a written “tour” of a work of art. You want to provide the most vivid description possible. Walk the reader through the work of art logically, for instance, describing top to bottom or left to right. Be sure to indicate precisely where forms and shapes are located in the composition.
    • In addition, please consider:
      • Analyze the work itself. How does the art “work?”  That is, what details in the piece are used to convey its meaning? Consider how these details function by themselves and together as a whole.
        • Paintings, Drawings, and Etchings: If a representational image, what specifically is depicted? Where precisely are the forms placed in the composition: foreground, middle ground, background? If an abstract or nonobjective work, how are the forms and shapes arranged in the composition? Discuss the precise techniques and materials used (e.g. oil painting, etching, lithograph, etc.) How does the artist use color?  Are there stark contrasts or is it blended?  Are there symbolic meanings behind the color choices? How does the artist use line?  Are forms linearly arranged or disordered? What is the scale? How does the scale of the work impact the viewer’s interaction?
        • Sculpture and three-dimensional artworks: What is the medium of the piece, and how does it affect the viewer’s impression? (For example, stone gives a sense of permanence and strength.) Discuss the precise and materials techniques used. (e.g. carved marble, modeled from clay, cast in bronze, created from found objects, etc.) What was the purpose of this piece?  In what setting was it originally placed? Is the piece unusually large or small? Is the piece representational or abstract?  Is the artist exploring forms or space within forms? What is the subject of the sculpture?  What type of impression does it give of the subject? What is the scale? How does the scale of the work impact the viewer’s interaction?
  • Include additional historical information. What country or region was it made in? Does it belong to a particular movement, age or school of thought? Does it have an influential patron? Is this work typical or atypical of its period, style or artist?  What does this work tell us about the era in which the artist worked? Does it reflect significant social, political and/or cultural events of that time period? Research will be required to answer these questions.
  • Discuss your interpretation of this work. What do you think the subject is? What kind of statement is the artist trying to make? How do art historians and critics interpret your selected work of art? Are there issues that these authors have not taken into account? Research will be required to answer these questions.
  • Offer a persuasive conclusion to the paper. 
  • Make sure that all material from the four required research sources that is paraphrased and/or directly quoted from texts is cited and a Works Cited page is included at the end of the paper. For formatting MLA citations see:
  • For the Works Cited page see: 
  • Carefully proofread your text. For example, use spell-check and thesaurus options. You can also read your paper out load to catch any errors. Poor grammar and spelling will be penalized.

Basic Guidelines for Writing Art History Papers:

1. Titles of works of art and exhibition titles should be italicized or underlined. Students should label illustrations as: Artist, Title, date. Medium and scale. Bibliographic source for image should be given as well.

  • For example: Fig. 1. Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940. Oil on hardboard, 51 x 38.5cm. Reproduced in Frida Kahlo, Emma Dexter and Tanya Barson, eds. London: Tate Gallery, 2005, figure 37.

3. If you are defining an art historical term, such as Impressionism, do not use a standard dictionary definition, use your textbook, another art historical text or the Oxford Art Online database.

4. When first discussing an illustrated image, indicate its presence in the text by adding (Fig. #) at the end of a sentence that introduces the image.

5. Artworks should be discussed in the present tense.

6. The voice of scholars from secondary sources should be discussed in the past tense. For example, Dexter argued that Kahlo’s images….

7. Avoid the phrase “piece of art work.” Instead, be specific about the medium as much as possible. This painting, this sculpture, etc.

Basic Guidelines for Writing Art History Papers:

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