Art History essay writing guide: top tips!
(Last updated: 29 November 2018)
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Although the general information given on how to write an essay goes a long way to helping the Art History student, there are some parts of essay writing technique which are particular to the Art History essay.
Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
When you refer to a particular work of art, you need to make it clear exactly which version you are writing about. With so many copies of an important or popular work of art (made by the original painter or an admirer), this becomes particularly important, for example, Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington. You should make a reference (either in text or in the footnotes) giving the title of the artwork in italics, the artist (where known), the date (or rough date for those works that cannot be dated exactly, eg. the 1790s) and the gallery or collection that holds the artwork. Like so,
George Washington ("Lansdowne" portrait), Gilbert Stuart, 1796, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
The title of a work of art should be written in italics, whether you refer to it in the text or in the references.
The name of a building (for an Art History essay dealing with architecture) should be written in regular text (not italics or bold). The first time you mention it in your text, list the architect’s name, the date construction work started and the location, e.g. Paris.
Make yourself aware of the different types of Art History essay you may be asked to write. For example, sociological essays will require you to look at the artist or their work in the context of the times they lived in, examining the impact of political movements, wars, rebellions or zeitgeist. An essay that required you to look at iconography would need an examination of the symbolism within the artwork. Become familiar with the full range of Art History essay types. “A Short Guide to Writing About Art” by Sylvan Barnet is a good book to help you approach your essays in more detail. It covers both homework and exam essays.