A beginner’s guide to art history

Museum researchers tell us that the average visitor spends just 17 to 27 seconds in front of an artwork – yet such a short window of time won't reveal much about the history of the artwork. So, what should you be looking for when you stand in front of a work of art? Here, Dr Laura-Jane Foley shares her top tips on visual analysis and explains why you – the viewer – are just as important as the person who created it…

A woman looks at 'The Recognition of Philopoemen', c1609 by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens at the Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We’ve all heard the philosophical riddle that makes us question our understanding of perception. If we are not present does something still happen? In the case of a work of art, your presence is paramount, because an artwork needs you more than you might realise.

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In his seminal work Art and Illusion, first published in 1960, art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote about “the beholder’s share”. It was Gombrich’s belief that a viewer “completed” the artwork, that part of an artwork’s meaning came from the person viewing it. He wasn’t concerned with the artists and what their intentions were; he was interested in what we, the viewers, brought to an artwork. What we project onto an artwork depends on our backgrounds – our upbringing and education, the experiences we’ve had, how we process information, how we look at the world. The meaning we give an image is filtered through all the years of life we’ve lived.

In ‘Venus Uncovered’ on BBC Four, Wednesday 15 November at 9pm, Bettany Hughes investigates the mythological figure of Venus. (© Sandstone Global/Image by Tim Knight)

Historians, and those with an interest in history, are always keen to explore new periods and broaden their historical knowledge and understanding – but are often put off by images. Despite so many shared features, the ‘history of art’ is always slightly separated from ‘history’. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, for example, the history of art department shared a faculty with architecture rather than history. But there are many reasons why historians should welcome history of art into the fold and not be fearful of images.

This fear, or ambivalence, often stems from a lack of understanding about what to do in front of a work of art – and it is perfectly understandable. Visual literacy is not encouraged at school and most people interested in general history would be flummoxed by the idea of undertaking a visual analysis of an artwork. And yet, a formal analysis – spending time in front of an artwork, looking closely at the image – is one of the basic elements of art history. The good news for those who want to understand artworks a little better is that it is both deeply rewarding and easy to do.

Visitors to the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, look at Gustav Klimt's painting 'Der Kuss' (The Kiss), painted between 1907–8). AFP PHOTO / DIETER NAGL (Photo by DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors to the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, look at Gustav Klimt’s painting ‘Der Kuss’ (The Kiss), painted between 1907–8). AFP PHOTO / DIETER NAGL (Photo by DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

What should I look for?

A visual analysis begins by looking, really looking, at an image. Museum researchers tell us that the average visitor spends just 17 to 27 seconds in front of an artwork. No wonder people are so convinced art is hard to understand if they’re spending so little time engaging with it. I don’t think I’d get very far understanding the Franco-Prussian War if I just listened to half a minute of a lecture. We need to slow down and start noticing all the elements of an artwork. Before rushing ahead to consider content and context, simply consider the basic formal elements of the image: line, colour, shape and form. Here’s a brief guide to get you started…

Lines

Let’s imagine we’re looking at a painting on a canvas. Firstly, focus on the lines– look at what sort of marks have been made on the picture surface and try and describe them. Is the line thick, bold, expressive or dotted, etc? What emotions or moods do these lines and marks suggest to you? Are the lines horizontal or vertical and what is the effect of these lines? Are some lines more noticeable than others? Do they dominate the image? For what purpose? Are the shapes in the painting outlined? What is the effect? Can you see under-drawing or any other marks underneath the painting? Has there been an attempt to disguise these?

A painting of Charles I on horseback.

Colour

Next look at colour. What colour scheme has been used? Unmixed primary colours? Secondary colours? Are the colours complementary? Monochrome? Cool or warm? Is the palette broad or muted? Do any colours dominate the canvas? Does the choice of colour make you feel anything in particular? What is the effect of the colour choices? Are the colours bold and vibrant, or pale and muted? All the time when looking at the formal qualities, ask yourself what the effect is of their appearance in the artwork. For example, if the image is in black and white monochrome, what does it remind you of? Newspapers or old photographs, perhaps? Does the absence of colour give the artwork a sense of a loss? Or does the monochrome palette shift the focus of the painting onto another element – like its form or content?

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562, 16th Century, oil on wood, 117 x 162 cm. (Photo by Remo Bardazzi / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
‘The Triumph of Death’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562–3. (Photo by Remo Bardazzi / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Shapes and forms

Next in your visual analysis, look at the shapes and forms. Is the scheme geometric, angular or free-flowing? Are the shapes irregular, simple or complex? Are the shapes/forms repeated and what is the effect of this? How are the shapes arranged? Are they grouped together, or far apart? Are they overlapping? Do they fuse with other shapes/forms? What are the edges of the shapes and form like? Are they distinct or fuzzy? Are there any relief (3D) elements to the painting? Does the paint build up sculpturally on the canvas? Is any other material added to the canvas? What about perspective? Is there a vanishing point? Is there an illusion of the three-dimensional on the two-dimensional picture surface?

This is a very brief guide to what a formal visual analysis of a painting is – there’s plenty more to look at and discuss – but I hope it gives you a way in. The main tip is to observe and describe the formal elements of the artwork generally and in detail, before analysing it in relation to any external factors. Because when we deeply observe an artwork, we see and understand so much more and this ultimately leads to achieving a greater enjoyment from looking at art.

'The butterfly hunt' (1874) by Berthe Morisot

Content

Having completed a formal analysis then it is time to move on to content. Simply, what are you looking at. What, or who, is being depicted, if anything. Are any scenes or figures recognisable from history, religious stories, current affairs, or pop culture? Or do they perhaps remind you of something in your own life? Can you work out the relationship of the figures to each other in the artwork? What can we tell about them from the clothes they wear, the poses they adopt or the expression on their faces? What objects, props or places are included in the artwork? Are they recognisable? Are they symbolic? Finally, what is the title of the artwork? Does it enhance your understanding?

Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876, Oil on canvas, 1,31 x 1,75 m, Paris Orsay Museum. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)
‘Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette’ by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1876. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)

Context

Finally, we look at context and this is where history of art and history are as one. This is the critical analysis; the point at which we explore and evaluate all the social, political, economic and cultural factors that may have had a bearing on the artwork or the artist, or were simply present at the time when the artwork was created. We also can look at what comparisons can be made with other artworks or artists. And this is the point to ask: what was the artist’s original intention in creating the artwork and where was it originally displayed?

So we only look at the artist at the very end. The most important person in the whole process is you. What do you think when you look at an artwork? You are at the centre of the visual analysis. Gombrich was quite right: it is the viewer who completes the artwork. So my advice for getting more out of art is to spend more time in front of it and to look really closely – because you are the only critic who matters.

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Dr Laura-Jane Foley, a former tutor in art history at the University of Cambridge, is the presenter of the new podcast ‘My Favourite Work of Art’. Each week a well-known guest shares an artwork that has meant something to them. You can listen to episodes now at www.acast.com/myfavouriteworkofart