Historical Art Response Essay


Choose a work of art from a local museum. (If you do not have access to a museum near you, please choose an object that interests you from a museum or gallery website on-line. If you must work from a photo found on-line, try looking for multiple views or details on multiple sites.) You will need to bring:
• a pad of paper
• a pencil – The museum will not allow you to use a pen in the gallery.
• a few extra sheets of paper for sketching. Your sketches do not need to be professional or finished, so any blank sheet of paper will do.
• the handout I will give you, copied from A Survival Guide for Art History Students, by Christina Maranci. Chapter 3, “Putting Words to Images: Mastering the Response Essay,” pp. 33 – 70. (Response Essay Reading Part I and Response Essay Reading Part 2)
Choose an appropriate work of art! The date, period, and place of origin should be relevant and fall within the parameters of our class: before 1300 CE. If you choose an inappropriate work of art, your instructor will refuse to grade it and ask you to re-submit the assignment. Choose a work of art that engages you intellectually or emotionally.
Plan on spending a minimum of 40 minutes with the object you choose. This is 40 minutes of quality looking, not discussion with a friend. My suggestions will take you 45 minutes to 1 hour:
1. look at the object for at least 15 minutes (no notes yet)
2. then take as many notes as you can (to make things easier, the Survival Guide handout has listed questions to ask yourself while taking notes)
3. take a break to walk around, stretch, get a drink
4. look at the object again for another 15 minutes (you will be more perceptive the second time around)
5. take notes again
6. try sketching the object (this doesn’t have to be good but will miraculously seem to point out to you additional observations about the object)
It is often helpful to come back another day to look again, but this is not necessary to complete the assignment, particularly if you follow my suggestions and take good notes.
The Paper Itself:
This exercise is called a response essay. Looking is not as simple as you may think. Rather than merely describe the object, you will want to analyze its form. You need to ask yourself the questions:
• “What is this doing?”
• “Why do I have this response?”
The challenge is to analyze a work of art, separating its parts in order to understand the whole. You must resist the urge to merely describe, and instead evaluate the object. Organization of the Paper: (further explanations and examples can be found in the Survival Guide handout)
1. The Introduction.
(a) Write a Short Description of the Work You Have Chosen. Include identifying subject matter or forms, setting or space, color, and medium.
(b) State Your Main Argument. A thesis statement related to the overall effect or meaning of the object.
(c) State (Briefly) the Ways in Which You Will Prove It.
2. The Main Body (a detailed description/analysis including, but not limited to, the following): (a) Discuss the Medium, the medium’s traits, and the artist’s use of the medium. (b) Discuss the relevant formal elements (i.e.: line, shape and space, composition and relative scale, light and color, style) (c) Discuss the composition (i.e.: unity/variety, balance, emphasis, focal point) (d) Discuss the relationship the formal elements and composition have to the subject’s meaning (or overall effect).
3. The Conclusion. (a) Restate the Main Argument. (b) Place this work of art into the big picture. Relate it to a larger issue, art-historical movement, etc.
4. Attach an image of the object (This can be a postcard purchased from the museum bookstore, a photograph, or your sketch. Your own sketch does not need to be professional quality.)
Don’t forget to include the objective information somewhere within the paper: artist (if known), culture, date and period; medium; size; museum. Most, if not all, will be available on the museum label found near the object.

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