Structure guides


Art History Essay Structure Guide

Writing a paper on Art History poses its own challenges that set it apart from other essays. The most important and unique aspect of Art History essays is the translation of the visual into words.

Writing a good Art History essay involves far more than a simple, haphazard description of what you see. There must a a development of a solid argument or point of view, using the specific language of the field.

Before you begin writing the essay, you should meditate on the art and develop your ideas. Only then will you have a certain goal toward which you can argue in your essay. Your description will be limited to those elements that most strongly support your viewpoint. So you must gain skill in simultaneously describing the work and analyzing as you go.

In Sylvan Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art, five categories of Art History papers are delineated. These work well for initial development of your topic:

  1. Formal Analysis
  2. Sociological essay
  3. Biographical essay
  4. Iconography
  5. Iconology

Formal Analysis

A formal analysis Art History essay requires a fresh look at the technical aspects of the work of art. It discusses the parts of the work in order to gain new insight.

Sociological Essay

The sociological essay examines the influence of a particular historical era on a work of art created in that era. It can also look at a particular sociological theme in relation to art, such as economics or women's studies.

Biographical Essay

A biographical essay investigates the connection between an artist's life and his work. The changes in the artist's life and views are often a valuable source for critique of the work produced.


An iconographic essay looks for symbolism within the work of art in order to understand the meaning. Consider Rembrandt's The Assassin, where the people appear to be Dutch, but upon closer examination of the symbols, it becomes clear that they are saints.


Iconological essays explore the connection between literary texts and a work of art. An obvious example is the influence of ancient Greek myths in text upon those portrayed in the Archaic Greek art.

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