How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Art History 101: How to Look at an Artwork

Image description: a person with long black hair is looking at a painting. The painting depicts a man with black birds flying around him.

Looking at The Circle Game by Elmer Borlongan at the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, Philippines. Photo © Ellen Oredsson

Looking at art can be wonderful, but it can also be difficult. I didn’t learn how to interpret art during my childhood in the same way that I learned to interpret books or movies. This meant that even if I enjoyed looking at art, sometimes it felt like looking without really seeing or understanding – a feeling many others share. To make the process easier, I’ve written some guidelines for how to look at an artwork that you’re interested in.

Before I continue, let me just say that there’s no right or wrong way of looking at art. This article is not intended to dictate your experience of looking at art or moving through museums/galleries. The great thing about art is that any experience that we have with it is legitimate and worthwhile.

However, I’ve heard from many people that they “don’t know what they’re doing” when they look at art. It’s often assumed that you need some sort of education to be able to properly analyse an artwork. This can sometimes make museum or gallery visits feel like meaningless or alienating experiences.

The following guidelines are therefore meant to provide a systematic approach to looking an artwork. They can be followed as much or as little as you yourself would like. Personally, I only follow these guidelines when I have the energy, and/or when I’m really interested in an artwork. (Because going to a museum and analyzing every single artwork on display would be completely exhausting.)

Image description: a woman stands in the middle of an artwork. The artwork consists of a circle of trees. The area inside the circle is painted yellow, and the area of the tree trunks that point inwards are also painted yellow. The artwork lies in the middle of a forest.

Looking at Jag ska sluta älska dig (I will stop loving you) (2010) by Malin Holmberg at Wanås Sculpture Park, Sweden. Photo © Ellen Oredsson

Guiding Questions

When looking at any artwork that you want to spend some time with, it can be useful to try and answer one or all of the following questions:

  1. What does the artwork mean?
  2. What did the artwork mean to the artist?
  3. What does the artwork mean to other people?
  4. What does the artwork mean to me?

These answers can be answered gradually, and may never stop being answered. But they offer some useful guidelines for what you’re trying to gain by looking at the artwork.

So how do you go about answering these questions when you encounter an artwork? Let’s go step by step.

Image description: A person with long, pink hair is looking at two small paintings in a museum. Both of the paintings depicts groups of people in a rural landscape. The image is slightly blurry.

Looking at paintings in the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney. Photo © Lotta Olsson

First Impressions

  1. Look at the artwork. This “looking” can take many forms: we can see it it face to face in a museum or gallery, or we can be looking at it on our computers or mobile phones. If you’re visually impaired, you can be experiencing it through the use of verbal/written description, or through touch. Note your first impressions and the feelings that come over you when you first look at the artwork.
  1. What is the subject matter of the artwork? This means literally asking: what am I looking at here? Can you easily identify the subject matter or are you unsure?
  1. Try to identify the following physical attributes of the artwork, and what effect they have on you as a viewer:
    1. What are the artwork’s colours, as you perceive them? If it’s a video/performance piece, what is its colour palette?
    2. Size?
    3. Material?
    4. Texture?
    5. How is the subject matter depicted?
    6. How is the artwork displayed? Whether it’s in a museum, gallery, website, home, park, etc.
  1. Try to make an initial analysis. This doesn’t have to be complicated – it’s about looking at the different parts of the artwork and seeing what those parts mean together. Again, it can be useful to answer the above questions: What do you think the artwork means? What do you think it meant to the artist? What do you think it means to other people? What do you think it means to you?
Image description: A person with black hair put up in a bun is looking at a painting. The painting has very large, textured brushstrokes. It depicts a woman sitting in a shopping cart.

Looking at a 2015 painting by Jarasporn Chumsri at the Bangkok University Gallery, Thailand. Photo © Ellen Oredsson

Applying Context

After noting the visual attributes of the artwork and the effects that they have, apply information about the artwork’s historical and social context.

  1. Apply your own knowledge. You don’t have to be an expert to do this. Ask yourself, for example, if you’ve seen an artwork with a similar style before. If so, how does this one compare? Do you recognize the artist, and, if so, what do you know about the artist? Do you know anything about the time period or geographical location of the artwork? Perhaps you even know things about the artwork itself, perhaps you’ve heard about it before?
  1. Look at the information provided by the museum/gallery/other place where it’s being displayed. This is usually in the form of artwork labels or exhibition catalogues. Is there no information? Don’t be afraid to ask! Let them know that you’d appreciate more information about a certain object, and see if they have any information on hand.
  1. Do further research. You can use books, websites, articles and other people’s knowledge/opinions. This is the part of the process that really never ends. Art historians will always keep on researching and changing their opinions, revising their analyses and finding new meanings for artworks as new information comes to light.
  1. After applying context, try doing an analysis again. Answer the same questions as before, but this time, see how your answers have changed. Does awareness of things like historical context, the artist’s intent, or other people’s interpretations change how you feel about it?

Let’s try it together!

Let’s go through an example of this process right now.

Image description: The image, painted in a realistic style, depicts a procession of soldiers in a wintery landscape. They're carrying a body on a stretcher, presumed to be dead. To the left, two people - one a young child, one an old man - and a dog watch the procession. The old man boys his head in mourning. He has a dead bird on his back, that he's just hunted.

Bringing Home the Body of Karl XII (1878), Gustaf Cederström. Oil painting.

The example artwork: Bringing Home the Body of Karl XII (1878) by Swedish artist Gustaf Cederström. I saw it at Göteborgs Konstmuseum in Göteborg, Sweden.

Example: First Impressions

  1. Look at the artwork. Note your first impressions and the feelings that come over you when you look at it.

When I first looked at this painting, I was struck by its size, but also felt that it was too sentimental, perhaps slightly uninteresting.

  1. What is the subject matter of the artwork? Can you easily identify the subject matter or are you unsure?

The artwork depicts some sort of funeral procession or the carrying of a dead body. I suspected, when I first saw it, that the dead person being carried was a Swedish king, but I was unsure. I didn’t know when or where he had been killed, or what the significance of his death was. I saw the people standing to the side of the painting and guessed that their inclusion was meant to encourage the viewer to mirror their respectful and saddened attitude.

  1. Try to identify the following physical attributes of the artwork, and what effect they have on you as a viewer:

a) What are the artwork’s colours?

The colour palette is cold. Greys and blues dominate the painting. This reflects and emphasizes both the cold weather and feelings of sadness and mourning.

b) Size?

The painting is very large, which makes it feel important. I already know that the bigger a painting is, the more public it’s supposed to be, so this is a painting meant for a large, public audience.

c) Material?

It’s an oil painting, a typical material for large Western paintings from the 19th century.

d)Texture?

The brush strokes are not visible and do not draw attention to themselves. The artist wants us to focus on the scene at hand rather than on any stylistic flourishes or the painting’s material.

 e) How is the subject matter depicted?

The subject matter is depicted in a realistic but theatrical manner. The scene is laid out in a way that is very staged, and the gestures of various people in the artwork tell us a story – from the bowed head of the man to the left, to the noble stature and forward movement of the man in the front of the crowd, to the perfectly resting face and body of the man on the stretcher.

f) How is the museum, gallery, website or other institution displaying the artwork? 

The painting is displayed in a room filled with other paintings from the same time period; however, its size and prominence on a wall makes sure that it dominates the room. It gives a good idea of how the painting might originally have been displayed.

  1. Try to make an initial analysis. What do you think the artwork means? What do you think it meant to the artist? What do you think it means to other people? What do you think it means to you?

I think the artwork is depicting the death of an important figure in Swedish history. The painting’s size and composition makes me think that it’s depicting an event that is meant to feel important to the viewer. The colours, subject matter and the way the scene is laid out makes me think that I’m supposed to feel mournful and maybe even inspired.

I think that, to general audiences, it has been a celebrated painting due to its presumably patriotic subject matter, size, and technique. To me, however, it isn’t as important as it’s supposed to be, as I have no emotional connection to the event in question and don’t particularly like the patriotic idealization of kings and wars.

Image description: The painting that is being discussed can be seen on the museum wall, surrounded by a big gold frame. In the corner, a person's face can be seen, looking at the painting.

Looking at Bringing Home the Body of Karl XII (1878) by Gustaf Cederström at Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Sweden. Photo © Ellen Oredsson

Example: Applying Context

  1. Apply your own knowledge.

I can see, using my own knowledge, that this is a history painting. A history painting is a genre that depicts an important event in history. I know this because it follows the familiar pattern of history paintings: the size is large, and it’s laid out in a theatrical manner that hints at a story or narrative. The gestures and movements of the figures – including the capes and flags flying in the wind – are dramatic and emotional. It even uses a “pyramid composition”, in which the components of the painting are organized in a triangle shape. This is a composition often used in history paintings, as it communicates a sense of balance and stability and is easy for the eye to follow.

Since I know it’s a history painting, I know that it’s depicting an important event in history. I can also tell that it’s made in the 19th century – a period that I know is marked by an increased sense of nationalism in art. This leads me to believe that it’s supposed to inspire a sense of nationalism in me, as a Swedish viewer, by communicating the importance of this particular event from Swedish history.

  1. Look at the information provided by the museum/gallery. This is usually in the form of artwork labels or exhibition catalogues.

By looking at the label and the information that the museum gives me, I can find out that the king in the painting is in fact Karl XII, and that it depicts the transport of his body back to Sweden after a battle in Halden, Norway in 1718. I also find out that the painting was made in 1877 – 78. This confirms that the painted event was not recent but rather a historical one.

  1. Do further research.

Doing some further research tells me even more about the context of the painting. For example, I’ve found out that the scene in the painting was completely staged and did not in fact occur in real life. This is common in history paintings, which are, as I previously mentioned, theatrically staged in order to achieve a certain emotional effect.

Another interesting tidbit is that the painting was bought by Konstantin Konstantinovitj in St. Petersburg, Russia when it was first completed. This caused an uproar in Sweden. This confirms my suspicions that it was an important and celebrated painting when it was first made. A collection was started to get Cederström, the artist, to create a copy. The one in front of me in Göteborgs Konstmuseum, however, is the original, having ended up there after the Russian revolution in 1917.

  1. After applying whatever contextual knowledge you already have or find out, try doing an analysis again.

I stick by my original analysis – that the painting was supposed to be an important, national artwork that uses the death of one of Sweden’s kings to inspire national pride. The scene is fabricated and composed to achieve a particular emotional effect. As a history painting in the second half of the 19th century, it was slightly old-fashioned but also fits into the impulse during this era to foster patriotic sentiment through art.

For me, the painting doesn’t mean the same thing that the artist intended. The painting is worthwhile to me, however, in teaching me more about Sweden’s history. Not just Sweden’s history of kings and wars, but Sweden’s history of art and nationalism – topics that remain relevant today.

Give it a try!

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with looking at art, and how your experiences compare to mine. Below are three examples that you can practice on right now. Give them a try, and feel free to share your results in the comments!

Image description: A black and white photograph. A black woman is standing in front of an American flag. In her hand she holds a broom. A mop can be seen leaning on the wall behind her. The composition is reminiscent of the painting

American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (1942), Gordon Parks. Gelatin silver print. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection.

american gothic, washington, d.c. (1942), Gordon parks

Gordon Parks was an African-American photographer and filmmaker, famous both for his films and for his photojournalism. His work often dealt with issues of race and civil rights. This is a portrait of Ella Watson, a government cleaning woman.

For context, read this article about the staging of the photograph and its social context.

Image description: a small, golden Buddha statue. The Buddha stands on a lotus flower pedestal and has a large golden halo around his entire body. He is dressed in a thick dharma coat with flared hems. He has a faint smile. He holds his palms out to the viewer, the left hand turned up, the right hand turned down.

Yŏn’ga Buddha (c. 539), unknown artist. 16.3 cm high. Cast in Nangnang (present-day Pyongyang). National Museum of Korea.

Yŏn’ga Buddha (c. 539), Unknown artist. Cast in Nangnang (present-day Pyongyang)

This is one of the oldest surviving Korean Buddhas ever discovered. This is the only one of a thousand commissioned sculptures to have survived. It therefore gives scholars an idea of what 6th century Korean Buddhist imagery looked like.

For context, read the museum information about the statue and this article about Korean Buddhist sculpture.

Image description: a white room is filled with big red polkadots. In the room, several large white plastic tulips in big plastic flowerpots are placed, also covered in the same red polkadots. People are walking around the room, taking photos.

With all my love for the tulips, I pray forever (2012), Yayoi Kusama. Installation at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan. Consists of oversized white plastic tulips in a white room filled with red polkadots. Photo © Samuel Mark Thompson.

WITH ALL MY LOVE FOR THE TULIPS, I PRAY FOREVER (2012), YAYOI KUSAMA

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese artist who has been active since the 1970s. Today, she is considered one of the most important artists within (or having acted as a precursor to) movements such as pop art, feminist art and installation art.

For context, read this article about Kusama’s work, and this one about someone’s impression of the artwork.

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2 Comments

  1. Jenna

    Another fun post – my elementary school art teachers made critique a part of their classes, so I feel like I’ve grown up getting lessons at looking at art. Thanks, Ms. Spangler and Mrs. Cunningham!

    I also find it’s helpful to consider whether or not the artist is trying to represent a moment, feeling…or merely challenging the definition of “art” within the context of the time it was created. I find it really helps people think about Warhol, Duchamp, or Jeff Koons. I drag a lot of self-described “non art fans” to art museums and they think they are expected to get some kind of metaphysical self-actualization from looking at a print of a soup can. Imagine their relief when they realize that the question they are asking themselves the entire time (“Is this really art?”) is part of the intent of the piece.

  2. Chris

    At age 30, a boss who has remained a friend of mine, told me a story. It had a very clear meaning, and it left an impression. Exactly ten years later, in different circumstances and with more recent experiences and perspective, this story was to come to mind again, and the meaning to me was completely different. Those I’d originally considered villains turned out to be heroes, and those who originally seemed heroes were now clearly villians.

    As your guide in this posting points out, this is true of art also. I’ve seen some marvelous works with decades of time between viewings, and differences in their meanings and my overall impressions have far less to do wth the condition, restoration, cleaning, or changes in curator’s notes of the work itself and more to do with where I’ve been.

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