Art history: Modern Art


Visit a Los Angeles area museum (Getty, LACMA, Norton Simon) and choose a painting made between 1700-1800 to analyze formally. The point of this exercise is to try to describe the formal properties of the work in detail. In the paper, you will not be researching the painting you have chosen. Try to minimize discussions of artistic biography, narrative, or historical circumstances of production. Indeed, try to stay away from these issues altogether. Instead, you will demonstrate a sustained visual engagement with a single painting. Your main task is to describe the salient formal features of the painting that you have chosen. You will describe things such as: the overall composition; colors; arrangement of figures; illusionistic devices (ie. light sources, perspective) and the means by which these illusions were achieved; quality of the brushwork; spatial organization; how the viewer is “instructed” to focus his/her attention on the different parts of the painting, etc. Make sure to describe how the most important formal aspects of the painting relate to the organizing visual logic of the painting. Thus, in addition to describing the PARTS of the painting (brushstroke, color, perspective, etc.) you will describe how they cohere and together form a coherent WHOLE. A narrative of the impressions as they unfold before the canvas is fine, as long as those impressions are also supported with concrete description of the forms in the painting. If you do describe the narrative, make sure you focus on how that story is told formally. You will need to talk about where the figures are placed, the spatial relationships between the figures, how they are painted, how they are placed in a landscape. In short, try to stay away from interpretation, and focus instead on concrete description of the painting.

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Three questions to ask yourself are: what are the most striking visual qualities of the painting?; by what means are these effects achieved; and overall, how is the painter organizing your visual experience?

Your paper will be graded based on how well you:

1. Describe formal properties of the painting instead of describing objects represented within the painting;

2. Describe the most striking formal features of the painting;

3. Explain how those formal features work within the unified visual field of the painting