Periods In Art History Essay


Are you a high school student whose passions have ranged from the artistic styles of famous Renaissance painters to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on 19th century European Art? Have you found yourself poring over artists’ statements at local art shows or analyzing the way a museum exhibit is presented? Have you tracked the global market for Banksy’s latest creations? If your answer to any of the above questions is yes, art history is probably a field of study that you’d find interesting.


If you’re interested in art history, your academic options to pursue this line of study in high school might seem limited. While there is an Art History AP course, your school might not offer this class, and even if it does, you’re not likely to find many outlets outside of this one option for continuing your studies. That does not mean, however, that you’ll need to wait until college to pursue your passion.


With a little initiative and some creative thinking, you can express an interest in art history, build a valuable foundation of knowledge, and learn about something that genuinely interests you, all while you’re still in high school. To learn more about art history and how you can pursue it as a high school student, keep reading.


What Do Art Historians Do?

The study of art history is multifaceted. A student of art history learns not only about various periods of art throughout history, including cultural influences and a broad variety of artistic styles and mediums, but also the curation of art collections, the global market for artwork, and the global impact of specific art collections.


Art historians are often responsible for providing the contextual analysis of art exhibits, creating presentations for art museums or galleries, and/or procuring art for private collectors or corporations. Art historians need to be strong readers, writers, and researchers. They should be familiar with presenting art in a way that’s accessible, even to those with limited exposure. Proficiency in a foreign language and some experience creating visual art are also desired skills in an art historian.


Art history majors often go on to become museum curators, art reviewers or columnists, instructors, appraisers, or art researchers. If any of these paths interest you, you might consider delving into the field more deeply to try it out, even before you begin college.


How To Pursue Art History As a High School Student


1. Join Classmates With the Same Interest

The most obvious and simplest way to pursue an interest in art history is to join an art history or art appreciation club at your school. Here, you’ll typically study various periods of art, take field trips to museums, engage in thoughtful discussions with peers, and share your own insights and ideas.


In addition, joining a club is a simple way to ensure that your interest in art history is evident on your college application. You’ll be able to include it on the Activities section of your application, and your prolonged participation and, ideally, increased leadership roles will be clear examples of your dedication.


If no such club exists at your school, don’t be deterred. You can start your own! Starting your own club will still highlight all of the qualities of joining a club on your college application, and will add extra evidence of your ability to think outside the box and take initiative. To do so, look into the formal avenues required by your school for starting a school-sanctioned club. A guidance counselor, adviser, or teacher can usually point you in the right direction. For more about starting your club, check out our post How to Start a Club in High School.


2. Take the Art History AP Exam

Taking the Art History AP course and capping it off with a great score on the AP exam is another obvious way to ensure that your interest in art history is clearly evident on your application. Even if your school does not offer the Art History AP course, the exam can be taken as a self-study, and doing so is a solid way to demonstrate your knowledge and initiative.


To take the Art History AP exam without taking the class, you’ll need to talk with your school’s AP coordinator well in advance. Plan to communicate your plans by February to allow enough time to coordinate registration. Even if your school cannot accommodate you, the College Board can often refer you to nearby local schools who might be willing to allow you to test there. See our posts The Ultimate Guide to the Art History AP Exam and The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams to learn more.


3. Branch Out

You can also show your interest in art history by pursuing other closely related topics. In the case of art history, this can simply mean pursuing the study of both art and history as stand alone subjects.


Taking courses in the visual arts will allow you to better understand the artist’s process and the tools and materials used by artists. You’ll often develop a deeper appreciation for various styles and mediums by practicing them yourself.


You can also learn more about world history in order to better contextualize your understanding of various periods of art throughout time. Studying the Middle Ages or the Renaissance can give you a better grasp on the interplay between historical events, culture, and the characteristics of art common to that time period.


You can enroll in formal classes through your school or a nearby community college to further your knowledge, or you might opt to take online classes or self-study.


4. Write a Research Paper or Undertake an Independent Study

Writing your own in-depth research paper or undertaking an independent study is a smart way to learn more about a topic of interest and to reinforce how seriously you take your work in this subject area. You’ll need to do some general research in order to choose a topic for a research paper or independent study, since there are nearly endless topics to choose from. If you need some help getting started, consider the following:


  • Focus on a single artist or work of art and delve deeply into its analysis
  • Compare and contrast two related artists or pieces of art
  • Analyze how a particular subject has changed in its artistic representation between time periods
  • Analyze how a specific historical event shaped the art from that time period
  • Compare and contrast two mediums from the same time period
  • Analyze how and why one style of art developed from another earlier style of art


Some schools have formal avenues for pursuing your own studies. If this is the case at your school, discuss with a guidance counselor, adviser, or teacher in advance how you might go about earning credit or recognition for your final product. Even if your school does not typically recognize independent studies, you could still pursue one as a summer project and present it formally at your local library or community center.


Writing Essays in Art History


These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble
Last Edited: 2016-03-01 09:17:11

Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis

Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.

A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?

Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?

A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.

Methods & Theories To Consider:







Social Art History

Biographical Approach


Museum Studies

Visual Cultural Studies

Stylistic Analysis Example:

The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.”  Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall.  Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.

Compare and Contrast Essay

Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.

Compare and Contrast Example:

Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’


Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.


Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.

Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"


Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.


Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.


Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality?  Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?

The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.

  • Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
  • Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
  • Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
  •  Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
  • Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
  • Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
  • Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion. 
  • The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
  • Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage. 

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