Exploring Museums

Description: The goal of this assignment is to get students to engage with local NYC museums and/or one of their online exhibitions. The paper also provides an opportunity to learn about an artist/culture/artwork who we otherwise do not study in this course. Students will use their skills of visual analysis to formally analyze ONE art object in a short, well-organized, essay. There is no research required for this assignment – instead students will use their eyes to describe an artwork in terms of its visual qualities of composition, color, shape, line, light, shading, depth and texture.

• 1.5 to 3 typed pages
• Times or Arial, black, size 12 font, double spaced
• Word (.doc) document preferred

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Directions:  First, decide whether you would like to visit a museum in person, view an outdoor sculpture, or explore an online exhibition. Once you have selected one of those options below, visit the in-person or virtual exhibit of your choice, then pick ONE of the art works listed for your formal analysis. Because this assignment requires no research, your formal analysis must be written entirely in your own words.

Option #3: Take a virtual tour of the Frick Collection online (or visit the Frick in person if you prefer.) Then choose ONE of the following paintings to write about.
Link to virtual tour: https://www.frick.org/visit/virtual_tour/living_hall

• Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert, 1476 (in the Living Hall)
• Fragonard, The Progress of Love: The Meeting, 1771 (in the Fragonard Room)
• Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, 1657 (in the South Hall)
• El Greco, Purification of the Temple, 1600 (in the East Gallery)
• Goya, The Forge, 1815 (in the East Gallery)
• Manet, The Bull Fight, 1864 (in the East Gallery)
• Turner, Harbor of Dieppe, 1826 (in the West Gallery)
• Rembrandt, Nicolaes Ruts, 1631 (in the West Gallery)


Formal analysis basically involves describing what you see in proper art historical vocabulary. You will be discussing the form, or visual characteristics of the work, instead of its content, i.e., the subject matter, what the work is about. Ask yourself – how does the artist choose to represent their subject? Do these choices affect the overall mood or atmosphere of the composition?

Below is a list of topics to consider when studying the work – you do not need to answer all of them, and not all of them will make sense for every artwork. Do not answer these questions in list form; the essay should be organized like a formal paper with clear paragraphs, an introduction and a conclusion. There is no research required – just use your eyes and join it with what you have learned this semester!

• NATURALISM/REALISM/IDEALISM/ABSTRACTION: Describe what you see in the artwork. Are there recognizable figures and objects? Is it a naturalistic representation of these objects? Or is it partially or completely abstract? Does the artist use correct proportions and are all the objects to scale?  Are the figures realistic or idealized? Does the artist use a lot of details, or not?

• COMPOSITION: How does the artist arrange the depicted shapes, objects, figures etc. on the canvas/ or in space?  Is it well-balanced? Is the composition symmetrical? Do the different elements of the painting come together as a united whole? Does the artist emphasize certain parts of the composition over others? Where is your eye directed and how does the artist achieve that (lines, gazes, gestures, vanishing point, color, etc…)? Does the artist use elements of repetition, pattern or rhythm in the composition? Does the object seem static or is there a sense of movement to it?

• COLOR: How does the artists use color? Is it a limited color palette (consisting of only a few colors) or is there a wide range of tones used? Discuss the value of the colors, i.e., are they bright or dark, or pale or harsh? Does the artist use primary or complimentary colors? Does the artist use color to emphasize certain elements over others? Does the artist mix pigments, or is each shape painted a different color?

• LINE: Consider depicted lines as well as invisible lines used during the composition stage. What type of lines dominate the composition: horizontal/vertical lines, curving lines, diagonal lines, organic lines? Does the artist outline the objects with strong contour line? Are the lines thick or thin?

• SHAPE/VOLUME: What shapes do you see in the artwork, and how does the artists create those shapes?  Consider not only depicted shapes, but invisible/implied shapes used during the composition stage. Are the shapes natural and organic, or geometric? If it is a sculptural object: how does the artist use volume and areas of negative space? Does the sculptor consider the work from every angle, or is there an emphasis on a particular viewpoint?

• LIGHT/SHADOW: Describe how the artist uses light and shadow. Is the lighting/shading naturalistic? Are the transitions between areas of light and shadow smooth, or are their harsh contrasts between light and shade? If it is a painting: is there a recognizable light source coming from one direction, or is the light evenly diffused across the painting? If it is a sculpture or three-dimensional object: what areas does the light hit, and which areas are in shadow? Is it shiny or matte?

• DEPTH/SPACE: Is there a naturalistic depiction of three-dimensional depth? Does the artist use perspective? Is there a clear foreground, middle-ground and background? Is there deep recession into space, or is the suggested space very shallow?

• TEXTURE: Describe the surface of the object: is it smooth and well-polished, or bumpy and rough?    If it is a painting, are the brushstrokes visible or hidden? Is the paint applied thickly, so it piles up on the surface, or is it applied in in thin, even layers? For more information on Exploring Museums see this: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/modern-europe/british-and-irish-history/museums

Exploring Museums

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