Doyle Online Writing Lab

Close Readings of Visual Artifacts

Sylvan Barnet's Questions Art Historians Ask About Art

  • What is my first response to the work? (Later you may modify or even reject this response, but begin by trying to study it.)
  • Where and when was the work made? Does it reveal qualities that the critical articles attribute to the culture? (Don't assume that it does; works of art have a way of eluding easy generalizations.)
  • Where would the work originally have been seen? (Surely not in a museum or textbook.)
  • What purpose did the work serve? To glorify a god? To immortalize a man? To teach? To delight? Does the work present a likeness, or express a feeling, or illustrate a mystery?
  • In what condition has the work survived? Is it exactly as it left the artist's hands, or has it been damaged, repaired, or in some way altered? What evidence of change do I see?
  • What is the title? Does it help illuminate the work? Sometimes it is useful to ask yourself, what would I call the work?

Questions Art Historians Ask About Vases (courtesy of Marcus Verhagen)

  • How would the figure(s) depicted on the vase have been identifiable to its contemporary audience? What are their characteristic features (i.e. make the figures not merely generic men or women)? These features might be related to age, class, history, or mythology.
  • If there are several scenes depicted on the vase, how are they linked (thematically and visually)? What formal features (lines, objects, etc.) are used to separate them? If there are bands, how do the bands relate to one another? Is there a narrative or visual link between the bands?
  • Do any of the figures appear to be moving? What are the pictorial conventions that indicate movement?
  • If there is a battle scene (or another large social gathering), how does the artists convey lots of people even though we only see a few people?
  • What is the relationship between the figures and the background? Does the scene appear three-dimensional and if so, how does the artist achieve this effect?
  • How is line used to indicate volume or depth?


Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.: 21-22