Formal, Stylistic, Iconographic, & Theoretical Analysis

There are several types of analysis in both art and art history writing. Formal analysis is used predominately in writing for studio classes. Stylistic, patronage, and iconographic analyses are used predominately in writing for art history classes. Theoretical analysis is used in both of these disciplines. Below is a brief description of all of the styles, along with some tips and tricks for the writing process.

Formal Analysis

Formal analysis breaks down the use of the Elements of Art (line, shape, space, value, color and texture) and the Principles of Art (unity, harmony, balance, rhythm, contrast, dominance, gradation). It looks closely also at composition and the Attributes of Art (emotional, aesthetic, spatial). It is an in-detail description of how each of the elements and principles are used in the art object. This type of writing is often inductive. This means that you will begin with a detailed description of the art object, using the critical terms, and eventually conclude with what makes this piece a successful or unsuccessful one. In Art, this type of writing is typically used for peer or personal review. In Art History, this is most often used as a means of analysis for more well-known works. Formal analysis is all about transferring visual language into written language, one of the skills required of art historians; think of this as an exercise in communication.

Stylistic Analysis

Stylistic analysis discusses an object in the context of its stylistic period (i.e. Renaissance, Hellenistic, Modern). Most often this will be a comparison of two objects from similar or different time periods. Focus on the characteristics of the established time period: How does this art object fit into its established time period? How does it differ from contemporary art objects? What was going on during the time it was created? How was it received by the public? This type of paper allows for a look at broader historical and social contexts as opposed to only the art object itself. If the art piece differs from the norm of the time, explore why and look into how this piece could have improved the science of its contemporaries. This is a look into larger historical trends.

Patronage Analysis

Patronage analysis is an examination of the experience of an art object. Look at the influence of a patron (the one who purchases the art) and what this says about the life of the artist during this time period. In what time period/movement was the art object created? What was the intention of the art object (personal, public, religious)? Track the history of an object before it came to a museum, and its significance in history. Do not neglect the effect of the patron’s status, religion, or political stance on the piece.

Iconographic Analysis

This is a study of the content of images and symbols, as understood by art historians. These images are often religiously based but can also be culturally based. Look at this in a broader social context of the time. Do not be afraid to compare the imagery to that used in objects with like subjects. What is the intention behind the symbols? How is this influenced by the patron? What is the context of the piece? What does the setting say about the objects themselves? Look into the history of those things which the objects represent. Does an understanding of the icons provide new meaning to and/or understanding of the piece?

Theoretical Analysis and Criticism

This type of analysis is not about the art object itself but instead about its social and historical circumstance. Consider what this piece is saying about the social, economic, religious, gender and/or cultural contexts at the time. Explore these topics, using critical theory as a framework for the analysis. There are many art theorists. Read up on the literature surrounding the piece and its time. Is there further intention than aesthetics? If there is no further intention, what does that say about the piece? Consider the applied ontology (how the medium is used with a specific intention i.e. painting a portrait) of the medium versus the physical ontology (the study of what the medium is and what it does i.e. acrylic paint is powder pigment suspended in water based medium, which later dries like plastic).