How do you write an art history paper? Part I: Identify the artwork

Debra Thimmesch
4 min readJul 6, 2021


There’s no secret alchemical formula for writing an art history essay, whether you’re creating a comparison between two or three works of art, composing a visual analysis, or drafting a longer research paper. However, there are some tools and strategies that you can use to craft a high-quality art history paper and this series of articles is intended to help you get out of that hole of despair in which you’ve found yourself, back to your desk, and onto success!

First, we’re focusing on some basic tips and tools and important dos and don’ts. In other articles, we will address specific kinds of papers, from art history compare-and-contrast essays and art history visual analysis papers to art history research papers and even the formidable master’s level art history thesis.

But first, let’s identify the work of art thoroughly!

Every analysis of a work of art or architecture begins with the observer looking closely at the object. There is a wealth of information available simply from observation if you know what to look for and that’s what we’re focusing on in this article.

Start with your course textbook. The caption beneath the photo of a given artwork actually contains a wealth of information. The caption provides the basic, essential identifying information about the work of art. This invaluable information is the foundation of your visual analysis and can provide all sorts of clues about the object, monument, or structure, clues that will help you do the successful detective work of visual analysis!

A full art object caption contains the following information:

1. The name of the artist. You’ll also probably see the birth and death dates of the artist or architect, especially on the wall labels in museums. Why do we need this information? For starters, it helps us contextualize the artist and his or her artwork historically.

2. The title of the work of art. Some artists prefer not to give their artworks titles. In that case, you would see “Untitled” in this space. In other cases, if the artwork is very old, we may no longer have this information or the work of art is such that it would not have been titled. For instance, a prehistoric cave painting of a herd of bison would not likely have been titled by the artist or artists. Sometimes, a work of art acquires a nickname or default title based on a major feature like “Lady in Blue.” Or, it can be named after its owner like the Barberini Faun, an ancient sculpture that was named after the wealthy Italian Renaissance-era family that owned it.

One final note on titles: all titles of artworks should be italicized except for works of architecture.

3. The date the artwork was made. The importance of the date is probably obvious. Once again, knowing when a work of art was made helps us place it in the proper historical context but also in the context of the career of the artist who produced it.

4. The medium. What do we mean when we say “medium” or “media” (the plural of ‘medium’)? We are talking about the materials used to construct the work of art. Sometimes, the medium is pretty straightforward. For instance, you might see: “oil on canvas” for a painting or “bronze” for a sculpture. In other cases, the artist might have used a variety of materials. For instance, look at all of the materials Robert Rauschenberg used to make his assemblage, Canyon, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York!

5. The dimensions. There are all sorts of reasons why you’d want to know how big — or small — a work of art is. If a work is tiny, you would probably interpret its meaning differently than if it was monumental, which means larger than life-size. If someone — a private collector or museum or otherwise — is buying an artwork, they would definitely need to know how large the piece is when they are thinking about how and where to display it.

When you see the dimensions of a painting or drawing, for instance, you will see height x width = two dimensions, so the work is two-dimensional. For a sculpture, you would see height x width x depth = three dimensions, so the work is three-dimensional.

6. The location of the artwork. Sometimes this identifying feature is left out of a caption but you should make a practice of knowing the location of a work of art. Often you will see the institution and even acquisition number of the artwork (such as with the MoMA having Canyon in its collection). Sometimes you will see: “private collection” and you may not be able to find further information about who owns the piece.

With architecture, you will always have a location and you’ll know where to go if you want to visit the work, whether it’s the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis in Athens, Greece, or Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain near Salisbury, England.

Consider how much you’re learned about the art work or works you’re focusing on just by gathering the above information from the caption! Next up: Some important art history terms!

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Debra Thimmesch

Debra is an art historian with 20 years of experience teaching, tutoring, editing, and mentoring students and scholars in the history of art.