Choose a single work of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection which falls within the chronology of our syllabus (Prehistory – 1300 AD). Write a 3 page formal analysis of the work which presents an argument and conclusion about the work supported by formal evidence.
Description: A formal analysis includes an analysis of the forms appearing in the work you have chosen. These forms give the work its expression, message, or meaning. A formal analysis assumes a work of art is (1) a constructed object (2) that has been created with a stable meaning (even though it might not be clear to the viewer) (3) that can be ascertained by studying the relationships between the elements of the work. To aid in writing a formal analysis, you should think as if you were describing the work of art to someone who has never seen it before. When your reader finishes reading your analysis, she/he should have a complete mental picture of what the work looks like. Yet, the formal analysis is more than just a description of the work. It should also include a thesis statement that reflects your conclusions about the work.
The thesis statement may, in general, answer a question like these: What do I think is the meaning of this work? What message does this work send to the viewer, and how do the formal elements of the work accomplish this? What does the form, rather than the narrative, tell us about the artist’s intentions? Your job is to find an answer to such a question (of your choosing) solely through the formal qualities of the work. The thesis statement is an important element. It sets the tone for the entire paper, and sets it apart from being a merely descriptive paper.
In the introduction (first paragraph) you should include the Name of Artist, Title (which is italicized every time you use the title in your paper), and Date. Also include a brief description of the work, what you think the subject is, and where it is from. Your thesis statement is usually one of the last lines of your introductory paragraph.
From that point, the rest of the formal analysis should include not only a description of the piece, but especially those details of the work which support your thesis. Yet, your paper should not be a random flow of ideas about the work (i.e. stream of consciousness writing). Rather, your paper should have a sense of order, moving purposefully through your description with regard to specific elements (ex: one paragraph may deal with composition, another with a description of the figures, another with the background, another about line, etc.). Finally, in your conclusion (the final paragraph) you should end your paper with a restatement of your thesis and summary of your main points.
It is important to remember that your interest here is strictly formal; NO RESEARCH IS TO BE USED IN THIS PAPER. In other words, you are strictly relying on your ability to visually ‘read’ a work of art and make interpretations about it based on your analysis of it. You should not be analyzing the content based on what you know about the figures, narrative, or history of the work.
1) “The apostles are looking at Christ in the middle because he is the son of God.”
2) “The central figure, surrounded by light, is larger than the figures below, who all look up towards him, their gazes drawing lines to the central figure which guide the viewer’s own eye. This framing of light through colour and light contrast, hierarchical scale, and linear focus serve to emphasize the importance of the central figure in the composition.”
The second example uses formal elements as supporting evidence for the prominence of Christ in the composition, while the first just relies on an external knowledge of Christian values. Remember too that your analysis should not be just a mechanical, physical description. Please use descriptive language and adjectives to describe your work. Begin with a general description of the work, and then move on to the more specific elements. Always back up your statements with visual evidence!
Refer to the Barnet’s “Guide to Writing about Art” excerpt on Blackboard for more guidelines and tips, including a sample outline for a Formal Analysis paper.
Format: your paper should be 3 pages long (not including images/title page) and should be double spaced, using 11 or 12 point Times Roman font and 1” (inch) margins. Please include an image of your chosen work (available from the Met online collection) and full ID information at the end of your assignment.
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