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Art History: A Preliminary Handbook

by Dr. Robert J. Belton

Further Basic Questions to Ask Yourself About the Work


What is the medium? Why did the artist choose it? Is it conventional or innovative? Would the work, its content or its context change significantly if it were in another medium?

How many colours are used? From which part of the colour wheel? Which colour dominates? How is colour distributed? Is colour used to create aerial perspective? Does colour affect the mood of the work? Is it symbolic? How important is colour relative to other formal features?

Ask analogous questions about line, light and dark, shape, volume, etc.

Ask analogous questions about balance, composition, contrast, etc.


Is the artist's biography relevant? (E.g., education, religion, social position, etc.) What did the artist say about the work? If s/he didn't say anything, are other people's statements about intentions reliable?

What is the relationship between this subject and contemporary historical events? How did these events affect the artist?

Who bought the work and why? Did the patron's education and social position affect the choice of this artist or subject?

How was the work treated in criticisms of the artist's time? How has it been treated since? Do the critics' education, social position and the like affect their judgements? Do any of the critics have something to gain or lose in their criticism? (E.g., were some of them friends of the artist or collectors of the works? Does that cloud their judgement?) Where were the criticisms published and for whom? How have critical conclusions changed over the years?


What is the specific subject matter dealt with in this work? What is the genre (see above)? Was this subject dealt with by other artists? Who and when? How do their works compare to this one? Was the subject dealt with in other ways? (e.g., in literature, politics, theology, etc.) How do they compare?

Why did the artist choose this subject? Why did the eventual owner of the work want this subject? How does the public respond to this subject?

© Copyright 1996 Robert J. Belton

Last reviewed shim12/19/2012 11:13:00 PM