10 Topic Ideas for Art History Papers

If you have been assigned a paper for art history class, you know how overwhelming this can be, with thousands of years of art history to consider. Here are ten topics that might fire you up for the task. Consider each of the topic ideas and examples to help you find your own inspiration.

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Analyze One Work of Art

The Mona Lisa
Public domain

Research and analyze a specific work of art.

For example, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa painting may be the most famous painting in the world. It is probably also the best known example of sfumato, a painting technique partly responsible for her enigmatic smile.

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Compare and Contrast Works From One Movement

No. 3/No. 13 by Mark Rothko
No. 3/No. 13 by Mark Rothko.

Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Research a particular movement of art, such as Color Field Painting, which was practiced by the Abstract Expressionist family of artists.

Like Action Painting, the Color Field artists treat the surface of a canvas or paper as a "field" of vision, without a central focus, and emphasize the flatness of the surface. Color Field Painting is less about the process of making the work, which is at the heart of Action Painting: instead, Color Field is about the tension created by overlapping and interacting areas of flat color.

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Write a Screenplay About an Artist's Life

Self-Portrait by Gustave Courbet
Self-Portrait by Gustave Courbet.

Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Research an artist's life and write an interpretation of their biography as if it were a movie.

For example, Gustave Courbet was a French painter best known as one of the founders of the Realism movement during the 19th century. He worked on still-life paintings, landscapes, and human figures, and often addressed social issues in his work. Some of his paintings were considered controversial by contemporary audiences. 

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Write About One Notable Museum and its Collection

Exterior sign for NYC MoMA
Alex Lopez / NYC & Company

Write about the history of one particular museum.

Founded in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art, known as MoMA, has a collection that includes examples of modern art from the late 19th century to the present day. The collection represents diverse forms of visual expression that encompass modern art, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, drawings, illustrations, architecture, and design.

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Challenge a 'Myth' About a Famous Artist

Self-portrait with Straw Hat by Vincent Van Gogh
Self-portrait with Straw Hat by Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Investigate a popular myth about an artist and write a paper challenging the myth and providing evidence of the truth.

Although the story goes that post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) sold only one painting during his short life, there is some evidence that that is not true. The one painting commonly thought to have been sold is "The Red Vineyard at Arles" ("The Vigne Rouge"). But some sources claim that different paintings sold first, and that other van Gogh paintings and drawings were sold or bartered.

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Investigate an Artist's Technique and Media

Convergence by Jackson Pollock
Convergence by Jackson Pollock.

The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Look into a well-known artist's techniques and the media they were known for or which they popularized.

The drip paintings of Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock are among the best-known paintings of the 20th century. When Pollock moved from easel painting to dripping or pouring paint onto a canvas spread on the floor, he was able to create long, continuous lines impossible to get by applying paint to a canvas with a brush.

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Challenge Your Comfort Zone

Figure in a Landscape at Barbizon by Georges Seurat
Figure in a Landscape at Barbizon by Georges Seurat.

RBA, Köln

Write about a style or artist you are not as familiar with.

The French artist Georges Seurat introduced Neo-Impressionism, as seen in his 1883 painting "Bathers at Asnieres." To develop his new concept, Seurat studied color theory publications produced by Charles Blanc, Michel Eugène Chevreul, and Ogden Rood. He also formulated a precise application of painted dots that would mix optically for maximum brilliance. He called this system Chromoluminarism.

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Explore the Historical Significance of a Museum

Overhead view of the Guggenheim Museum lobby from the top of the spiral
Daniel Clements / Getty Images

Write a different kind of paper on a museum, this time exploring the museum itself and its architecture.

Housed in famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's beautiful white building, the Guggenheim's spiral structure offers visitors an intriguing path to travel while exploring the museum's collection and exhibitions which feature modern paintings, sculpture, and film.

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Investigate an Artist's Life and Work

Milky Way by Alma Thomas
Milky Way by Alma Thomas.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC

Write about an artist's life story.

As an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Alma Woodsey Thomas (1921–1924) studied with African American artist James V. Herring (1887–1969), who founded the art department in 1922, and Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998). Woodsey Thomas was the first Fine Arts major to graduate. In 1972, she became the first African American woman artist to mount a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. 

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Investigate One Period In an Artist's Life

The Blue Room by Pablo Picasso
The Blue Room by Pablo Picasso.

Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Research a particular time in one artist's life or works.

Pablo Picasso became universally famous in his own lifetime as the first artist to successfully use mass media to further his name. He also inspired or, in the notable case of Cubism, invented, nearly every art movement in the 20th century. Before, and shortly after, moving to Paris, Picasso's painting was in its "Blue Period" (1900–1904).