Art History Paper Topics - 10 Ideas and Examples

There's no shortage of topics for art history papers

Midterms are over and your art history professor wants an essay on art - now what?

Here is a list of topics that might fire you up for the task. Click on the titles to find sample essays, and be sure to read "How to Write an Art History Paper" to learn about researching and writing your paper.

01
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Analyze One Work of Art: Mona Lisa

Leonardo - Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
Mark Harden

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.

© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko; used with permission of The Museum of Modern Art
Mark Rothko (American, b. Latvia, 1903-1970). No. 3/No. 13, 1949. Oil on canvas. 85 3/8 x 65 in. (216.5 x 164.8 cm). Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 Color Field Painting is part of the Abstract Expressionist family of artists. Like Action Painting, the 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. 

But Color Field Painting is less about the process of making the work, which is at the heart of Action Painting. Color Field is about the tension created by overlapping and interacting areas of flat color. More »

© Musée Fabre, Montpellier; used with permission
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877). Self-Portrait with Pipe, ca. 1849. Oil on canvas. 17 3/4 x 14 5/8 in. (45 x 37 cm). © Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Gustave Courbet was a French painter best known as one of the founders of the Realism movement during the 19th century. He painted still lifes, landscapes and figures, and often addressed social issues in his work. Some of his paintings were considered controversial by contemporary audiences.  More »

04
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Write About One Notable Museum and its Collection: MoMA

Founded in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art, or 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.

Vincent van Gogh - Self-portrait with Straw Hat, 1887
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890). Self-portrait with Straw Hat, 1887. Oil on cardboard. 40.8 x 32.7 cm (16 1/16 x 12 7/8 in.). © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Although the story goes that post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), sold only one painting during his short life, different theories exist. 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. More »

© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; used with permission
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Convergence, 1952. Oil on canvas. 93 1/2 x 155 in. (237.5 x 393.7 cm). Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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 get long, continuous lines impossible to get by applying paint to a canvas with a brush. More »

Photo © RBA, Köln; used with permission
Georges Seurat (French, 1859-1891). Figure in a Landscape at Barbizon, ca. 1882. Oil on poplar. 15.5 x 24.8 cm (6 1/16 x 9 3/4 in.). Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Köln. Photo © RBA, Köln

 The French artist Georges Seurat introduced Neo-Impressionism. His 1883 painting Bathers at Asnieres features the style. 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. More »

08
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Explore the Historical Significance of a Museum: The Guggenheim

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

09
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Investigate an Artist's Life and Work - Alma Thomas

As an undergraduate at Howard Universitiy 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). She 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. 

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) More »