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 10 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

Visitors take pictures in front of the Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

ERIC FEFERBERG / Getty Images 

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

A guard standing next to Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow
Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow.

Cate Gillon / Getty Images

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

The Wave by Gustave Courbet
The Wave by Gustave Courbet.

Francis G. Mayer  / Getty Images

Research an artist's life and write an interpretation of his or her 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

Main entrance of the Museum of Modern Art

rarrarorro / Getty Images

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

Vincent van Gogh's self portrait painting
Self Portrait by Vincent van Gogh.

Mario Tama  / Getty Images

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 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

A museum employee in front of Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles
Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock.

Carl Court / Getty Images

Look into a well-known artist's techniques and the media he or she was known for or which the artist 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

George Pierre Seurat's painting Bathers at Asnieres
Bathers at Asnieres by George Pierre Seurat.

Leemage  / Getty Images

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
The Guggenheim Museum's spiral structure was created by Frank Lloyd Wright. 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 that feature modern paintings, sculpture, and film.

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Investigate an Artist's Life and Work

Alma Thomas's painting Elysian Fields
Elysian Fields by Alma Thomas.

ShaBMan567 / Wikipedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

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 from Howard. In 1972, she became the first African-American woman artist to have 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

Picasso's painting Blue Roofs
Blue Roofs by Picasso.

Heritage Images / Getty Images 

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).

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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "10 Topic Ideas for Art History Papers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/art-history-paper-topics-182930. Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2020, August 28). 10 Topic Ideas for Art History Papers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/art-history-paper-topics-182930 Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "10 Topic Ideas for Art History Papers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/art-history-paper-topics-182930 (accessed March 22, 2023).