Tips for Writing an Art History Paper

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You have been assigned an art history paper to write. You would like to finish your assignment on time with a minimum of stress, and your instructor fervently hopes to read an engaging, well-written paper. Here are some dos and don'ts to guide you, written by an art history professor who has graded thousands of these papers ranging from the superlative to the good, the bad and the phenomenally ugly.

Choose a Topic You Love

  • Look through an art history book, slowly and leisurely.
  • Look through our list of art history topics for ideas. Good starting points are our lists of movements, artists' bios, and image galleries.
  • Pick a topic based on eye appeal and compelling personal interest.

Fill Your Brain with Information

  • Remember: a car works on gas, a brain works on info. Empty brain, empty writing.
  • Research your topic using websites, books, and articles.
  • Read the footnotes in the books and articles - they can lead to creative thinking.

Be an Active Reader

  • Ask yourself questions while you read and look up what you can't find or don't understand on the page.
  • Take notes.
  • Search the internet with the words, names, titles you learn.
  • Write down interesting facts and thoughts that come to mind while you read.

Writing Your Introduction

  • Compose a thesis statement. Declare that you have noticed something about the art, building, artist, architect, critic, patron, or whatever your focus is for your analysis.
  • Then, "frame" your thesis. Tell your reader about discovering information that can help us understand the work of art/building better. (For example, the French artist Paul Gauguin moved to Tahiti late in life. Your thesis analyzes his late paintings in terms of his Tahiti lifestyle. You've read his biography, Noa, Noa and other sources for ideas to support your thesis.)
  • If you are focusing on artworks, remember to put the artist's name/artists' names, the title(s) of the work(s) and the date (s) in the first paragraph. You can refer to the title(s) alone thereafter.

Describe and Point Out What You Want the Reader to Notice

  • If you are going to include the artist's/architect's biography, begin with a short summary. Unless your paper is a biography of the person, most of your paper should be about art, not life.
  • Make sure your arguments are constructed in a parallel fashion: Establish a sequence of information.
  • Consider the paragraph a unit of information. Each paragraph should discuss one topic within the quantity of information you plan to cover.
  • Ideas for units of information or topics: appearance, medium and technique, narrative, iconography, history, artist's biography, patronage, etc. - whatever will help you support your thesis.
  • Iconography might require more than one paragraph, especially if your whole paper is about analyzing the iconography of a work of art.
  • Write about the connections between what you described in these analyses and what you declared in the thesis statement
  • Follow the same sequence of ideas for the second artwork, building, artist, architect, critic, patron, etc.
  • Follow the same sequence for the third artwork, building, artist, architect, etc.
  • When you have analyzed all the examples, synthesize: compare and contrast.
  • Comparison: Dedicate one paragraph to discussing what is the same about the artworks, the building, the architects, the artists, the critics, the patrons, etc.
  • Contrast: Dedicate one paragraph to discussing what is different about the artworks, the building, the architects, the artists, the critics, the patrons, etc.

What Do You Want Your Reader to Learn from Your Essay?

  • Reiterate the thesis.
  • Remind your reader about your findings in a summary sentence or two.
  • Persuade the reader that you have demonstrated that your thesis is soundly based on your findings.
  • Optional: state that your analysis is important in terms of understanding a larger picture (but not too large). For examples, the artist's other work from that period, the artist's work all together, the artwork's relationship to the movement or the artwork's relationship to that moment in history. The connection should not open a new topic, but simply offer the reader food for thought and then declare this investigation is beyond the scope of your paper. (It demonstrates that you thought of it, but you're not going to go there.)
  • DO NOT write that art history is wonderful and you've learned a lot. You are writing to your teacher, and s/he is tired of reading that sentence for the umpteenth time. Leave a good impression and avoid being trite.


  • Be sure to footnote/cite your sources in the body of the paper when you use information or an opinion from a book, article, website, etc.
  • Make a list of your sources at the end of the paper. Follow your teacher's instructions and/or visit a website on citation style or bibliography style. Ask the teacher which citation style s/he prefers.
  • Check for the following:
    • Titles for works of art should be in italics: The Birth of Venus
    • First and last names begin with a capital letter. Exceptions include place and familial indicators including "da," "del," "de," "den" and "van," among others, unless the last name begins the sentence. ("Van Gogh lived in Paris.")
    • Months and days of the week begin with a capital letter.
    • Language, nationalities and country names begin with a capital letter.
    • Leonardo is not called da Vinci.

Above All

  • Do not wait until the last minute to begin your essay.
  • Start your research after midterms.
  • Start to write at least one week before the paper is due.
  • Take the time to EDIT, EDIT, EDIT - be concise and clear.
  • Ask your professor for help and advice as you write your paper - s/he will enjoy discussing the topic with you.
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Your Citation
Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Tips for Writing an Art History Paper." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2023, April 5). Tips for Writing an Art History Paper. Retrieved from Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Tips for Writing an Art History Paper." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).