Describing a Work of Art
Below is a list of typical questions that scholars ask themselves when describing a work of art in a formal analysis. The answers and sub-questions under each heading are not comprehensive, however, they will give you a starting point for your description of the work(s) of art assigned. As your artwork is discussed and illustrated in our textbook, remember that the caption format and description will be of great help!
Who made it? Name of designer and/or artist if known (remember: it may have been designed by one person, and made by another person or persons)? Don’t be surprised if we don’t know the identity of the specific artist as more often than not, works produced in the ancient world were not signed and many artists were anonymous. We do however, sometimes have the name of the architect or workshop leader, or even the unexpected bit of graffiti with initials or nicknames of a team of artists or craftsperson!
What kind of artwork is it? A monument, tomb, sculpture, stele, painting, palette, textile, vessel, armor, musical instrument, piece of furniture, etc.?
Who or what is the subject? Human or animal subject(s): male or female (how many if in a group) if known what is his/her name or names or rank, what country, city do they come from, what are they wearing, what is their age, etc.? An event: what is depicted? Is it a historical event, a symbolic event, a mythological event, an illustration to a story or poem? It may already have an official title provided by scholars or the museum/collection to which it belongs and if so, use this for your paper (also see the caption information in our textbook).
Where was it made? Is it from an ancient site? If so, note that place and put the modern city or country in parenthesis afterwards, for example: “from Ur (modern Tell Muqayyar), Iraq.” Provide the information (as much as is known) in this order: city, county, country, continent, etc.
When was it made? Dynasty (if known), date (if object is dated or if there is a historical reference that dates it), approximated date (if no specific date you will find reference to c./ca./circa/approximately and a date range or century)?
What is it made of (what medium)? Stone (what kind if known), wood (what kind if known), bone/ivory (what kind if known), ceramic (earthenware, stoneware, porcelain), metal (gold, silver, bronze or another alloyed material) etc. Is it painted or does have any traces of pigment (if so what colors)?
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What is its size? Height, width, depth (sometimes its weight may be relevant to include). Is this the overall dimension? If the work has been broken or is in a fragmentary condition, are the dimensions for the individual fragments and/or a reconstruction of its original size?
How was it made (technique)? Carved, drilled, abraded, applied decoration, incised, molded, cast, a single piece, made of joined components, stippled, embossed, repoussé, inlaid, woven?
Is it inscribed? If yes, what is the language and script used (example: Akkadian language written in cuneiform script or Egyptian written in hieroglyphs). What does it say? Was it written by or for the original commissioner of the work and/or was their an inscription added later (and why)? Was the inscription carved or incised into the artwork, applied on the surface with ink or pigment with brush or pen, stamped on or into the surface?
What is the condition of the work? Perfect, pristine, broken, fragmentary, worn (by sand? water?), defaced, gouged, cracked, corroded, abraded, etc. As you will not be travelling to a museum or site where you can observe your adopted work of art in person you will need to do your visual analysis by referring to photographs in our textbook and online. Don’t be surprised if you are able to find clear, medium to high resolution, overall, detail, and multiple views of your work of art/architecture online! Using museum websites, Google Images, and other websites, you will be able to download images that will particularly help in describing the condition of the object.
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Describing a Work of Art