August 2011

Ancient Art: Formal Analysis Example

Note: The following post is intended to be a resource for my ancient art students. If you know of any good examples of basic formal analysis that are available online, please leave links in the comments section below! I would like to build up a list of resources for my students.

Formal elements are things that are part of the form (or physical properties) of a work of art: medium, line, color, scale, size, composition, etc. Formal analysis involves an exploration of how these formal elements affect you, as a viewer.

Formal analysis involves describing a work of art, but formal analysis goes beyond mere description. Instead, description is used as an agent to support the argument-at-hand. Although your essay will likely introduce a work of art with some general descriptions, the rest of your descriptions should be very pinpointed and with purpose. Make sure that such detailed descriptions are used to back up specific points of your argument. For this formal analysis assignment, your argument will revolve around some type of reaction to the work of art.

Your formal analysis should include some type of thesis statement that revolves around your reaction. To help you think about your own assignment and personal reaction, I have written a short sample of formal analysis below (and have underlined the thesis statement). Please also note that I am not basing my reaction on content (i.e. the subject matter, narrative, or symbolism), nor on historical context. Instead, I am focusing strictly on formal (visual or physical) elements:

Great Lyre sound box, c. 2600-2500 BCE

The front panel of the Great Lyre sound box (shown above) is an example of Sumerian art from the Ancient Near East.The panel is divided into four different registers. These registers contain four scenes with figures (mostly animals) involved in various activities. Despite the rather rigid compartmentalization of the four sound box scenes, the overall effect of the front panel of the Great Lyre sound box is one of energy and dynamism. Such energy can be seen in the color of the figures and in curvy compositional lines.

The sound box is comprised of two different colors, a dark black and a light tan.  These colors are caused by the medium of the panel. Dark black is the color of bitumen, which is used for the background of the panel and lines. Light tan is the color of the inlaid shell that is used for the bodies of the figures and objects. The stark contrast of light tan against a dark background adds a sense of dynamism to the figures. The figures seem to glow and hum with life. Furthermore, these lightly-colored figures are pushed closer toward the viewer, away from the black background, which gives the figures a sense of presence and energy.

Detail of top registers of Great Lyre sound box, c. 2600-2500 BCE

The composition of the figures also lends itself to this idea of energy. The figures fill the whole space of their respective registers and scenes, giving them a strong, energetic presence. In fact, some figures strain and twist so that their bodies can fill and fit within the register space. Such dynamic twisting is especially seen in the two bulls in the upper-most register (see image above). These bulls are symmetrically placed on either side of a central human figure, creating a “Master of the Animals” motif. The bodies of the bulls twist inward toward the human figure, and but their necks and heads twist outward and slightly downward. The theme of curves and energy is underscored in the beards and hair of these three figures: each lock of hair ends with a bouncy curl.

Energy can be seen in the curvaceous lines of other figures as well. In the second register from the top, the backs and tails of the hyena and lion are comprised of swooping lines. In fact, the lines of the lion’s back are reinforced and highlighted by swooping, short lines that suggest the lion’s bushy mane. While the lion’s mane swoops toward the center of the scene, the lion’s lower back curves in the other direction. These opposing compositional lines give the panel an added sense of energy and movement.

Detail of bottom registers of Great Lyre sound box, c. 2600-2500 BCE

In the second register from the bottom, the back of the bear curves upward and downward in a lyrical, dynamic swoop (see image above). In fact, the whole body of the bear is placed at a more dynamic angle, since the bear is leaning toward the lyre placed on the left side of the scene. Some of the strings of the lyre curve upward toward the right, opposite the angle of the bear’s body, to add more opposing movement and dynamism to the overall composition.

The lowest register of the front panel contains some of the most dynamic curves and lines. The most obvious curve is found in the tail of the scorpion man on the left side of the scene. This tail curls and swoops upward, only to end with a stinger that loops downward. The shape and detail lines of the scorpion tail are also energetic. The tail is comprised of several oval shapes of decreasing sizes. These shapes are combined together to creating a visually dynamic, bouncy outline for the tail. Furthermore, the tail is full of energy because of the multiple lines that appear within each oval shape. These lines look a little like a maze or labyrinth; they visually reinforce the idea of movement through their repetition and interlocking layout.

The front panel of the Great Lyre sound box embodies energy in many ways. This energy can be seen not only because of the colors of the panel, but also through several compositional devices and lines. Such visual interest in energy is fitting for this piece, given that this sound box originally hummed with musical vibrations and the energy created by sound.

For further information about formal analysis, you may want to look at the chapter, “Formal Analysis” by Anne d’Alleva. Preview is available online here.


Caravaggio Guest Post on 3PP

Hello everyone! Today I am honored to have a guest post featured on Three Pipe Problem. I recently received a copy of the new catalog Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome. My post covers information from the catalog (and elsewhere) regarding the attribution of a new Caravaggio painting, Saint Augustine (c. 1600, see left).

Please take a look! Enjoy!

Image credit: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.


Digital Homage to the Square

For those of you who like Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, you might be interested in seeing my husband J’s recent project, “Auto Albers.” You can read a little about the project by clicking on the “?” on the lower left side of the project’s webpage.

J writes, “I recommend opening it in a new window and leaving it up for a long period of time. It changes very slowly, but can change quite dramatically throughout the day. That’s what I do, anyway…”


Art Crime and Textbooks

I was surprised to learn recently that Monet’s famous painting Impression: Sunrise (dated 1872, shown right) was stolen from the Marmottan Museum on October 27, 1985. Seven armed men forced museums visitors and a guard to lie on the floor while they stole this painting and eight other works. Impression: Sunrise was recovered in December of 1990 and went back on display at the Marmottan in April 1991.

Although the actual theft doesn’t surprise me that much, I was taken back that I wasn’t aware of this aspect of the painting’s history. I feel like I know this painting pretty well – it is the work of art that is often seen as the “kickoff” point to the Impressionist movement. The title of this painting, Impression: Sunrise led hostile critic Louis Leroy to first use the term “Impressionists.”

As I’ve thought my surprised reaction, I’ve realized that much of my knowledge about Monet’s painting comes from art history textbooks. And, on the flip side, I’ve realized that most of my knowledge about art crime doesn’t come from standard art history textbooks. I usually learn about art crime from online sources (like the blog “Art Theft Central”) and popular history books like Lopez’s The Man Who Made Vermeers or Charney’s Stealing the Mystic Lamb. (And, speaking of Charney, I look forward to reading his new book on the thefts of the Mona Lisa).

So, why does art crime not get included in art history textbooks very much? Undoubtedly, such crime (theft or otherwise) becomes part of an art piece’s history. Here are some related questions that have been muddling about in my brain:

  • Is there something about art crime that doesn’t appeal to academia at large? 
  • Is art crime too closely related to popular history? (Perhaps this topic is really an issue of popular history and academia, an idea that will be explored in an upcoming conference by The Historical Society.)
  • Is art crime too base of a topic for art historians? Will a work of art be demystified if it is connected with crime? Isn’t it okay if a work of art is demystified?
  • Art crime is intrinsically linked to the art market. Does art history want to disassociate itself from the art market?
  • Do scholars (and their book editors) feel like there isn’t room for a discussion of art crime in survey texts?
  • Am I just looking at the wrong kinds of art history textbooks? Are there textbooks out there that incorporate a good discussion of crime along with other general aspects of art history?

I feel like there are a lot of art historians and art history students that are interested in art crime, but I don’t feel like there are enough academic publications to support my hunch. I definitely feel like there is a place for art crime in the classroom, though. I get very positive feedback from class lectures that include some information about theft, forgery and looting.

Maybe art crime is like crime itself – it needs to be learned “on the street” or by word of mouth! From what I can tell, it looks like Noah Charney’s program for a Master’s in Art Crime involves a lot of classroom discussion and lectures from experts on the topic, not a lot of textbook reading.

Thoughts, anyone?


Announcing "Smithsonian" Winners!

Congratulations to Betty Richards and Erin F who won subscriptions to Smithsonian magazine through my giveaway! Comment #11 (by Betty Richard) and Comment #12 (by Erin F) were randomly selected as the winners:

Betty Richard: “Congrats on the milestone! That shows commitment!”

Erin F: “Congrats! So much wonderful art history on the web! And a great giveaway to boot! Keep writing!”

Betty and Erin, you have three days to contact me via email ( in order to claim the prize and give me a mailing address.* If a winner does not come forth by that time, I will then randomly select a new winner.

Enjoy your subscriptions! Smithsonian is a fantastic magazine. I’ve enjoyed my subscription for several years, and I’m pleased to share Smithsonian with others.

*Your mailing address will not be used for any other purpose than the Smithsonian subscription.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.