Category Archives: METHODOLOGY

Successive Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

The multitude of images in our everyday life means that we usually lack time to look at them closely, without their careful analysis, or their correct interpretation, not to mention a proper methodology for such an interpretation, which we usually prefer to leave in the hands of historians of art. Anne D’Alleva, a historian of art, calls such a phenomenon the syndrome of “lazy looking” (2009:29). And what about a proper interacting with art after crossing the threshold of a museum or a gallery, and I do not mean here ‘a galleria’, a cluster of shops and stalls … yet, even in such a place we can encounter multiple visual representations, especially when some artists decide to arrange there an installation of their works or a collection of photos …

Still, let’s stay inside a gallery of paintings and works of art, or a museum. If we are generally interested in art and have enough time, I would recommend breaking our visit down into several stages. If we focus our attention on selected works of art, it will help us to improve the quality of our cognitive abilities in relation to the selected objects. As I mentioned above, the accumulation of images, the splendor of their colours and and shapes can cause fatigue and, consequently, discouragement … Consequently, we will leave “the center of art” even more confused than we are before entering it.

First think about an artistic epoch you are most fascinated about, then pick up a museum or gallery where you can see its expressions. Among all the exhibited works, pick up four or five and spend at least four hours for their contemplation; yes, yes … approximately one hour for each work of art … why so long? One reason is that famous galleries of art or museums can be really crowded. Assuming you are heading off to one of such type of places and an art object of your choice is famous, it may also take much time to wait on queue to see it. Secondly, the chosen object does not exist in isolation and is normally surrounded by works of art coming from the same context: an epoch, place of origins or style, and when I am writing about a need of selecting four or five works must-see, I do not mean making your way to them with your eyes closed – first, it is dangerous for yourself, then for other amateurs of are, who just being focused on art, are not paying attention to you elbowing across the crowd, and finally, a danger of bumping into a priceless object … So, open your eyes, analyse a chosen object … first in isolation, and then look around and see it in its context. Other artifacts or artworks, looking at you (or judging you!) from their glass-cases or from the walls, depending on what you are looking at, will help you to better understand your object of choice.

Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

Finally, standing in front of a preferable work of art, you can start to observe its characteristics. Yet, at that point, it is not possible to escape from spontaneous and disordered thoughts coming to our mind at first sight; they are mostly related with our own feelings triggered by the work. I assume those are pleasant emotions, providing that the object to see has been selected deliberately. There equally appear some links between the work and our unconscious knowledge resulting from our culture, religion, history and education. Such aspects shape our experience and values All that phenomenon cannot be avoided, so let it approach you and tell you for a while a story. It is also a story about yourself … Finally, pay attention to its colours, lines, figures, planes. Does it show an abstraction or a representation? Now, take a step back in time, bring your initial thoughts and analyse them. What element of all observed in the work is the most significant, and how is it described in relation to the whole composition? What does the work reveal about the culture that once shaped it? Who was its creator and patron? Who could be its receiver? Now it is you … What does tell about your mutual relation? How do you read its messages?

By answering all those questions, from the initial stage, when you are in front of the artwork, being bombarded by its scattered meanings, through your attempts to focus on its describable physical features, till the end, when you enter a relation with it, you are in the process of its methodological and complete analysis. In history of art, these stages are professionally defined as follows: a formal analysis, iconography, contextual analysis, and finally semiotics. The formal analysis is also refereed to as pre-iconography, while the iconography stage can be imagined as a meaningful bridge joining the form with the context of an artwork. Accordingly, the third stage is known as the contextual analysis. And finally, there is semiotics, which after many art historians constitutes just a more interdisciplinary version of the combined iconographycal and iconological stages (D’Alleva 2012:35).

Such a conventional division into successive stages of the analysis of a work of art, which also can be named as the methodology in art, has resulted from numerous theories coined by historians of art of international origins, who usually worked at the turn of the twentieth century. Many a time, the methodology of the interpretation of art can be simply limited to two general analyses: formal and contextual. Although the former includes many elements, which are usually grouped into five pairs of concepts, yet the latter should always be further divided into separate stages. Hence, while studying a given work of art, one should know the difference between iconography and iconology, and between those two stages and semiotics, to follow the process correctly, especially if you are studying history of art. The methodology also helps to organize our thoughts in a coherent whole and give our analysis a deeper meaning, also by adding to it our own opinions about the work.

In the following months, each of the following four stages of the analysis will be further discussed by providing examples, a choice of which is wide, as the studied methodology in art can be applied to different expressions in art, such as two-dimensional works (painting, including fresco, photography, graphic), sculpture (also relief), architecture, installation, digital art, performance and video. Because of my profession, which is mainly archaeology, in my analysis I will normally use ancient and medieval works, though made by different cultures. Yet, I will sometimes provide some examples from later epochs for the sake of comparative studies and to illustrate a variety of artistic topics.

All your questions and comments are welcome.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.


D’Alleva A., 2009. Jak studiować historię sztuki. [How to Write Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

D’Alleva A., 2012. Metody i teorie historii sztuki [Methods and Theories of Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.