APSU Notes

Chapter 4: Describing Art

Formal Analysis, Types, and Styles of Art.

Learning Outcomes

  • Employ a vocabulary of art specific terms and critical approaches to conduct a formal analysis of works of art.
  • Identify different types of art based on the degree of representation or non-representation a work displays.
  • Distinguish between variations of representational qualities within a work of art.
  • Differentiate characteristics that relate an individual or group of works to a cultural style, stylistic movement or period, or an individual artist’s style.

Representational Art

  • Representational art depicts forms in the natural world.
  • Naturalistic – emphasizes the objective observation and accurate imitation of appearances.
  • Abstract – art in which the forms of the visual world are purposefully simplified, fragmented, or otherwise distorted.
    • Abstraction also embraces a broad range of approaches.

Could be both abstract and representational.


  • A canon: a set of rules, principles, or norms.

Idealized Images: an image that is represented as being ideal or perfected. Typically follows a canon based on which culture a statue or image is/was created in. The canon is a set of rules, principles, or norms. The Ancient Egyptian’s used idealization and specific canons in sculpture of the pharaoh and his queen. Portrayed with idealized, youthful bodies and similar facial features, the couple stand proudly erect, facing straight ahead.


  • Contrapposto – the representation of the weight shift of the knees and hips that occurs when standing with one leg at ease or walking.

Non-Representational Art

  • Art that does not represent or otherwise refer to the visible world outside itself.


  • Style - A characteristic, or a number of characteristics, that we can identify as constant, recurring, or coherent. In art, the sum of such characteristics associated with a particular artist, group, or culture, or with an artist’s work at a specific time.
  • A catalogue raisonné is a detailed, comprehensive list of the artist’s work.

A term that helps us to categorize art by its own appearance is style. In the visual arts, style is the result of a series of choices, in this case choices an artist makes in creating a work of art. As we grow more familiar with a particular artist’s work, we begin to see a recurring pattern to these choices—characteristic subject matter or materials, distinctive ways of drawing or of applying paint, preferences for certain colors or color combinations.

Can refer to the general appearance of a work or a group of works that were created in accordance with a specific set of principles about form or appearance. Can refer to the art as a whole that was made during a particular era and within a certain culture. Can also refer to how elements and principles of design are employed by an individual artist: the visual features of that artist’s work.

Categories of Style

  • Cultural Styles – ie. Aztec style in Mesoamerica
  • Historical or Period Styles – ie. Gothic Style in Europe
  • School Styles – ie. Cubist Style

Artists formed his or her style within a particular culture during a particular historical moment. Artists working in the same culture during the same period often have stylistic features in common, and in this way individual styles contribute to our perception of larger, general styles. General styles fall into several categories.

General styles provide a useful framework for organizing the history of art, and familiarity with them can help us to situate art and artists that are new to us in a historical or cultural context, which often helps understanding. But it is important to remember that general styles are constructed after the fact, as scholars discern broad trends by comparing the work of numerous individual artists. Cultures, historical periods, and schools do not create art. Individuals create art, working with (and sometimes pushing against) the possibilities that their time and place hold out to them.

Cultural Style

  • A reflection of the broader cultural currents of any time and place.

Cultural factors led to the representation that art historians call “conventions of representations”.

Hierarchical proportion

  • The use of different sizes of figures to indicate each figures importance.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greek art has many stylistic sub-divisions, including:

  • Geometric (@900-700 BCE)
  • Orientalizing (@700-600 BCE)
  • Archaic (@600-480 BCE)
  • Classical
    • Early Classical (@480-450 BCE)
    • High Classical (@450-400 BCE)
    • Late Classical (@400-323 BCE)
  • Hellenistic (@323-31 BCE)

Classical Sculpture

  • Built during the High Classical and Late Classical Periods.

Classical Sculpture was the height of Ancient Greek Art. Showed the conventions of idealized nude male forms in a contrapposto stance.

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture

The last phase of Greek art is known as Hellenistic. Conventions of the Hellenistic period include the addition of dynamic poses and extreme emotions. Hellenistic sculptors were far more interested than their predecessors in how their subjects reacted to events.

Roman Republic

  • Veristic – truthful renditions of an individuals likeness

The Roman Republican period (@509 – 27 BCE) overlaps several Greek periods. Romans favored an anti-idealized approach to portrayal of people. Were veristic images – or truthful renditions of an individual likeness.

Late Roman Empire

During the late Roman Empire (284 – 476 CE.) a show of suppression and streamlining of natural detail in art is seen. This sculpture represents the four co-ruling emperors, or tetrarchs, who worked together to rule the four divisions of the vast Roman Empire. The uniformity, shows their joint office and efforts in the service of the Roman citizenry.

Indian Subcontinent

  • Stupa – dome-shaped shrines for Buddhist relics.

Naturalism was not as restrained as those of the classical ideal. The Emperor Ashoka built stupas, or dome-shaped shrines to house Buddhist relics. At one of the four gates at the Great Stupa at Sanchi we see a figure of a Yakshi.

Historical or Period Styles

  • A reflection of styles concurrent with a specific period in time.

Romanesque Era in Europe

  • Romanesque art of the 11th and 12th centuries expressed the prevalent preoccupation among Christians about the ends of their lives and the end of time.

The Romanesque period was marked by a building boom. Contemporary commentators were thrilled at the beautiful churches that seemed to be springing up everywhere. Later art historians called the style of these buildings Romanesque, for despite their great variety they shared certain features reminiscent of ancient Roman architecture, including an overall massiveness, thick stone walls, round arches, and barrel-vaulted stone ceilings. One reason for the sudden burst of building was the popularity of pilgrimages. In the newly prosperous and stable times of the 11th and 12th centuries, people could once again travel safely. Although some made the trip all the way to Jerusalem, in the Holy Land, most confined their pilgrimages to sites associated with Christian saints in Europe. Churches—and also lodgings and other services—arose along the most popular pilgrimage routes as way stations for these large groups of travelers.

Romanesque Church Portals

The Romanesque Cathedrals were the locations of many depicted scenes of the Last Judgment. They show greater abstraction and distortion for spiritual purposes. The figures are stylized and elongated, with a hierarchy of scale that makes Jesus larger than his followers. The clothing they wear falls in patterned folds that do little to describe the three-dimensional bodies beneath. The figures’ faces are stereotyped rather than individualized. The symmetrical composition emphasizes symbols over nature. Lacks naturalism, but message is still clear. This relief within the tympanum at the Autun Cathedral in France shows the resurrection of the dead and assignment to heaven or hell.

Gothic Era in Europe

  • Gothic art of the 12th through 16th centuries showed a change in buildings to make the churches appear to reach up to heaven and be filled with light.

The Romanesque period was succeeded in the 12th century by the Gothic era. The term “Gothic” derives from the Goths, who were among the many nomadic tribes sweeping through Europe during the 4th and 5th centuries. It was applied to this style by later critics in the Renaissance, who considered the art and architecture of their immediate predecessors to be vulgar and “barbarian.”. Yet people in the 12th century found the new style to be beautiful and an appropriately lavish way of honoring the faith. The Gothic style was started by a powerful French abbot named Suger, who wanted to enlarge and remodel his church, the abbey church of Saint-Denis, near Paris. Inspired by early Christian writings, he came to believe that an ideal church should have certain characteristics: It should appear to reach up to heaven, it should have harmonious proportions, and it should be filled with light. To fulfill those goals, his architects responded with pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, flying buttresses, and stained-glass windows so large they seemed like translucent walls. Finished in two stages in 1140 and 1144, the graceful, light-filled interior of Saint-Denis immediately attracted attention and imitation. Gothic style was born, the creation of a brilliant architect whose name the good abbot did not record.

Gothic Cathedral

The cathedral at Chartres, in France, shows the soaring quality of Gothic architecture. Here, the unadorned, earthbound masses of the Romanesque have given way to ornate, linear, vertical elements that direct the eye upward. Clearly visible are the flying buttresses that line the nave and apse to contain the outward thrust of the walls. Because portions of Chartres were built at different times, the cathedral also allows us to see something of the evolution of Gothic style. For example, the first thing most people notice about the west facade of the cathedral is the mismatched corner towers and spires.

Door Jamb Statues

  • The Gothic style showed a transition to a return to greater naturalism.

Sculpture in the Middle Ages was often created to embellish architecture. Over two thousand carved figures decorate the exterior of Chartres Cathedral. Concentrated especially around principal entryways, they serve as a transition between the everyday world of the town and the sacred space within, forming a sort of “welcoming committee” for the faithful as they enter. Like the architecture itself, the sculptures were created at different times, and in them, too, we can appreciate the evolution of Gothic style. Early Gothic style can be seen in the elongated and flattened bodies of these 12th-century carvings from the principal entry of the cathedral. In fact, it is difficult to believe that there are actual bodies under the draperies at all. The linear folds of the draperies are not so much sculpted as incised—drawn into the stone with a chisel. Carved a mere hundred years later, this second group of figures displays the mature Gothic style. Whereas the bodies of the earlier statues took the form of the columns they adorned, the bodies here are more fully rounded and have begun to detach themselves from their architectural supports. The three saints on the right still seem to float somewhat, as though suspended in midair, but the figure of Saint Theodore at the far left truly stands, his weight on his feet. A sense of underlying musculature is evident in armor covering his arms, and his garment, although not yet fully naturalistic, is carved with an awareness of a body underneath.

School Styles: Realism

  • Realism refers to artworks that relay information or opinions about the underlying social or philosophical reality of the subject matter.

School Styles, which are styles shared by a particular group of like-minded artists. The first art movement to be born in the 19th century was Realism. Realist artists sought to depict the everyday and the ordinary rather than the historic, the heroic, or the exotic. Their works unmasked for art viewers the true lives of the middle and lower classes.

  • Courbet used realism to express the realities of the rural poor in mid-nineteenth century France.

Gustave Courbet’s first monumental painting, A Burial at Ornans. The subject is a burial—of whom we do not know. Courbet uses the event as a pretext for a group portrait of Ornans society. A priest, two red-robed beadles (lay officials in the Church), the mayor, a judge, male mourners, and a gravedigger have gathered around the open pit dug to receive the coffin, which is shown arriving at the left. Female mourners cluster to the right. A raised crucifix stands out clearly against the dull sky and distant chalk cliffs. Courbet persuaded the local authorities to pose for his painting: the mayor, judge, beadles, and priest are all portrayed as themselves. The painter’s friends and family are present, and most of the other figures have been identified as well. When the painting was shown at the Salon of 1850, a critic later recalled, it was as though a tornado had blown through the room. Admirers held that Realism had produced its first masterpiece. Detractors thought Courbet had pushed what they called “the cult of the ugly” about as far as it could go. The painting offended them on two counts. The first was its resolute refusal to beautify or sentimentalize the scene. It is a sad image, with drab colors and unidealized figures. The second was its scale: Monumental formats were traditionally reserved for history paintings full of important personages. This painting was full of nobodies, taken seriously as people.

  • Another example of Realism from Courbet is The Stone Breakers.
  • Ashcan School – Group of Realism Artists in American in the early 20th century.

Realism was also used by Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century, especially in the group the Ashcan School. Made commentary on the undesirable effects felt by newly arrived immigrants and the urban poor.

School Styles: Expressionism

  • Expressionism in the visual arts gives up a measure of naturalism in favor of emotional content, emphasizing how the culture and artist felt about the subject matter.

Expressionism, arose as artists came to believe that the fundamental purpose of art was to express their intense feelings toward the world. Expressionism, broadly speaking, describes any style where the artist’s subjective feelings take precedence over objective observation.

Elements of Design

  • Line - Expressive
    • Gesture, Contour, and Crosshatching
  • Line – Implied & Psychic
  • Shape – organic, geometric, hard- or soft-edged
    • Figure/Ground Relationship
    • Figure/Ground Reversal
  • Volume has three dimensions
    • Length, Width, and Height
    • Interior or Exterior contours
    • Open or Closed Form
  • Mass is the quantity of matter, often meaning its weight
  • Perspective – How is perspective shown?
    • Linear Perspective – One-point, two-point, or three-point
    • Intuitive Perspective
    • Atmospheric Perspective
  • Texture – actual or implied
  • Color – saturation, brightness, primary, secondary, color scheme (complementary, analogous, monochromatic)

Principles of Design

  • Unity – relations between the elements in a work
  • Variety – the elements of a work are varied in size, color, shape, or some other attributes.
  • Scale/Proportion – the relationship of the elements to one another
    • Forced Perspective
  • Balance – symmetrical, asymmetrical
  • Emphasis/movement – the intentional use of directional forces to move the viewer’s attention through the work.
  • Rhythm/repetition – repetition of visual elements to establish a pattern

Formal or critical analysis

  • A formal or critical analysis is an examination of the elements and principles of design present in an artwork and the process of deriving meaning from how those elements and principles are used by visual artists to communicate a concept, idea, or emotion.

Four Aspects of a Formal Analysis

  • Description – describe the use of visual elements.
  • Analysis – how are the elements arranged, describe the artist’s use of the principles of design.
  • Interpretation – the combination of what an object symbolizes to the artist and what it means to the viewer.
  • Evaluation – judging whether a work of art is successful given what you have understood from your description, analysis, and interpretation.
    • Using steps 1-3 above can you justify your emotionally response (joyful, disturbing, calm, energetic) to the artwork?


Lecture Video


Chapter Four: Describing Art Quiz