How to analyze a painting
See the introduction to Stokstad’s text. We can ask several different kinds of questions about every art work, some very factual in orientation, some very general. We can say: "I like--or don't like this," "This is good," or "This is interesting or important."
What--subject, medium, size, condition
Where--location (museum, city)
Why--purpose, patronage, "meaning," interpretation
1. Basic facts: artist's name, the medium, the title, the probable date of the work, its location now, its condition, and provenance (or source--where it came from). Sometimes this information is known through documentation, the art historian's best friend, but sometimes the art historian's purpose is to determine a likely artist or date in the absence of any documentation. In the case of Greek are, for example, where almost no documents exist, a very accurate chronology of artworks can be worked out nevertheless using the principles of stylistic development and relative chronology. In fact, paintings were rarely signed before the eighteenth century.
(A "medium" is something "in between" that communicates between two people. Some art "media" are fresco, tempera on panel, oil on canvas, etching, drawing, bronze sculpture, etc. Modern media are TV, film, radio, and computers.)
2. Subject matter. What is happening in the picture? Who are the people in the scene (if it is a narrative)? Stories in history painting often come from literary texts like the Bible or Greek Mythology. Find the text and read it carefully. This is not always so easy, even in the Bible, as the four evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--often tell different versions of a story, and the painter may follow none of these, but rather a pictorial tradition. For a side by side presentation of the synoptic gospels see a Harmony of the Gospels. How has the artists interpreted or "staged" the story? What does he include or leave out? What decisive moment has he chosen? Good artists often seem like the directors of a film or drama, and have clear personal feeling about the meaning of a story, since they are students of human nature. Scrutinize the characters in your painting and describe their actions and attitudes. Some recent paintings do not tell stories at all because they are abstract or non-representational, but remember that subject matter can be anything from a place to an emotion. Finally, other artworks are often alluded to in painting, because artists look at other art--both of the past and the present--at least as much as they look at "nature".
Iconography is a word art historians have invented to talk about subject matter in artworks. Often the exact subject of a work will be obscure, or the text it is based on can not have been identified. For example, a bare-breasted woman may be a lactating Virgin Mary, a personification or allegory of Liberty, or the pagan goddess Venus. A dog may stand for Fidelity (Fides, Faith, Fido), or the Dominican Order (Domini Cane in Latin means "dogs of God"), or it may be just a dog, just as “a cigar may be just a cigar.” These kinds of symbols or "hidden meanings" in paintings were common in the Renaissance, but have largely gone out of fashion, so they must be recovered--a kind of detective work--if we are to do the painting justice. See Symbols in Christian Art and Architecture or George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, a handbook of Christian iconography.
3. Formal qualities: line, color, brushwork or "handling," tactile values, volumes, modeling, proportion, perspective or special construction, and composition are all ways to talk about the way the artist has conveyed his subject and given his personal interpretation. If he is a good artist, his choices will always reinforce and give impact to his original point of view. Good artists hate copying: they want to see problems in fresh ways and find new solutions. An analysis of any artwork in terms of these formal qualities is called formal analysis.
You can do an enjoyable formal analysis of any artwork without "knowing" anything about it.
4. Style. Style is the sum total of an artwork's formal qualities. Every work of art has its own style, that is, it looks different from almost every other work of art. Every good artist also has a style, which can be differentiated from that of other artists. In a broader sense, every country, city, century or decade has a style--hence, "the style of the Florentine Renaissance." So there is personal style, national style, and period style. The art historian--and anyone who wants to--develops his eye so that he can see these differences. People who have developed this skill--or talent--to an extraordinary degree are called connoisseurs. Any good art historian can look at a painting he has never seen before and place it fairly exactly as to the time and place it was made. An expert connoisseur can place it exactly--like a wine expert can tell the exact vineyard a bottle of wine came from (really). The fact that art changes, and that these changes are recognizable, is the central mystery of art history, because--after all--why doesn't all art look alike?
5. Patronage. Who paid for the work, and why? Was the patron a Pope, a King, or a private individual, or did the artist make the picture "on spec" for nobody in particular--or simply for himself? Is there anything special about the subject or style of the work which the patronage might help to explain? How did the patron react to the finished work? In more general terms, what was the patronage system of the time and place, that is, was the Church a powerful patron, as in the Italian Renaissance, or did artists paint on speculation, as in the market capitalists art world of seventeenth-century Holland?
6. Historical context. What does this painting tell us about the time and place where it was made? Can we deduce anything about the human values of this civilization? What was important to them? What did it mean to be a human being? What did they think art ought to be? These are important questions, and art historians believe that artworks offer unique windows into the past, that is, that they can show us intimate details about life that no other kind of historical evidence can. Nevertheless, the art historian is a historian, and is interested in the same kinds of questions that historians are interested in. He simply begins with different kinds of evidence. For example, the artworks of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the seventeenth century can tell us much about the political and religious arguments going on in Europe at that time.
7. Critical Judgment. This is not really a historical question. Whether we like or dislike a work of art does not in the least affect its significance to the people who made it. But the art historian does often ask whether the artwork succeeded in its intended purpose, which is to judge it on its own terms. And it is also true that art historians tend to be attracted to works of art which have stood the test of time and are still regarded as "masterpieces," because we think they can tell us more. Also, we can admire the way an artwork embodies a particular value system without admiring that value system. Generally, art historians find that it is fruitless to argue whether Leonardo was a "greater" painter than Picasso, since they lived at such different times and places. Nevertheless, once we have tried to do justice to the historical context of a work--and assuming that we are not missing anything crucial (a difficult assumption to make)--we are justified in asking whether a particular painting pleases us. Most students of art history find that they more they study, the more they like.
8. Interpretation: How do we know if we are "reading" an artwork properly? What do artworks say and how do we get at the meaning of artworks? A Historical approach would hold that it is desirable and possible to see the artwork from the point of view of the person who made it and the people in the particular time and place to whom it was directed; this view holds that we must therefore reconstruct the historical, political, social, religious, psychological and technological context of the artwork as completely as possible in order to understand what the art "meant". Unfortunately, such reconstruction is never completely possible, although this method can often keep us from making horrible mistakes. For example, we can state with fair assurance that Michelangelo's David probably represented "the defiant will of the city of Florence against its powerful adversaries," and we can infer that it stood for some kind of ideal human beauty to Michelangelo himself, but we can never really "know" this. Art history aims to understand art through historical knowledge and history through artistic evidence, but there is a point at which any supposed "true" or exact "meaning" of any artwork must elude us. At that point we are justified in asking what the work means to us. Interpretation is an art, and its means is language. There are no right or wrong interpretations, only poorly expressed or uninteresting ones. Another word for interpretation is "criticism", which is really the art history of the present. The critic aims to clarify and judge recent artworks for the modern public, because, unlike some other kinds of history which use "persisting events" to understand the past, art history uses artworks, which are presumed to have quality--that is, they are either good or bad art. And making a judgment about artistic quality is often the proper job of the historian, who then becomes a critic.
Examples of "interpretation": Sister Wendy Becket on Sargent and Rembrandt
More interpretations at the Artchive
Some types of interpretation include:
Ekphrasisis the poetical description of the artwork and its story or subject. Hermeneutics attempts to explain the artwork by understanding the personality of the artist (very risky business). Divination is a third type of interpretation. The important point to remember is that no interpretation can ever be proved to be right; the study of art is a humanistic discipline, not a science.
See Mark Roskill, The Interpretation of Pictures.