write an Analysis Essay on a portrait from selected list 2-3 pages double spaced
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Often, portraits are more than a simple likeness of a person; they contain clues about historical, social, and cultural context
as well as information about the sitter’s character and position. The French theorist Roland Barthes makes the distinction
between “denotative” and “connotative” meanings of images. The denotative meaning can be understood as a literal,
descriptive meaning, while a connotative reading of an artwork can expand meaning.
Select ONE of the following modern portraits for analysis:
– Oswald Birley, Arabella Duval Huntington, 1924 (The Huntington and Textbook – Wests)
– Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895 (The British Museum and Textbook – West)
– John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears, 1899 (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Text – Eye Contact)
– Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-1890 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
– Thomas Eakins, Miss Van Buren, ca. 1891 (The Phillips Collection)
– William Merritt Chase, Dora Wheeler, 1882-83 (Cleveland Museum of Art)
– Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905 (San Francisco Museum of Fine Art)
– Pablo Picasso, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1910 (Art Institute of Chicago & Textbook – Eye Contact)
– Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar with Cat, 1941 (Private Collection)
Write a 2-3 page analysis of the portrait in which you move beyond a denotative description and explore the connotative
meanings of the artworks. In other words, describe, interpret, and evaluate the personality, status, role, etc. of the sitter by
explaining how the choices made by the artist contribute to the viewer’s understanding of who the person was. You might
consider if the artist flatters, enhances, exaggerates, or hides aspects about the sitter and what affect these choices have on
the viewer’s understanding.
1) You should have an introduction paragraph with a well-defined thesis statement where you identify the work of art and
state the main theme(s) of the painting. For example… “Painted in 1900 by John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Dorothy is of
a privileged, perhaps even precocious, young girl.”
2) To assist in your analysis, you should describe what you see (denotative) and then explain how the details expand what
we know about the sitter (connotative). You might consider historical, cultural, moral, and social contexts, attitude,
pose, gesture, dress, space they occupy, and their involvement with the viewer, etc. Describe how these are reflected
and what they do to the viewer’s understanding of the painting. Be selective, with such a short paper you probably can’t
3) Be sure to ORGANIZE your points – each of which should support your thesis. Make an outline and work from a plan.
Devote a separate paragraph to each of your points.
4) Do not offer your opinion of the artwork, or of the artists – avoid “beautiful” “masterpiece” and other superlatives. Do
not state that this work is “amazing” or that this is a “great artist” – that goes without saying. This paper is not about
how much you like or do not like the painting.
5) In a formal paper such as this, DO NOT use contractions. Write “do not” rather than “don’t.”
6) Do not write in first person – avoid “I,” “me,” etc. Instead use terms such as “the viewer,” “one,” etc.
7) Be specific when discussing things like meaning, compositional elements, symbols / iconography, etc. Provide examples.
8) Biographical information on the artists is not necessary unless it supports your thesis, yet biographical information on
the sitter may be very important in helping to analyze the painting.
2-3 pages, double-spaced, 12 point font, 1” margins. Include a title for your paper and introduce the painting in the first
sentence or two – with name of artist, title in italics and date. Thereafter, refer to artist using last name only and do not
repeat the date of the artwork. Edit paper for grammar and spelling.
You must include at least 3 sources (NOT Wikipedia or Blogs). JSTOR articles, museum websites, etc. are excellent sources.
Use footnotes or endnotes as necessary and include a bibliography of your sources; you may use any standard citation
formation including Chicago Manual Style, MLA, or APA.
For information on writing about art history consult Sylvan Barnet or:
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