Sample Art History Comparative Essay

Comparison Essay Example – Principles of Art

Images (for sample essay):

Grant Wood, Parson Weem’s Fable, 1939Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant, ca. 1625

Amon Carter Museum, Dallas(Detroit Institute of Arts)


In comparing Wood’s Parson Weems’s Fable and Gentileschi’s, Judith and HerMaidservant with the Head of Holofernes, though the subject matter between both of them is very different, there some striking similarities in composition- looking at these elements yields a better understanding and appreciation of both works.

First, compositionally, both paintings are asymmetrical.While asymmetrical, both also seem balanced.In Judith…, the gazes and gestures of the characters suggest that there is something beyond the darkness on the left side of the composition- they suggest that there is more going on than what we see, providing a sort of implied balance.In Weem…, although the composition is asymmetrical, Wood creates a central focal point so deftly (as will be explained throughout) that the asymmetrical nature of the composition is not distracting, therefore it seems balanced.Additionally, Artemisia’s composition has a good example of tenebrism- it is overall, very dark, and Wood’s does not. Hierarchical scale helps Wood draw attention to George, the most important figure (and focal point).He is much smaller – by scale – than any other figure.Artemisia doesn’t use hierarchical scale.

Regarding viewpoint, Wood places viewers on the outside of a curtain that the Parson is drawing aside.It reminds me of a movie or theatrical production (which, indeed, the whole scene is a fabrication of Weem’s mind).This helps to portray the subject matter as just a fable.In Artemisia’s painting, viewers are in a very different position.It is as they are crouching near Holofernes’ heard with the maidservant- in a worm’s-eye-view perspective – thus adding to the sense of urgency in the scene- viewers become a part of the story, opposed to just looking at it.

Both artists, though using different techniques, create an illusion of depth in their works.Wood calls on strong diagonal lines (in the architecture) to draw viewers back into the picture plane.There is also a touch of atmospheric perspective (as the trees on the hillside see to get hazier as they recede into the background).Additionally, the background figures, (esp. the trees) get smaller as they go back – this suggests diminution in scale.One element that both artists use to create the illusion of depth is directional lighting. In Weem’s Fable, there are very obviously cast shadows created by the figures this suggests their three-dimensional quality and depth.The light seems to be coming from the lower left side in this painting.In Judith…, the light also seems to be coming from the candle on the left side of the composition.This illuminates any surface turned toward it, but leaves theirs in shadow, creating a strong chiaroscuro effect and sense of depth.Artemisia also calls on overlapping to create depth in her work – Wood uses it a bit where the cherry tree overlaps the father’s leg, but it much more prevalent in Artemisia’s work.

Both artists use line, both actual and implied, very effectively in their work.Wood uses strong curvilinear lines (in the curtain and the cherry tree) to frame the scene between George and his father- thus drawing attention to the central focal point.Similarly, there is a strong curvilinear line created by a curtain in the Artemisia work.Wood also uses implied line – through the parson and the father’s gestures to draw attention to little George.Again, Artemisia uses implied line as well to suggest that there is something or someone in the darkness on the left side of the composition.One use of line is evident only in Wood s the rectilinear line created by the building at the right side.

Finally, perhaps the starkest difference between the contrasts between these two works involves color.Artemisia uses a very limited palette for her painting.The rich gold and red hues are quite saturated and rich, whereas the purple worn by the maidservant is moredesaturated and less illuminated, and thus that figure is of secondary importance.The small amount of white on the women’s clothing create the brightest spots in the painting.Drastically different is the somewhat high-key palette used by Wood.He uses a range of color, from a very saturated red on the father’s coat, to desaturated shades and tints of the same color on the curtain and building. The dominant red and green tones, which are complementary colors, serve to intensify and unify the representations.George, in his stark white tunic, is the brightest character in the composition, again reminding viewers that he is the focal point.

When pulling all these elements together, viewers can begin to see how they can help the artist to convey their subject matter.In the case of Artemisia, the overall darkness, contrasted with the bright light from the candle lends to the dark, morbid subject matter, but the redeeming idea that the enemy captain is dead.In addition, the implied lines and gestures add to the sense of urgency in the scene.Finally, the white articles of clothing that each woman is wearing could suggest that even though they killed Holofernes, they are pure or innocent in motive.These are just a few of the ways that the art’s choices in technique and form help convey the subject matter.In Parson Weem’s Fable, the viewpoint (as discussed earlier) helps viewers to remember that the scene they are witnessing is fabricated.They are, in essence, watching parson’s fable unfold – I liken it to watching – a sit-com on TV.Also, Wood uses line very effectively to focus on young George – without the curvilinear frame and implied lines, one might not be drawn to the focal point.Finally, the generally high-key palette lends to a feeling of lightness 0 just as the Parson’s tale should be taken lightly.

Critically examining two works of art, and finding their similarities and differences allows viewers to better appreciate each piece and the choices that the artist made in its creation.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.

Writing Essays in Art History


These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble
Last Edited: 2016-03-01 09:17:11

Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis

Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.

A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?

Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?

A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.

Methods & Theories To Consider:







Social Art History

Biographical Approach


Museum Studies

Visual Cultural Studies

Stylistic Analysis Example:

The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.”  Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall.  Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.

Compare and Contrast Essay

Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.

Compare and Contrast Example:

Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’


Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.


Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.

Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"


Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.


Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.


Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality?  Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?

The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.

  • Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
  • Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
  • Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
  •  Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
  • Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
  • Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
  • Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion. 
  • The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
  • Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage. 

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