By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art


I created Writing About Art as the text for a course of the same name at The City College of New York. The book explains the different approaches college students encounter in undergraduate art history classes. Each chapter outlines the characteristics of one type of visual or historical analysis, and briefly explains its history and development. Passages by well-known art historians provide examples of each method. Four appendices outline the steps in researching art historical topics, writing essays about them, and citing sources properly. Appendices III and IV include sample student papers, accompanied by my comments and suggested changes.

I have not included illustrations, in the hope that more attention will be given to the passages quoted. Glancing at a picture and then skimming text about it is not the same as trying to create a mental image from words alone. The absence of illustrations also makes it easier for each reader to decide which words are especially effective in communicating information about visual things.  However, complete identification of the images discussed is given so that the reader can find them easily on the Web. Many of them will be familiar from art history surveys.

Writing About Art has been revised repeatedly in response to comments from students and colleagues. It is no exaggeration to say that without the help of my students at CCNY, I never could have – or would have – written this text. I owe them all, especially those who allowed me to use their papers as examples, tremendous thanks. They also have forced me into the twenty-first century, making it clear how useful it would be to have this text available as a website as well as in a paperback and a Kindle edition. In appreciation of all they have given me, I dedicate this work to my students in Art 210.

Marjorie Munsterberg

The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description.  The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is.  It is no mere matter of carefulness; you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise — that which is common to you, me and everybody.  But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language . . . [which] has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas.  It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose.1

The way to breathe life into the description of any object is to apply adjectives to it.  A piece of cloth is of little interest for us until we know whether it is starched, handwoven, salmon pink, translucent, knotted, torn, bespangled, or sodden.2

Professor Marjorie Munsterberg received her Ph.D. from Columbia University, where she wrote her dissertation about the British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Since then, she has published articles and book reviews about 19th-century British and French art, as well as co-authored World Ceramics (Penguin/Studio Vista, 1998). She currently is writing a monograph about the development of art criticism in Britain during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.