By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art


The Writing Process: 

1. Know what the assignment is!  The 19th century is not the same as the 1900s and a painting is not a sculpture.  Read the assignment carefully and ask questions before you begin work.  Always, always, check the due date and plan your life accordingly. 

2. If the subject of the paper is a work in a museum, go to the museum as soon as possible.  This is not the same as checking the website.  It means actually going and looking at what has been assigned.  Regardless of the topic, make sure you know everything about the relevant works as physical objects.  This includes size and the materials used.  Other questions may be important.  For example, if it is a sculpture, does it have one point of view that is primary?  Is there one place from which everything makes sense?  If it is a painting, is there an ideal viewing distance?  What happens when you get closer or move farther away?  You should consider these questions even if you are not able to see the original works.   

3. Write down all your visual observations.  Don’t worry about putting them in order.  The most important thing is to notice as much as you can, and take notes that will make sense to you later.  Remember, a reproduction is not the same as the work of art it reproduces.  If you are not able to see the original, you must take this into account.  For example, if the original object is two dimensional, make sure that the reproduction does not crop the edges of the original. If it is three dimensional, make sure that you see as many different points of view as you can. 

4. If your assignment is a visual analysis, your notes will become the basis of the finished paper.  Organize them in a way that will make sense to someone who has not seen the work.  The groupings you create should form an outline of what you want to say, with each group becoming a paragraph.  If a paragraph is very long, if it even comes close to being a full page of text, separate the material into several paragraphs.  When you have finished a complete draft, check the topic sentences of each paragraph. Sometimes it is easiest to write the topic sentence last, fitting it to the paragraph you have written. 

5. Even a research paper must begin with careful visual observations.  They will determine the direction of your research.  Once you have identified the questions you wish to study, you should begin looking for relevant material (see below, The Research Process).  Remember to check the assignment to see if you are supposed to use certain kinds of sources or a certain number of them.  You must begin looking as soon as possible because it is very unlikely that everything you need will be available online.   

6. PLAGIARISM.  Once you begin your research, you must keep track of your sources and exactly what each one said.  Plagiarism occurs when you use someone else’s words or someone else’s ideas without indicating the source.  Changing individual words in someone else’s text, even changing every word in the relevant passage, and not citing the source is still plagiarism. You have stolen the idea even if you haven’t used the same phrases to express it.  This can happen by accident if you have not kept good notes, because you can’t be sure of where you read what.  Make sure you record all bibliographic information (see Appendix III: Citation Forms), including exact pages and addresses of websites so you will be able to cite things properly. 

7.  Even before you have assembled everything you need, you should begin to outline your paper.  It is only by actually using the material you have that you will discover what is missing.  Ideally, you will have the time to find what you need to know.  This will not be possible if you have waited until the last minute to complete the assignment.   

8.  Any paper, no matter what its length, must have a structure.  The unit of an essay is the paragraph, which presents the material on a single subject in a logical order.  It must begin with a topic sentence, which states the subject to be discussed.  Underline your topic sentences and see if they make an outline of your paper.  They should.  Then make sure that the paragraph really is about the subject of the topic sentence.  You may have written a fine paragraph, but not one that fits the topic sentence.  Keep the paragraph and change the first sentence.  Or keep the topic sentence and fit it to a new paragraph. 

9.  A long paper should have an introduction, several paragraphs about the subject of the paper, and a conclusion.  A short paper need not have a formal introduction and conclusion.  In all cases, however, the first sentence or sentences must tell the reader what the subject of the paper is.  If the paper is an analysis of a work of art, give the basic visual information about the work right away.  Even a beautifully written paper will not make sense to a reader if the subject is not clear.   

10.  A direct quotation from either a primary source or a secondary source can change the pace of the writing or explain an idea more vividly than a paraphrase would.  If it is part of the text, it must be in quotation marks.  If it will run more than a few lines in the text, it should be single-spaced and set off as a single block, indented five spaces from the margin.  The note indicating the source should come after the period at the end of the quotation. 

11.  You must give references to your sources in a consistent and comprehensible way, so that a reader can go to the exact place you found your information. Remember: the forms for both footnotes and endnotes are different from those used in a bibliography. Most art historians use the Humanities version of the Chicago Manual Style.  Correct citation forms for notes and bibliography in this style are given in Appendix III

The Research Process: 

1.  First, know what your topic is!  Ideally, you should know what visual material is relevant to your topic, looked at it carefully, and decided which aspects interest you before you begin your research.  Not all topics are equally promising and not all questions are equally useful.  If you are writing a five-page paper about a major artist, you are likely to be overwhelmed with sources, and your greatest problem will be defining a thesis that can be discussed in a short essay.  If it is an obscure topic or a single work of art, on the other hand, you may have difficulty finding any sources at all.  Best is to have a few possibilities so you can change your topic if you discover you have reached a dead-end. 

2.  Once you have a topic, you must select appropriate search terms. The more specifically the terms relate to your topic the better.  If you are writing about Claude Monet's paintings, you should limit your searches to his name, perhaps in combination with other relevant aspects of his work.  Do not expand it to "French 19th-century painting" or even "Impressionism", both of which will produce an overwhelming number of references. A helpful website for searches, especially using Google, is  See Parts 3 and 4 especially.  

The most useful search terms may depend upon how the particular catalogue or database you are using works.  Most will look for exactly what you have entered (check for spelling mistakes!).  Usually you can search for an exact phrase by putting it in quotation marks.  In other places, you have to put AND between the individual words.  Library catalogues distinguish between a "keyword" and a "subject."  A "keyword" is one that appears anywhere in the data about the source – the title as well as the categories under which it has been catalogued.  "Subject" refers to specific words that have been chosen by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, as Subject Headings. Therefore it is better to start with keywords.  

3.  You must understand the basic types of resources that are available.  The most important are books, journal articles (journals also are called periodicals, serials, or magazines), and websites.  Books and journal articles also may be available in electronic form on the web or in your library (see below, 5, 6, and 7). Especially if you are looking at these things online, you may not be sure which is which.  A normal book has one or more authors or editors, a title, a publisher, and a date of publication. If you are looking at the actual work or a scan of it, check for a title page (which usually gives the title, the author, and the publisher) and a copyright page (usually on the back of the title page, and often lists the same information, but with the addition of the date of publication after the copyright symbol).  A journal comes out periodically (hence the name periodical or serial), and thus will have a volume and date in addition to its title. Since the article you are using is likely only one of many published in the same issue or in the same year, you must give the page numbers on which it appears as well as the name of the author, the article, the periodical, its volume, and its date.  A website is identified by a stable URL or web address.  The best way to see if you have the correct address is to paste the URL into a new browser window and see if it takes you to your source.  If it doesn't, you don’t have the correct information and you should check your source again.  Many scholarly websites now include instructions about citation somewhere on the page.  With all websites, you should give the date on which you used the site, because it may have changed or even vanished by the time a reader tries to find your source.  

4.  There are two places to begin your research:  the Internet and the library.  The Internet is probably a better place to start.  It is easily accessible, up-to-date, and can lead you to excellent resources.  It must be used with care however, since much of the information found online is wrong – on any topic, not just art history.  You will start by using a search engine, of which Google is the most popular, to find references to your topic.  Note that Google is not a source in itself, but only a way to find sources.  Its URL,, only provides a homepage with a bar into which you enter a search term, not any actual information.  Using mathematical algorithms, Google sorts through all the information on the Internet that it has indexed, and provides a list of the sites its calculations suggest will be most useful to you.  Since different search terms will provide different lists, you should enter as many as possible to make sure that you have found the most relevant sources.  You also should read beyond the first page of results, because the order created by the search engine may not correspond to your needs.   

Search engines rank sites by a variety of factors, including how many times people have linked to them.  This means that the open-edit, online encyclopedia Wikipedia almost always appears at the top because of its immense popularity.  As a source of casual, especially topical, information, it is often very useful.  As a reliable research source, however, it has serious problems.  The most important of them is the feature that makes it as dynamic and successful as it is:  the fact that it is open-edit.  This means that anyone with an Internet connection can change articles.  A history of the edits to any given article can be found if you click on the tab called History at the top of the page.  Unfortunately, you have no idea who the people are or where they got their information.  Although sometimes a source is given (linked to the small number in brackets), more often there is not one.  As a result, Wikipedia is a great place to begin, but should not be used as the final source for any information.  It is a collection of facts and pictures that may be very helpful, and it may contain references to other sources where you will be able to assess the reliability of the information given. 

5.  Deciding which websites are reliable is hard even for an experienced researcher. Generally speaking, the ones with URLs that end in .org (often a non-profit organization), .edu (an educational institution), and .gov (or government) are better than ones that end in .com (commercial), but this is not always the case.  Being able to find the name of the person who wrote an article is helpful, because then you can search the author's name online and see if he or she has written scholarly books or articles that have been cited by other people.  You also should check whether all the facts correspond to those you find in places known to be reliable (see below).  This last might be misleading, however, since sometimes people repeat the same incorrect fact again and again, each having gotten it from someone who wrote earlier rather than checking the original source.  Additional suggestions can be found at   

The easiest way to deal with the problem of reliability is to begin your research with websites you can trust.  The website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,, which is available to anyone, has information about many of the works in its own immense collection, some of which will almost certainly be relevant to your topic.  It also has the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, found through a link on the museum's homepage, which contains maps, timelines, and thematic essays on a wide range of subjects. Anything on the museum's site contains reliable information that has been reviewed by authorities in the field.  Make sure you do multiple searches, checking "Entire Site" as well as "Works of Art," and "Timeline of Art History" (a category under "What's Online" in a list given above the search box), using as many different terms as possible.  Entering a broad search term does not necessarily provide links to all the relevant resources. 

6. Many of the best sources can be found in subscriber-only databases, which you will have to use through a library. The best place to start for an art historical topic is Oxford Art Online, which contains thousands of signed articles, almost all of which end with a bibliography. This means that you likely will find not only information but also references to other authoritative sources.  Oxford Art Online is really a collection of different reference works, which include the 34 volume Grove Dictionary of Art published in 1996, and the 4 volume Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, published in 1998.  Be aware that Grove Art Online is greatly updated and expanded compared to the published work.  Therefore the online version is more useful than the print version.  As always with articles on the Internet, the date you accessed it should be included whenever you refer to it. 

There also are a number of scholarly journal databases that contain articles scanned from print periodicals. These include Academic Search Premier, Art Full Text, EBSCOhost, JSTOR, and Project Muse.  In almost all cases, however, they do not include articles that have appeared during the past couple of years, so make sure you check to see how recent the references will be.  Anything available on these databases originally appeared in print and thus counts as a printed source, since you would read exactly the same thing in the magazine found on a library's shelf as you do in the database.  Therefore the correct citation should include only the information that is necessary to find it in either place:  the author, the title, the name, volume, and date of the periodical, and the page numbers.  The name of the database is no more or less relevant than the name of the library, since both are just places to find the article. 

7.  In addition to being an immensely powerful search engine, Google has two special features, called Google Scholar and Google Books. These are found if you click on "more" among the tabs at the top of the homepage.  Google Scholar directs you to articles about the search term you entered, although it does not provide links to them. As always, use as many search terms as possible, and remember, the terms have to be specific to produce manageable results.  Some of the sources you will be able to access directly on the Internet, while others will be in subscriber-only databases.  The reference will give you that information most of the time.  One great advantage of Google Scholar is that it includes very recent sources, which allows you to find things that might not turn up on searches of subscriber-only databases. 

Google Books is part of an immense undertaking by Google to scan every book ever published.  Recent publications usually are not available for viewing although their names do come up as search results, and sometimes you can get a limited preview of a few pages.  This might be all you need.  Google Books also makes available the complete text of millions of older books and periodicals that are out of copyright, including very rare ones.  Especially for 18th- and 19th-century topics, it may provide access to material owned by only a few major research libraries.  As with the databases of articles scanned from periodicals, the fact that you are able to read it as a Google Book is not important.  In a note or a bibliography, you give only the information any reader will need to locate it anywhere – author, title, original publisher, place of publication, and date.  Look for the title page and copyright page, just as you would if you were using a print copy.   

Google Images also may be helpful, although the way Google ranks what it finds means that you are as likely to get a picture from someone's blog about a trip to Europe as a good picture of a work of art.  If you are working on a particular artist or a particular subject represented in art, you often will be better off starting with, which provides links to many different sources of reproductions, including museum websites and commercial databases.  Another major repository of reproductions of works of art is ARTSTOR, which is a subscriber-only database. Because of copyright restrictions, reproductions of modern art are much harder to find.  For them, the best way to begin is to do a Google search or check

8.  Despite all of the many resources available online, it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to write a good art historical research paper without using printed sources. Scholarly books, especially those published by university presses, and major exhibition catalogues synthesize large amounts of information, sometimes gathered over years of research in multiple places and languages.  If you have access to subscriber-only databases, then you probably will have access to WorldCat, which is a union catalogue that lists the holdings of hundreds of libraries. Most publications can be obtained through Interlibrary Loan.  Or you can start with the catalogue of the best library you have access to.  If you know the names of the publications you want, or you have a list of names of authors who have written on the topic, you can search for them directly.  You also should do a general search for your topic.  Remember that there is a difference between doing a search using "keyword" and "subject" (see above, 2).   

9.  You should try to find much more material than you need, since not all of it will be useful.  First, you must separate the reliable sources from the unreliable, and the ones you have access to from the ones you will not be able to see or, in the case of foreign languages, understand.  That still may leave many sources, and you will have to decide where to start.  A recent general introduction to the topic or perhaps the textbook for your course might allow you to figure out what you need next.  Sometimes a book review is helpful.  A review in the periodical Art Bulletin, for example, usually surveys all of the relevant scholarly literature on the subject before getting to the book being reviewed.  This type of review offers a quick way to get at least one scholar’s opinion of what is useful and what isn’t. 

10.  Note that an annotated bibliography is DIFFERENT from the bibliography that comes at the end of your paper.  The first consists of complete references to the sources you found, cited in the proper form for a bibliography, as well as a summary of the contents of each one.  The reader should be told what is in the source and how it might be useful for your research topic.  An account of a work written by its maker, for example, will be interesting in a different way from a factual historical account of its creation written by an art historian.  It is not that one is true and one is false (although that also might be the case), but that the points of view and purposes of the two writers are entirely different.  Some sources might be useful for illustrations, and another because an excellent index allows you to find the information you need quickly.  Perhaps the bibliography is exceptionally complete.  The more specific your description is, the more helpful the annotations will be to the reader. 


Appendix II provides correct citation forms for both notes and bibliography according to the Humanities version of the Chicago Manual Style.  Appendix III includes sample visual descriptions by students, with suggested edits and revisions by me. Appendix IV consists of an explanation of all the steps involved in the production of an actual student's research paper, from selecting a topic, finding sources, and taking notes, to writing and revision of the final paper.