Key Concepts and Terms

REMEMBER: When writing an essay for a worksheet you are NEVER allowed to copy straight from the textbook, primary texts or the online textbook.  I will notice if something is not in your own words and you will likely fail the assignment.


A text, as in a textbook, is something you read. A work of art, like a book, is also something that can be read. The first step in reading a book is looking at it -- not reading the book in the traditional sense but actually looking at the physical properties of the book. How big is the book? What is depicted on the cover? How many pages does it have? Are there illustrations? Take the book down off the shelf, crack it open, and you begin to read the book for its style. The first thing you may notice is the book's form. Are the sentences long and complicated? How is the book organized? Does the book follow a chronological or alphabetical sequence? Reading deeper into the book you discover its content. You are now analyzing the meaning of the book and what the book is about becomes important. You may find that as the book progresses that the way in which the plot elements and characters relate to each other means something more than you first realized. The overall meaning becomes clearer as you analyze the symbolism of the book's plot and characters. This means that you have placed the work within a contextual framework. When we look at a work of art, the same concepts apply to reading a work of art as if it were a written text.

How do you analyze and appreciate a text as a work of art or a work of art as a text?

Formal Analysis

(1) : orderly method of arrangement (as in the presentation of ideas) : manner of coordinating elements (as of an artistic production or course of reasoning)

(2) : a particular kind or instance of such arrangement <the sonnet is a poetical form>

b : PATTERN, SCHEMA <arguments of the same logical form>

c : the structural element, plan, or design of a work of art --  visible and measurable unit defined by a contour : a bounded surface or volume

(3) The literal shape and mass of an object or figure.

(4) More general, the materials used to make a work of art, the ways in which these materials are used utilized in terms of the formal elements (medium, texture, rhythm, tempo, dynamic contrast, melody, line, light/contrast/value structure, color, texture, size and composition.)

6-30. Augustus of Primaporta. Early 1st century CE 
(perhaps a copy of a bronze statue of c.20 BCE.) 
Marble, height 6'8" (2.03m). 
Musei Vaticani, Braccio Nuovo, Rome
Form consists of the physical properties of the work. Whether we look at a sculpture's size, mass, color, and texture or a poem's order of elements and composition, all are part of the work's form. When you are doing a formal analysis, you describe the way that the work looks, feels, and is organized. The next passage is a formal analysis of a work of art; the Augustus of Primaporta is a statue from the first century BCE.  The statue stands six feet eight inches tall and is made of white marble. It depicts a male figure wearing armor and some drapery, with his right arm raised. The figure carries a bronze spear or staff in his left hand. The texture of the hair and skin mimic the texture of real hair and skin. Augustus stands in contrapposto, appearing to be stepping forward with most of his weight resting on his right hip. Attached to his right leg is a small dolphin with a winged baby on its back. 

Contemporary Whirling Logs
Whirling Logs
Navajo Sandpainting Textile
Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's

One of the more important elements concerning form is the idea of composition.  Composition can include how things are laid out in two dimensional space or how the picture plane is organized.

For example, the top two images in this illustration are asymmetrical.  The blue circles are not evenly distributed through out each rectangle.

The bottom two most images are symmetrical.  There are balancing elements on each side of the blue sphere in the lower left hand image.  Even though one of the objects is a square and the other a circle, they take up about the same amount of space and have the same visual weight.

The boxes on either side of the tall white rectangle are mirror images of each other and this can be referred to as symmetrical too.  Since you could draw a vertical line down the center of the center rectangle and on each side of this imaginary line it would be a mirror image, this is called bilateral symmetry.

The "Whirling Logs" textile on the left is arranged in a bilaterally symmetrical fashion because we could draw cut the design in half and the left and right sides are nearly a mirror image of each other.  Nevertheless, for all its symmetry, this textile appears kind of flat looking.

Composition also has to do with the creation of the illusion of space.  When we look at pictures (as opposed to sculptures as the Augustus above) we often think of the picture as an imaginary window.  The front of the window, or the glass, is the picture plane that we look through.

In order to create space artists conceive of the picture plane as having three planes that recede back.  In order to create space in the picture plane and the appearance of a foreground, middleground and background we can overlap objects to give this illusion.  If there is nothing overlapped then we can say that there is no real illusion of space in the picture.

These two pictures demonstrate this idea.  If you look at the one on the left, there is very little overlapping in the picture plane and the figures seem to be pressed against this imaginary window. While the one on the right has some overlapping and we can tell that some figures are in front of others.  This overlapping gives us a sense of space.

  Contemporary Whirling Logs
Whirling Logs
Navajo Sandpainting Textile
Contemporary Navajo Carpet 1990's
Little River Simpson Whirling Logs c1999sandpainting
These two sculptural friezes demonstrate these ideas in a three dimensional form.  If you look at the one on the left, there is very little overlapping in the picture plane and the figures seem to be pressed against this imaginary window. While the one on the right has some overlapping and we can tell that some figures are in front of others.  This overlapping gives us a sense of space.

The "Panathanaic Frieze" from the Parthenon sculpted by Pheidias and his assistant, c.440 BCE, Athens, Greece, Classical Greek

Frieze from the Ara Pacis Augustae representing a prosession of Roman citizens, c139 BCE, Rome, Italy, Roman 
Here is an example of a formal analysis of the Greek tragedy The Bacchae written by Euripides in 406 BCE.  You can use a similar format of analysis when examining a work of art. The Bacchae is play written in a chant form called dithyramb. Musical instruments, especially the drum, were used to keep time in the performance of the play. Approximately eighty percent of the play is dialogue while only a small portion is devoted to action on the stage. The order of the narrative is predictable and therefore symmetrical because there is a continuous cycle of basic components that are repeated throughout the play. These components are known as the prologos, parados, episode, stasimon, and exodos. The repeated sections are the three central components of the parados, episode, and stasimon, which are retold in predictable form as many as five times in the typical Greek tragedy.

Kouros from Attica (the region surrounding Athens, Greece)
c600 BCE 6' 4" marble
polychrome, encaustic
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Doryphoros (Spear Bearer)
(also called "the Canon")
by Polykleitos c450-440 BC
Roman copy after a bronze 
original marble height 6'6"
tree stump and leg brace 
are later 
Roman additions
Classic, Greek
Another look at schema and correction:

Summary of Gombrich

Renown art historian Ernst Gombrich developed a theory to explain these adaptations and changes and refered to it as schema and correction.  If we were to look at the Archaic period's art and architecture as the plan or schema, we can see how the later Classic period might have taken the archaic art as its schema and updated it in order to make the designs more pleasing according to the  later tastes.  These changes are referred to as the correction.

The next update or correction occurs when the same pose and musculature from the Doryphoros were adopted and adapted for use by the Romans in the portrait of Augustus.

To understand his theory called "schema and naturalization," or "schema and correction." To understand it you basically just need to know the definitions of three words. 

  • Schema is the cultural code through which individuals raised in a culture perceive the world. For example, we recognize stick figures to be humans.
  • Correction is where you take that schema and you compare it to what your senses tell you about the world and then you make it more accurate.
  • Mimesis is the process of correcting your schema.
Gombrich's idea can be expanded to looking how later groups can take the earlier work of art and mimic it (mimesis).  This is a kind of Darwinian theory kind of like Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fitest."

Read some more stuff by Gombrich if it interests you!


Some interesting ideas that might help you to understand the terms "civilization" and "period" occur when studying the concept of "schema and correction."  Both of these works of art come from the Ancient Greek civilization.  Even though we use the term "ancient" what we are saying is that the Greek civilization occurred a long time ago.  Within the Ancient Greek civilization, is tied to the region of land we now call Greece.  The civilization lasted between circa (approximately) 1000 BCE to about 100 BCE but we divide the Greek civilization into various periods that are defined by the style of art they produced.  For example, the Kouros from Attica, comes from a period we refer to as the Archaic period, which lasted from around 600-480 BCE.  The style associated with this Archaic period is that the sculpture is a bit unrealistic and slightly stylized in a geometric way.  This means that the style of the Archaic period was to make the sculptures look kind of "blocky" and unrealistic.  A later period that occurred during the Ancient Greek civilization is the "Classic Period" which lasted from circa 500 BCE -350 BCE.  The main characteristics are that the sculptures look lifelike or realistic.  So both the "periods" belong to the Ancient Greek Civilization.  The main difference between period and civilization is that period is a kind of style that is a subset of a civilization.  Civilizations go through many periods of development and a civilization is located in one geographic region and spans a longer time.

6-30. Augustus of Primaporta.
Early 1st century CE 
(perhaps a copy of a 
bronze statue of c.20 BCE.) 
Marble, height 6'8" (2.03m). 
Musei Vaticani, 
Braccio Nuovo, Rome

Aulus Metellus
The next passage is a contextual analysis of the Augustus of Primaporta.
The portrait of Augustus of Primaporta is work of political propaganda. Augustus waged an extremely profitable series of wars and was able to extend the Roman Empire's borders.  His ability to control the Senate maintained his status of unchallenged power within the Roman city as well. The unnaturally tall height of the statue is symbolic of the god-like status of Augustus because the average height was around five feet. The statue of Augustus is a correction of an even earlier sculpture called the Aulus Metellus.

Augustus's raised right arm symbolic of his abilities as a master orator and refers and builds on the iconography of Etruscan portrayals of great statesman such as depicted by the Aulus Metellus.  The raised arm, a symbol of rhetorical power as a speaker is combined with the bronze staff and armor are references to the abilities that any Roman leader should possess. In some ways, this is the originating idea of our conception of the "Renaissance Man" of the 1500's. The references to the Aulus Metellus statue, the contrapposto pose (invented by the classical Greek culture) and the Cupid (representing Augustus as a descendent of the gods) grant both the Augustus Primaporta, and Augustus himself, an authority based in time honored traditions.