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Writing a Compare/Contrast Art History Essay

Important Points of an Art History Image


  • Who is the artist or is the artist unknown?
  • What period or style is it?
  • What is the name of the artwork?
  • To what culture does it belong?
  • Of what material/medium is it made?
  • What is its subject matter?


  • How big is it? Does its medium affect the quality?
  • What are its formal elements (line, color, composition, etc.)?
  • Is it abstract, naturalistic, idealistic, realistic, or a combination?
  • How is the subject being depicted?
  • What is the origin of the style? - Is it a combination of cultural styles?

Function/Symbolism(Often relates to cultural context)

  • What was it used for? Why was it made?
  • It is sacred or secular?
  • Does it communicate a message? Is it asking for something?
  • Does it contain symbolism? What does it mean?

Cultural Context

  • What was happening historically, politically, socially, religiously, intellectually, and/or economically at the time it was made?
  • What were qualities of life at the time and place the piece was made that may have affected its function and style?
  • Do historical events or overall aesthetic tastes relate to the image/story depicted?

Compare and Contrast/Be Concise and to the Point

  • Explore the differences and similarities of the two works being compared using the four topic areas discussed above.

  • Begin your essay with an opening paragraph stating the main point of the comparison? (Remember to add the basics such as identification.) Asking, "Why did the instructor choose these two particular works?" will lead you to thesis.

  • Each paragraph should discuss what is the same and what is different about the works in regards to each topic listed above. (e.g. one paragraph will discuss what is similar and different regarding style.)

  • Start with main concepts and then move to relevant details. (Remember to state the obvious.)

  • Use complete sentences. Each paragraph should focus on one main concept/topic .

  • Conclude with a paragraph which sums up your main ideas.

Example Essay:

In this essay I will compare and contrast two ancient sculptures in the round. The first is Nude Woman, or Venus of Willendorf, from the prehistoric period. The small limestone sculpture was found in modern day Austria and dates to circa 25,000 b.c.e. The second image is Khafre, a life-size Egyptian sculpture made of diorite stone from much later, circa 2,500 b.c.e. Both sculptures contain magical or supernatural symbolism, as well as concepts of life and death.

The Venus is probably a votive figure, or offering to the gods. She is abundant, perhaps pregnant, probably to symbolize fertility and to bring good fortune in the fields and in human reproduction. Little is known about the sculpture, but life at this time must have been a struggle for survival and she represents the core of the cycle of life. Khafre is a "Ka" statue, meant to be buried with the mummified body of the king of which he is a portrait. It is to serve as a back-up to the mummy to offer a place for the Ka, or soul, to reside at night. The portrait also helps the Ka recognize its residence and body. Most Egyptian art focused on permanence and the afterlife such as this one. Whereas Venus is probably an offering to the gods and a symbol of life to an entire culture, Khafre is meant to retain the individual man's soul and help him travel to and from the afterlife.

The Venus figure is a very small (about 4 ½ inches high) standing naked figure, whereas Khafre is a life-size and clothed seated portrait. They are both stone and both human figures, but differ greatly in style. The Venus exhibits a combination of many stylistic elements. It is naturalistic and organic in areas of the body; exhibits full breasts, a round stomach, the pubic triangle, and chubby legs. She is a series of natural spheres. However it is abstract as well. The head is stylized with no face, so that it represents a "type," perhaps representing the ideal of womanhood. Therefore, she is also idealistic.

Khafre is naturalistic and serves as a portrait, although it is depicted quite flawlessly, and thus is idealized. The Egyptian sculpture has a refined surface and contains precise detail in the face's features and in the reliefs on the throne on which Khafre sits. One feels the block of the stone from which it was carved and is very formal, stiff, and rigid. Khafre's blockiness and dark color add to its strong sense of permanence, common to Egyptian sculpture of royalty.

To conclude, both sculptures reflect the ancient cultures by which they were made and focus on the cycle of life. One concentrates on a type, the other on an individual. Stylistically, they both show elements of naturalism and idealism, although Venus utilizes more organic shapes, while Khafre is more rigid and blocky.

For help brainstorming and organinzing the ideas in your essay, you can use the Outlining Worksheet for Compare & Contrast Essays.