AH386: American Modernisms

AH386: American Modernisms


Visual Analysis Paper:   


This paper (2-3 pages) should analyze one of the following objects at the Museum of Fine Arts:


*James Abbott McNeil Whistler, The Last of Old Westminster, 1862

*Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading, 1876

*William Glackens, Italo-American Celebration, Washington Square, c.1912 226)


Your task is to analyze the ways that your chosen artwork uses the characteristic material forms and symbolic language of its medium (oil paint) to advance a particular account of its subject (urban rivers/waterfronts, women’s literary leisure, or a bohemian Parisian neighborhood). To this end, your paper should carefully describe the formal composition of your chosen painting and analyze how specific pictorial tactics employed by that work contribute to an interpretation of the person/place that it represents. Papers should address the artwork’s localized details and broader structure, and remain attentive to any elements that may add complexity or contradiction to the artwork’s interpretation of its subject.


Papers should be submitted through the Blackboard site; please use the “visual analysis paper” link in the Assignments section of the website.

Papers should be 4-5 pages with standard formatting (double spaced, 12 point font, 1 inch margins), and should take the form of a Word document or pdf file. 


Please do NOT incorporate text or information from the MFA website in your paper.


As you consider your chosen work, you may wish to consider:


*the distribution of light and shadow within the scene

*the colors employed in the scene (bright or muted? Hot or cool? Harmonious or discordant?)

*viewpoint (where are we situated? What sort of view do we enjoy?)

*composition: relationship between the fore/middle/backgrounds (visual or thematic)

*the suggestion of space and/or recession (does the picture create the illusion of navigable space, or does it seem to flatten out/emphasize the flat plane of the canvas?)

*the role of any/all figures in the scene

*handling of light/atmosphere

*paint handling (is it tactile/thick or transparent/thin? Is brushwork visible or concealed? How are individual forms articulated in paint? Does the brushwork suggest spontaneity or careful deliberation?)

*the urban setting (where in the city is the scene set? How does the picture render the spaces/forms of the urban fabric? How does the picture position the viewer in relation to its setting?)

*the social character of the urban subject (what sorts of city dwellers does the painting depict? What kinds of buildings/establishments? Does the picture suggest anything about the social life of its urban setting?)


PLEASE REMEMBER: This is not a research paper. You should not refer to website text or other supporting materials (online resources, etc.) related to these objects.


You should instead build your interpretation around a detailed and sensitive formal analysis of the artwork derived from your sustained observation of the work. You may also draw on class discussions and/or your textbook to think about the ways that your portrait relates to other period paintings.


A few hints about building your arguments:


***Look at your selected work for an extended segment of time, and take as many notes about the work as you can—these notes should be the primary ‘raw data’ that you will use to make your case.


***As you develop your interpretation, be sure to support general claims (i.e. “the portrait underscores the intelligence of the sitter”) with specific formal details.


***Try to build a nuanced interpretation of your chosen work—look for any passages of ambiguity, contradiction, or complexity that might complicate the apparent or “surface” meaning of the painting or sculpture.



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