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Art History Terms: Composition

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! My goodness, it’s certainly been a minute! I’m thrilled to get back into blogging and content creation! So, to kick things off, I’m adding another installment to my Art History Terms series. This week, it’s all about composition. In the study of art history, this refers to the building blocks of art, the small elements that come together to make a masterpiece! So, to learn more, keep on reading!


According to the Tate, composition is “the arrangement of elements within a work of art”. It is a series of choices that the artist makes to create a story for the viewer to unpack and understand.

For a large part of history, artists favored the triangle or pyramidal style of composition. They preferred it because it creates a sense of balance and harmony in the work. For example, let’s take a look at Raphael’s work Madonna del Prato. In this piece, the Madonna sits in a beautiful field. She is accompanied by her son Jesus, who sits in front of her, and his cousin, St. John the Baptist. Each of the figures forms one angle of the triangle. Their bodies blend into each other, creating harmony within the space!

However, in the 20th century, artistic ideas about composition started to shift. For example, Barnett Newman, the American Abstract Expressionist, started to experiment with painting

around the corners of the canvas. This expanded the borders of the work and broke the boundary between artist and viewer. This was a shocking twist to composition and has been adopted by many artists going forward.


Composition is a foundational element for the creation of art. It shows us how the artist made deliberate choices to influence the way that a viewer would see the work. Without composition, we can argue that art would not exist!




Cover image: The Art of Painting , Jan Vermeer, 1666–1668, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Madonna del Prato, Raphael, 1506. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Onement 1, Barnett Newman, 1948. Fair use via Wikimedia Commons

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