Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! In today’s post, I am going to discuss how to craft a successful visual analysis. This is an essential skill for any art historian! So, to learn more, keep on reading!
Why is visual analysis important?
Before I dive into an example of a visual analysis, it is important to understand why they are so important! Visual analysis is a foundational practice in art history. Not only does it help us to understand the deliberate choices made by the artist to create the scene for the viewer, but they help us to see art historical trends and individual elements/styles of artists. Visual analysis has become a way for art historians to track the timeline and understand how human creativity has developed over time!
Part One: Observation
Alright, now that we have that established, let’s dive into an example visual analysis. For this demonstration, I’m going to use one of the most famous works in history: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. This fresco was painted between 1495-98 for the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
It is important to note, however, that a visual analysis does not include a discussion of things like iconography, symbolism, story, etc. Instead, it focuses on the formal elements like line, color, composition, form, light, and more.
The first part of doing a visual analysis is taking in the piece through observation. Here is what I noticed about The Last Supper:
There are thirteen people seated along one side of a long table. There is a single figure in the center and the rest are divided evenly on each side of him.
The table and the people create a set of strong, horizontal lines throughout the piece.
The composition of the room is also balanced with four archways on each side
The room and the table are painted in a neutral color palette, while the people are painted in more vivid shades of red, blue, green, and golden yellow.
The light is fairly even throughout the work. There are shadows cast by the table and the people, but nothing is highlighted or cast into shadow for a more dramatic effect.
There is a lot of emotional interaction between the figures.
Part Two: Analysis
Now that we’ve made some general observations about the Last Supper, we can ask ourselves: How does each element relate to the larger goal of the work?
Setting - Roman style house, like you would have seen in Jesus’ time. Small detail that adds a lot to the scene
The balanced composition helps spread out the story so that the viewer can take everything at once.
Color - balanced and prevalent. Makes the scene more realistic, but also visually pleasing to the viewer.
These two things are very common in the Italian Renaissance.
Display of emotion - connects with the viewer and brings them into the story.
The even use of light can show us the whole scene at once.
Part 3: Conclusions
By observing and analyzing this work, we can see that da Vinci used all these elements to allow the viewer to study and understand the story of the Last Supper. He ensured that we would be able to see everything at once, and how the story unfolded in the moment! It is truly a work of genius!
Visual analysis is a key skill for any art historian to develop. This practice allows the viewer to read the painting in the way that they would read a book. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the complex beauty that is art history!