Sample Art History Paper Thesis Statements

Museum visit thesis examples

Thesis Statement, Outline, and Bibliography Examples

Example #1

Thesis Statement:

Still life painting as a genre was popularized and developed in the Baroque era, when artists began to move away from painting overtly religious scenes and began incorporating observational painting and images of the natural world into their work.  Some viewers might find these seemingly simplistic arrangements of fruit, vegetables, and other objects to be dull or existing solely for decorative purposes. This is a misunderstanding, and still lives have been used throughout art history to communicate complex ideas. For example, one sub-genre of still life known as “vanitas” combines objects that remind the viewer of his/her own mortality. In allowing the viewer to contemplate mortality, the vanitas also hints at life after death according to Christian tradition. Ori Gersht’s 2006 video multimedia installation Pomegranate (image one), a 55 second looped video piece that references Juan Sanchez Cotan’s Quince, Melon, and Cucumber (image two), both revives the tradition of still life and creates a contemporary vanitas that is both politically and philosophically relevant to our time.


1)    Introduction, thesis statement (see above)

2)    Paragraph One

  1. Description of Cotan’s work “Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” as comparison.
    1. i.     Theme of decay and precariousness of objects
    2. ii.     Comparison with Gersht’s work.
      1. Importance of the difference in the medium

3)    Paragraph Two

  1. Description of the video work
    1. i.     Psychological impact of video
    2. ii.     Impact of altering a familiar Baroque painting into this format

4)    Paragraph Three

  1. Iconography of the Pomegranate
    1. i.     Symbol of fertility in Hebrew culture
    2. ii.     Symbol of resurrection
    3. iii.     Possible meanings in relation to this work

5)    Paragraph Four

  1. Relation to modern culture and contemporary connections to vanitas

6)    Conclusion

Bibliography (in MLA format):

Georgievska-Shine, Aneta. “Ori Gersht.” ArtUS 33. Art Full Text. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

Held, Julius S, and Donald Posner. 17th and 18th Century Art: Baroque Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1971. Print.

Scher, Anne. “Pomegranate: A Video by Ori Gersht Video Installation”. The Jewish Museum: February 23, 2008. 23 July 2009

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008. Print.

Here is a youtube link to the video of the piece.

Example #2

Thesis Statement:

It was with great pleasure that I roamed the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in New York City on Saturday, March 14, 2009 and happened upon The Late Interiors exhibit of Pierre Bonnard.  After viewing the beautiful works of this complicated, emotional artist, and reading about his hardships of applying himself to his work during the Nazi invasion of Europe, I found myself further drawn to one painting in particular titled “The Young Woman in the Garden” (image one) which Bonnard started in 1921-1923 and reworked in 1945-1946.  This enchanting painting, a 23 7/8 x 30 3/8 oil on canvas, told the story of a tormented man who was constantly torn between loyalty and happiness, in both his personal life with his wife and mistress, and in the war that was roaring through his beloved country.


1)    Thesis Statement (see above)

2)    Paragraph One – Introduction to Bonnard

  1. Relationship to his wife Marthe, and the other woman in the painting, his once lover – both of these women are depicted in this work.

3)    Description of the young girl with blonde hair and his wife in the work. Contrast their appearance.

4)    Description of the dog in the work and how he emphasizes the contrast between the two women.

5)    Formal analysis of color and freedom of strokes connected with Bonnard’s once lover compared to the lack of color in the portrayal of Marthe.

6)    Depictions of Marthe throughout Bonanrd’s work and their relationship to this work.

7)    Bonnard’s relationship to WWII and the connection with his loyalty and devotion to his wife.

8)    Conclusion


Terrasse, Antoine. Bonnard; Biographical and Critical Study. Geneva: Skira; [distributed in the U.S. by the World Pub. Co., Cleveland, 1964. Print.

Bonnard, Pierre, and Didier Baussy. In Search of Pure Colour: Pierre Bonnard, 1867-1947. Portrait of an artist. Mass.: Home Vision [distributor, 1984.

Amory, Dita. “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2009. Web. 26 Arpil. 2009.

Like this:


Writing a thesis is always a tricky enterprise and a real challenge. For art history students, this venture is made even more complex. In their theses, they not only have to translate visual information into the verbal form, but also analyze one’s perception of their study object in the broad cultural and historical context. Moreover, you should do all that in accordance with specific requirements for the art history thesis. Let’s inspect these elements one by one.

1. Formal Analysis

For art students, “formal” refers to the visual aspects of the researched subject, generally speaking, its form. Thus, when you conduct formal analysis, you “write what you see” describing the object, the medium and techniques which the artist used to create it, palette, lighting, composition and its elements, and more. You can also dwell on the symbolism of the elements and emotions they evoke in the viewer separately and as an ensemble. For example, when writing about The Dance by Henri Matisse, you can explain how the colors and minimalism convey the movement.

2. Historical Research

Just as the name suggests, you should conduct a research which will allow you to place the inspected work of art into the historical context and analyze its historical references, even the subtle ones. For example, when writing about Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, you can attribute it to the Art Nouveau style, which was used at the time of the painting, as well as Arts and Crafts. You can also suggest that the play with the dimensionality in the painting is reminiscent of works by the modernists. On the other hand, the painting refers the viewer to the medieval times with some of its elements, and further to the Bronze Age with other elements used for decorative purposes. You can dwell on Klimt’s historical expansion deeper, as you’ll find a lot of noteworthy information during your research.

3. Theory and Criticism

In your thesis paper, you can view the piece of art through the framework of a particular theory. You can choose the one which appeals to you the most, whether it is social constructionism, psychoanalysis, or post-modernism. While it is often convenient to use psychoanalysis when analyzing works by Salvador Dali, can try to avoid such clichés.

4. Comparison and Contrast

Here, you can compare two or more works of art by the same artist, or by different artists who worked in the similar style, or the two works that share the same subject although created with a significant time difference. For example, you could compare Salvador Dali’s The Architectural Angelus of Millet with the original painting The Angelus (L’Angelus) by Jean-François Millet. Expand on how the two paintings, despite sharing the same topic, have different symbolic meanings and evoke different emotions in the viewer. Here, you could also write about Dali’s perception of the original painting which made him create an entirely new interpretation.

5. Good Introduction

Before you start making your notes on the selected work of art, you should write your thesis statement. The latter is the most important part of your thesis, around which you will build your paper. Your thesis statement might be an answer to your research question that will be expanded in your thesis, or your key argument. In case of Klimt, you might state that his art is inspired by the early forms of art as much as it reflects the current trends and falls into the frameworks of the current artistic movements. Don’t also forget that your introduction is where you should make a proper reference to the piece of art by including its name, author, and year.

While some might think that an art history thesis is a “feel it and write it” paper, there are certain aspects of it that should be considered during the writing process. We have used such terms as formal analysis, historical research, theory and criticism, and comparison and contrast, to give you ideas on what to write in your thesis’ body. Remember that one of the key features of a brilliant art history paper is a good introduction which contains your thesis statement that serves as an axis for your art history thesis.

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