How to start writing about a piece of art

academics art history High School

One of the things that makes art history such an interesting analytical discipline is that it examines both the anthropological and creative value of an artwork.  Artworks are  historical objects that can give us insight into the culture of a particular place and time. Yet artworks also transcend their time and place through their creativity, triggering an innate sense of beauty that is universal. 

Take Titian's self portrait dated to about 1560. At first glance we see an elderly man with a distinguished air about him. His impassive expression is the mark of wisdom and intelligence, very much alive, despite his advanced age. An initial takeaway if we knew nothing else about the artist might be: 

This self-portrait of an old Renaissance artist shows that he was still adept as a painter. There is great skill in the way he handles his brush to create the different contours and fleshtones of his face. The painter has an eminent look to him. He seems far from a man in decline.

This analysis is what is called a formalist approach in art history. A visual reading of an artwork pays attention to its composition- such as certain details and colors and the effect they have on us.

A formalist approach is key to understanding how a work comes across at first glance.  An initial impression is as important as any other factor that informs our understanding of an artwork, and often correlates with the author's intent in capturing our attention.

We can go even deeper in our appreciation of a work when we consider other analytical avenues, such as the following:

The iconography of the artwork and its function. 

Who did Titian make this work for? What was its original setting? Was it commissioned or was it purchased from the painter's studio? Was it made for a special occasion?

How an artwork relates to the biography of the artist.

At what point in Titian's life did he paint this self-portrait? How does it compare to previous works he had done, as well as to works afterwards?  Did any relationships he have with others influence its creation? How did the work compare to others by the artist's contemporaries?  

the  social context of the subject and details of a work, and how they relate to their era when they were produced.

Looking at a painting's details can produce a range of inquiries about the artist's time and place. What does Titian's pose and dress suggest? Is this a picture of an artist or an aristocrat?  

an artwork's historiography, or how the ownership and reception of the work over its lifetime has shaped its reputation.

What was the provenance (ownership history) of the work? how did that affect it being remembered / recorded by others? where was it displayed and how did that shape awareness or estimation of it? Was it written about or reproduced in later publications? Was the work emulated by other artists? Do you think that was the artist's intent?

Asking such questions produces a wealth of new information that enhances our own initial impressions.

Looking at  the catalog entry of Titian's self-portrait from the Museo del Prado in Madrid, for example, we learn from following these research approaches:

Iconography

While the initial patron or destination for the work was unknown, the art historian  Giorgio Vasari mentioned seeing it in Titian's studio in 1566. It may have been one of a series  of portraits that Titian began to produce  around this time for collectors and nobles.

Biography

Titian produced this work probably around 1566, around the age of seventy five.  He would live for about another ten years, and he had begun at this point to give control of his studio activity to his sons. He had long been successful as a painter in Venice and had painted for Europe's nobility for several decades. Most famously, he was principal painter to the Kingdom of Spain from the 1530s onward, becoming the “pintore del Rey”  under Philip II in 1551.

Titian's self portrait activity had begun in 1545, after a trip to Rome, where he may have been seeking to promote himself as a painterly equivalent to Michelangelo (the great sculptor of Rome at the time). By the 1560s, he had produced several portraits that may have been part of a campaign to maintain his visibility and professional reputation among European courts. 

Titian's professional contemporaries in Venice also produced self portraits, perhaps as a way of promoting themselves artistically. The self portraits of  Palma il Giovane (1584)  and Jacopo Tintoretto (1588)  are prime examples of those that followed Titian's 1566 self portrait. 

Social context

Titian wears  a simple black toga very much in line with that of the Venetian patrician class.  It is of a cavaliere (a knight) , as described in Baldassare Castiglione's famous book on social customs of the time, The Courtier.

The golden chain that Titian wears was given to him by Charles V, the King of Spain in 1533, which additionally signifies his knighthood.

The iconic profile of Titian may have been connected to a rising interest in numismatics (coin collecting)  during the Renaissance. Titian's side profile is reminiscent of the busts of emperors from ancient Roman coinage. 

Historiography

The self-portrait's subsequent presence in the Royal collection of Spain (acquired in 1704) influenced a long line of Spain's painters to the King to depict themselves as ennobled. Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas" (1656) and Francisco Goya's “Charles IV of Spain and his Family" of (1800-01) are two of the most famous examples. 

In Summary

We can see that this was not just Titian's painting of himself as a wily old artist, but an image for posterity, perhaps in the same vein as legendary men of antiquity like Apelles, the famous painter to Alexander the Great. Bearing a chain given to him by Charles V some thirty years prior, Titian proclaims himself as both a painter and a noble knight. He brandishes not a sword, but a paintbrush.

Such knowledge brings us back to the physical beauty of the painting itself. How might the passages of paint that Titian used in this work have enhanced the feeling of himself that he wanted to project? We might think of the cloud of pinkish gray that comprises his beard or the elegant passage of white of his shirt collar.

What do these paint effects have on the overall feeling of the portrait and the living legend of Titian at the time? How might this interplay between the optical properties of paint have inspired  other artists' self portraits? Such are the questions that arise when we incorporate an artwork's context to enhance and illuminate the beauty of the work itself. 

James is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, where he is writing a dissertation on a Venetian painter from the late 16th century named Palma il Giovane. He holds an MA in Art History (NYU), an MA in Art Business (University of Manchester), and a BA in Art History (Vassar).

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