A good art history essay comprises a strong central thesis supported by judiciously selected evidence and critical argumentation. Your task is to critically evaluate the sources, to select the most plausible interpretations of the facts, and to present them in a logical, compelling and systematic manner so as to bolster your thesis.
The first rule in writing an art history essay is to make sure that you answer the question set. This means that everything you write must be relevant to that end. Thinking hard about the question itself, about what it means, the issues it raises, and the various ways it might be answered, is far more important than most students realise.
Having understood the parameters of the question, the next task is to find a way of tackling it that does more than simply regurgitate the answers you find in standard textbooks. While encyclopaedias and general textbooks are useful for gaining an initial overview of your topic, such reading does not count as citable research. The bulk of your reading should concentrate on specialised books and scholarly articles.
Art historians, like historians in general, must be sceptical. This means examining your sources critically and comparatively. As an art history student, you should weigh up the evidence used by a range of scholars and avoid over-reliance on particular texts or authors. An historical debate should first be understood before one stakes out a position within it, and this means drawing upon second, third and fourth opinions before arriving at a conclusion.
During your degree your examiners will be less interested in your conclusion than in how well you are able to support it. Always substantiate your claims with judicious use of relevant evidence. Sources should be examined critically rather than simply taken at face value. Vague, unsubstantiated and sweeping statements should always be avoided. As far as possible you should formulate an argument that does justice to all the information available, while also considering alternative points of view.
A good art history essay marshals plausible evidence in support of its arguments, but is never simply a narrative of events. Generally speaking, if you find yourself telling a story, the likelihood is that you have drifted from the point. Essay questions require clear answers supported by coherent arguments. This requires you to structure your material in the best logical order, an order that will rarely if ever coincide with the chronological sequence of historical events.
In essay writing as in life more generally, first impressions count. An introduction is often the most difficult part to write, but it is well worth spending time getting it right. A strong introduction should grab the reader's attention, clarify how you will tackle the question, provide a clear outline of what is to follow, and set the tone for the rest of the essay.
Always employ the signpost principle: every step in the argument should be clearly marked out, and the reader should never be left wondering where the argument is going or why a particular point is being made. Use of rhetorical questions can be effective for this purpose: “What, then, is the nature of the evidence for the influence of the Italian masters on Dali's work during the interwar period?” Generally speaking, the clearer your transitions the more readable your paper.
Too many student papers end abruptly without providing proper conclusions. A conclusion should not be a word-for-word restatement of the thesis but rather a succinct summary of the main points you have made in the body of the paper. You might then briefly gesture towards the wider implications of your argument. However, a conclusion is not the place to introduce new claims, evidence or arguments, which only betrays poor planning.
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