a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

techniques of analysis and interpretation


people, terms, and concepts:  form, subject matter, meaning, context


The basic ‘formula’ for the analysis and interpretation of images is:




The subject matter is what is depicted in the work; the recognizable objects you can name with nouns like "a tree," "a cowboy hat," "clouds," "the Roman god Jupiter," and so forth.  The form is how those things are depicted: large or small; on the left or on the right; blue or orange; precisely or sketchily; and so forth. The meaning of the image is very simply whatever ideas and feelings come into the viewers' heads when they see that subject matter depicted in that way.  In this class, you will need not only to be able to interpret images, but also to analyze them, which means being able to describe how the artist’s choices of form and subject matter lead to the meaning(s) that you discern.

The importance of context

The meaning of the subject matter, of the elements of form, and of the work as a whole will differ in different contexts (different times and places). For example, the steam trains that Monet depicted in the 1870s may appear either (a) quaint and charming or (b) like greenhouse-gas-producing global-warming disasters to us in the early twenty-first century, but both of these readings are anachronistic.  Viewers in the 1870s had no real notions global warming, and steam trains were the cutting edge of modern technology at the time; they were not charming or old-fashioned.  Our goal is to know what the works we will be examining meant in their original contexts, to the viewers by whom they were intended to be seen.

Marlboro ad, 1980s

(you don't need to know this image; just use it to recall the key points of the lecture)