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Formal Analysis of Paintings

1. Virtually visit the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. You will choose two works of art from the time period 1860-1910 by artists we are dealing with in this course. Begin from the Google Arts and Culture webpage for the Musée d’Orsay. Scroll down to find the option to “explore” the museum. This will give you the opportunity to move around the museum or select works from the bottom of the page to “stand” in front of – see attached screenshot.

Then, find the corresponding images of your works on the Musée d’Orsay’s website by searching through the collection. You may also wish to begin from searching the collection, but you may not be able to use Street View to see the works on the wall. In making your choices, you should look for two paintings that are dissimilar in their form, as the ensuing project will be to compare and contrast the two works to elucidate their meaning(s).

Suggested artists include (but are not limited to):
Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Cassatt, Gonzalez, Bazille, Pissarro, Sisley,
Cezanne, Caillebotte, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bernard, Seurat, Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec,
Puvis de Chavannes, Vuillard, Bonnard, Denis, Vallotton, Sérusier, Moreau, Rousseau, Matisse

Musée d’Orsay Collection:

Google Arts and Culture webpage for the Musée d’Orsay:

2. This is NOT a research paper; no footnotes, no further reading; just looking and writing. Write a 4-5 page, typed, and double-spaced formal analysis of the works. Pay close attention in your written description to all the elements of formal organization: composition and the arrangement of forms (symmetrical, asymmetrical, ordered, random, etc.), color choices and combinations, the quality and types of line deployed, the manner of paint application and the use of brush strokes, the massing of volumes in space and the interplay of volume and void (or what is also called positive and negative space), the rhythms of forms deployed in coherent relations to one another within the works, major orthogonals or axes of organization, the style terms that might be applicable (decorative, sculptural, linear, painterly, hard-edged, biomorphic, etc.). Invent terms if you feel that you need to, but open yourself visually to the formal qualities of the two works and attempt to describe the forms in as much detail as possible. DO NOT use any website description of the painting, if provided, to direct your reading.

3. However, a formal ANALYSIS must work beyond mere formal description to make some tentative claims for how these forms, isolated and described in a kind of story or narrative in your paper, combine to create MEANING. Your analysis should thus build to a reading of the works in terms of their formal organization (or disorganization as the case may be). Compare and contrast the two works and what makes them different formally in order to arrive at your claims for their meanings. In building to your conclusions about the works’ meanings, you may wish to consider in such a formal analysis how the works relate to the medium of painting and thus potentially to the modernist imperative to “self-criticism,” to an analysis and reflection upon the medium as a modernist art.