It’s the end of term and you have to study for your art history exam…

Make like Dewey the Library Cat and hit the books…

The classic art history test and exam format is the dreaded two-slide comparison. Your professor is asking you a leading question about two works in order to get you to prove that you paid attention in class. The following are slide exam study tips that I wrote upon the request of my students of Italian Renaissance art, but these concepts can apply to any period. Please note that each instructor has different exam rules and advice, so these are guidelines only.

How to study?

  • Start early and review often.
  • Make flashcards with artist, title, date, and relevant facts/points. What was said about the work in class may be relevant to developing your conclusion. If you do this, you’ll come up with a better conclusion than if you just base your statement on visual elements.
  • Think about which images will show up as comparisons (see below).
  • Try to practise these comparisons by thinking about similarities and differences between the works.
  • If you have trouble memorizing dates, think about works in relation to each other, and/or in relation to a few “key” dates. If you’re familiar with style, you can often deduce date based on this information. Make a timeline.
  • Find out what your professor accepts in terms of date range. In my classes, for most questions, rounding date to the DECADE is acceptable.

What two images make a good comparison?

  • Two works of the same subject so you can see subject matter treated differently in two artists or two media.
  • By the same artist at different points in his career.
  • Similar composition but different subject.
  • Works by artists who are closely related for one reason or another (for example, teacher/student).
  • Works with something in common like perspective or naturalism or theory or ???
  • Two works that permit you to learn something about one or both of them — for example the image that is the source of another that might determine date or artistic influence.

How to develop a conclusion
Larger conclusions are better than smaller conclusions. These are some examples of what I mean:

  • What these 2 works tell you about the period of art history studied.
  • What they tell you about one artist’s oeuvre, like changes within his career in terms of style, or x is earlier than y. NB: if you conclude this, your dates in the slide ID MUST correspond to your conclusion!!
  • Relationships between 2 artists on a larger scale (x was influenced by y)
  • Regional or time differences.
  • Sometimes the conclusion might be about a specific piece of information, like x is the source of y (and hence is the earlier work).
  • There are many more types of answers – think for yourself and try to relate the comparison to the course as a whole.

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