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Art History Comprehensive Exams

Department of Art


The Comprehensive Examination process consists of the following components for art history and museum studies students:

1) Art History Seminar

The art history seminar, offered every fall, is required of senior majors, is strongly recommended for junior majors, and may also be taken by any student (major, minor, or otherwise) who has had a previous art history course. To clarify: a student who took the seminar in the junior year has not yet fulfilled the senior seminar requirement; it must be taken by every senior major. Since the material will change every year, it will be possible for a student to take the seminar in both the junior and senior years. This seminar will provide important preparation for the senior project, since students will begin work on their senior research paper in this course. All other students will be writing research papers that are directly related to the topic of the seminar and that must be completed in full by the end of the semester.

2) Research Paper:

You will write an art history paper of about 20-25 pages (begun during the seminar) on any well-focused topic, and will present it to the faculty of the art department, to other art majors, and to any interested students or family members. You'll also answer questions after your presentation, and will actively participate in the discussion following the presentation of papers by your peers. The discussion after each presentation will center around the ideas and art works analyzed in the paper, the possible influence of earlier art, and relevant contextual issues. These papers will be presented early in the spring semester of your senior year, before spring break. The presentation of your paper should last about 30-35 minutes, which means that you will almost certainly need to streamline and revise your research paper to make it an appropriate length and style for your presentation.The final paper, which will be developed through a number of revisions, should be clearly focused on a particular issue or question. In other words, the paper should have a point to make, and as a result you should be able to answer the question, "What is your thesis in this paper?" It should be properly researched, documented, and illustrated following art historical standards.

 Check Tips for Writing Art History Papers for more detailed information.

Your grade for the seminar in the fall will be based in part on the state of your senior paper in December. That paper will also serve as part of the department's evaluation of your work during comprehensive exams.

You'll be responsible, with the guidance of the faculty advisor, for learning how to use ARTstor and the Offline Image Viewer and for gathering any additional images not available in ARTstor (e.g., by finding good quality, large images on the web, by scanning slides from the Art Department collection, by scanning images from books, or by taking digital images on the copy-stand). For more information see Tips for Giving Senior Art History Presentations.

Students working toward a concentration in Museum Studies can either write an art history research paper, as described above, or can do a senior project that is more closely connected to the field. Possibilities include:

  • Design an exhibition (virtual or actual) centered around a significant theme, choose your works, and write the accompanying labels and an exhibition catalogue that includes an introductory essay as well as catalogue entries for each work of art. An actual exhibition could perhaps be arranged in the Lewis Art Gallery or even a local gallery, but since museums and galleries determine their schedules a year or more in advance this would probably require making initial contacts in the fall of your junior year. A virtual exhibition could be displayed in the form of a web site or on a CD/DVD. An exhibition could also be displayed in the form of color photocopies of the images, mounted in some way, and hung in one of the art spaces.
  • Write a research paper based on a comparison of several similar exhibitions, on the same artist(s) or theme. What were some of the significant differences in approach? What were some of the controversial issues raised? This would include art historical research as well as research of the reviews of each exhibition and the choices made by the museums about the works to be included, the layout, the catalogue, etc.
  • Write a research paper based on a significant museum issue or controversy.
  • Base your paper on a sociological study of museum practices, either from the perspective of museum visitors or museum personnel. Your research would entail surveys, questionnaires, or interviews, as well as research into similar museum studies done elsewhere.

3) Written Exam:

You'll take a comprehensive examination during the spring comps period (usually the first two weeks in April) that tests your ability to identify major works of art and to write analytical essays. There will be two sections to this exam. You'll be able to take them at different times during the comps period, whenever is most convenient for you.

a) Identification of major monuments. You will be shown 30 works of art (paintings, sculpture, and architecture that are generally considered of particular significance to the development of art) and you'll be asked to identify 25 as fully as possible by giving the name of the artist (if known), the title, the period, and the date by century. For each work, you'll also add a short explanation (a brief paragraph) about its significance. The works you need to know are in ARTstor (go to 'SMITH E. Senior Comps' and you'll find four image groups: Ancient-Medieval, Renaissance-Baroque, Rococo-Contemporary, and World).

b) Focused Analysis. You'll submit by the beginning of spring semester a list of fifteen major works of art from at least seven different categories (see list of categories below). Two pairs of works from this list will be shown, and you'll choose one from each pair to analyze as fully as possible in well-organized essays. You'll want to discuss issues of style and iconography as well as relevant contextual material dealing with the artist's biography, religious ideas, socio-political factors, and/or theoretical questions.

List of Categories (for purposes of this comprehensive examination):

Prehistoric, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian
Greek (including Minoan and Mycenean)
Early Christian, Byzantine, and Medieval
Italian Renaissance
Northern Renaissance
18th-19th Century
20th Century (up to 1970)
Contemporary Art (1970 to the present)

Schedule of Due Dates:

End of junior year: Prospectus for senior paper
Last week, fall semester: Mock oral with art department faculty
First week of spring semester: List of 15 art works for Written Comprehensive
1st week of February: Final revision of your paper
Mid-February: ARTstor presentation in the Offline Image Viewer prepared
Spring Break: All presentations will be given before spring break
Early April: Written Comprehensive Exam

In summary:

Your presentation, along with the questions and discussion afterward, will comprise the oral component of the senior comprehensive. The written component will consist of two parts: the completed research paper and the examination during the comps period in April.

The purpose of these comprehensives is two-fold:

1) to help you synthesize your work in the art major over the previous few years by refreshing your knowledge of a broad range of images so that you gain a new perspective on the major ideas and developments.

2) to help prepare you for graduate school or professional advancement by giving you the experience of writing a mature, carefully focused paper and presenting that paper to an audience, as well as the experience of writing analytical essays incorporating multiple perspectives on selected works of art.