Art History

How To Prepare for Art History Exams

The Student by Sir George Clausen art history exams
Sir George Clausen, The Student, 1908. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Brighton, UK. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

Majoring in art history is a very rewarding experience, but it can definitely be stressful at exam time. Preparing for exams was my least favorite part of the whole experience, so I would love to help some current art history students succeed on their exams with a minimum of angst. Here’s my advice about what to expect and how to prepare. I hope it will help anyone taking art history in college, whether you’re an art history major/minor, or you’re just taking one class to fill a requirement.

Note: My advice is based on my own college experiences, and things might be done differently elsewhere. If your experience has been different than what I describe, I would love to hear from you so that I can expand on this article.

What to Expect

Art history exams usually include an object identification section along with one or more essay prompts. In my experience, things like multiple choice and true/false questions, which are pretty typical in other subjects, aren’t common in art history.

Object Identification

In the object identification section, you’ll be given a series of images without captions, and you will have to correctly identify the works of art depicted. You will need to provide the title of the work, artist’s name, date of creation, and other information like the materials or where it was made. Most professors will also make you write a few sentences about the work’s importance and interpretation. Check with your professor to find out exactly what you’ll be required to include.

Essays

In the essay section, you will have to write multiple essays of different varieties. One common type is the comparison essay, where you’re given two artworks to identify, compare, and contrast. Another type, which is usually longer and worth more points, involves a written prompt that may be based on either a specific artwork or a larger theme.

Young Girl Writing by Christen Dalsgaard (detail) art history exams
Christen Dalsgaard, Young Girl Writing (detail), 1871. Private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

How to Prepare

When studying for an art history exam, you have a few goals:

  1. To be able to properly identify any work of art or architecture that might appear on the exam.
  2. To be able to explain each work’s interpretation and significance.
  3. To understand the major ideas that tie objects together.
Practice Identifying Objects

Identification is key, because it’s very difficult to write about something when you have no idea what it is.

All professors do object identification a little differently, so you’ll want to find out which artworks can potentially appear on the exam. Some professors only include works that they have lectured about in class. Others consider anything that has come up in any of the required readings – those endless textbook pages you’re assigned each week – to also be fair game. Unless you’re told the former, assume the latter. Some professors will provide a list of all possible identifications.

I suggest making flash cards to help you study object identification. If you study from the textbook, the surrounding content will give you hints that you won’t get in the actual exam. Practice writing down the information instead of just reciting it back to yourself, since you’ll need to be able to spell lots of names from all different languages. Here are a few other things to keep in mind while you study:

  • Be prepared to identify architecture from multiple vantage points. Buildings can be viewed from both the interior and exterior, and the photo shown in your textbook isn’t necessarily the one that will appear on your exam.
  • If your textbook or other course materials include ground plans of buildings, study those as well. You may be asked to identify a building through its ground plan, particularly if you are taking a class involving Medieval/Renaissance/Baroque church architecture. I have definitely heard gasps of horror when ground plans have appeared on exams, since many students don’t expect them. Learn from this mistake.
  • It’s common for dates, spellings, and even the titles of works to differ from source to source. Unless you’re told otherwise, go with the information your professor has used in lectures or handouts, and fill in any gaps using what’s in your official course textbook. Generally, you’ll be allowed a greater margin of error for dates and spellings with ancient art, but it doesn’t hurt to aim for accuracy across the board.

It’s a horrible feeling to get an object to identify and realize you have absolutely no idea what it is. So, do yourself a favor and at least familiarize yourself with every object and image that could possibly come up.

Studying Significance, Interpretation, and Broad Ideas

Beyond simply knowing all the names and dates, make sure you really understand the significance of each artwork you study. There are millions of artworks in the world, but only a few can fit into any semester of art history. Your professor had to carefully decide which objects to include in her syllabus. As you study, think about why each object made that cut. It’s not always a case of superlatives. Sometimes an artwork might be the first, biggest, most famous, etc. More often, though, an artwork is included because it’s a great example of a particular idea, such as a technique that was popular at the time or a key step in a style’s development. Looking for each artwork’s importance in this way will help you pick up on all the key concepts. It’s also much more fulfilling than just memorizing things by rote. If you know what’s noteworthy about each object, discussing and comparing works will be pretty easy.

To prepare for the broader essay questions, go back through your readings and class notes to identify the main ideas. What topics come up over and over again? Which objects and artists did the professor spent a long time talking about, and what did she indicate was so important about them? If you pay attention, the professor always lets you know what the big ideas are. I’ve never once seen an essay prompt on an art history exam and been surprised by it. I’ve almost always thought “of course she’s asking this”. Even if I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted the prompt ahead of time, its appearance always made sense to me.

Keep in mind that art history classes aren’t exclusively about the individual objects; they’re at least as much about the broader history of artistic production and development over time. So, look for the themes that tie things together. Try to see how objects connect to each other, like how a few different objects show a style developing over time. Think about why certain works look the way they do. Pay attention to historical context whenever it’s mentioned, and look for how that context is reflected in the art.

The Writing Master by Thomas Eakins art history exams
Thomas Eakins, The Writing Master (Benjamin Eakins), 1882. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

Writing Tips For Art History Exams

My professors always used to tell me to write about what I know, not what I see. That means going beyond simply describing the artwork to discuss the ideas behind it. Anyone who looks closely can write a decent object description, even if she hasn’t been paying attention in class. Discussing the facts that you’ve been taught is what shows that you know the material. You should point out examples of how key ideas can be seen in an artwork, but you won’t get any points for just describing a work. For example, don’t write “Object A is small, while Object B is large.” Instead, say something like “Object A is small because it was a devotional object made for personal use, while Object B is a large-scale work because it had to fill a large church space and be visible to the entire congregation.”

Know your vocabulary. I once lost a lot of points on an exam for failing to mention one relevant vocabulary word. This isn’t the norm in my experience, but it’s definitely a good idea to make sure that you are familiar with all the vocabulary words you’ve learned in class and which works they apply to. Use these words into your writing to show that you understand them – as long as you feel confident that you’re using them correctly.

Don’t forget to begin your essays, particularly comparisons, by thoroughly identifying any artworks involved, just like you would in an object identification question. Professors will take a lot of points off an essay if you haven’t identified the works properly.

Good luck with your art history exams! I hope that my advice has helped you. If you have any advice of your own about art history exams or want to share experiences different from mine, please leave me a comment below.

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