Chapter 4—Style, Form, and Content

Introduction: The brevity of this chapter does not reflect the importance of its subjects: style, form, and content. You are moving into the realm of interpreting a work of art based not only on its formal elements and design, but also upon specific styles, storytelling or narrative content, and symbolism artists use to express meaning. Look for quotes from artists Philip Johnson, Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, Jacques Lipchitz, Jackson Pollock, Edgar Degas, Jacques-Louis David, Dan Flavin, and Donna Rosenthal for clues to how these artists think about style, form, and content. Two Compare and Contrast sections provide you the opportunity to examine and explore works of art directly relating their content, form, and style. This chapter brings the components of an artwork together to help you gain more depth of understanding and experience from future encounters with visual art.

Chapter 4 – Why Read It? This chapter reassembles the components of visual art presented singly in Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Chapter 4 prepares you, the viewer of art, to be able to ask yourself better and more relevant questions about a work of art. How did the artist achieve such realistic effects? If it isn’t realistic, what is altered? Being able to identify an artist’s style, decide whether it fits into Realism more than Abstraction, and consider as a whole the effects of the combined elements and design principles, or assess aspects of subject or symbolism all add much depth to one’s experience with a work of art. The pieces of the puzzle come together as a comprehensible experience.

Viewers of art soon realize that multiple layers of meaning are just underneath the surface of most compositions. For example, you will experience works of art in which the artist has overtly borrowed from another artist’s work, as Sandow Birk’s Death of Manuel, (image 4-13), or Robert Colescott’s Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas, (image 2-23). You may come to realize, by the time you’ve explored Dada in Chapter 20 or Pop art in Chapter 21, that a tradition of appropriation has long existed in the world of art. Look through other chapters to find art based upon modified versions of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (image 16-29) or Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa (image 1-1) even the famous reproduction by Marcel Duchamp, the Dada artist who created Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q) (image 20-23). As the saying goes, “What goes around comes around!”

Understanding Concepts: Chapter 4 suggests that works of art may be thought of as having three levels of content: (1) subject matter, (2) elements and composition, and (3) symbolic or underlying meanings or themes.

1. As you view the images in this chapter, assess which level you find first. This may give you a clue to what kinds of art you find attractive. Record your thoughts and observations here:

     Do you want to be told a story, with lots of visual details and clues? Write an example:

     Do you want to explore how the artist used the visual elements and design elements to create a certain effect? What kinds of effects do you notice first? Notes:

     Do you want to know the background of the artist? The "life and times," the choices the artist made that helped shape the work of art and its layers of meaning and content? Give an example:

     Do you like a visual puzzle? Do you want to go on a quest for hidden meanings, knowing that objects may look like something but may at the same time also represent a more elusive concept? Name a work of art you feel contains these features:

2. In order to develop your critical thinking skills you have been asked to look at and evaluate works of art from several perspectives. It is important to keep in mind that this kind of analysis is not an end in itself, but a guide to greater appreciation and depth of understanding a work of art as a whole. Take a look at your level of appreciation and understanding at this point.

         Are you at the first stage, where one instinctively knows what appeals or repels, but there is little to discuss because you don't have any background information and you haven't taken the time to really look at it—you just like something or you don't?

         Are you at the stage that is similar to scientific dissection—you can spend more time looking at a work of art, take it apart, isolate its components such as the visual elements and the design principles, and see how it is put together. You might even be able to put a finger on why you like or dislike a work.

         Set yourself a goal to go through these two stages to a third stage where you can “re-assemble” the work into its original form and appreciate or enjoy it from an informed point of view. Hopefully the practice of analysis will not prevent you from the importance of plain old enjoyment!

3. Create a "spectrum" chart similar to the example below on your notepaper, illustrating for yourself a basic continuum of styles from Realistic art on one extreme of the continuum through Representational art, Expressionistic art, and Abstract art to Non-representational or nonobjective art on the other end of the spectrum. Leaf through the book, selecting five works you like and write the title of each artwork on the spectrum where you think each belongs. Is there a grouping around a certain style? This may give you another clue to what artist or kind of art you find most appealing.


Realistic — Representational — Expressionistic — Abstract — Non-objective

American Gothic (image 4-9)                                                       The Kiss (image 4-6)

(Grant Wood)                                                                               (Constantin Brancusi)

         This "spectrum" will serve as a useful intuitive tool in determining individual artist's styles as well as movements and period styles in art. As you view a work of art, you can place it where it belongs within this spectrum.

         As you will see, some works seem to fit neatly into one category of the spectrum, while others will seem to rest fitfully between categories. There aren't any rules determining what style artists must use, and most artists don't want rules imposed on them, but it is interesting to see that artists do tend to "settle" into a distinct, recognizable style somewhere along this continuum. For viewers, it helps to see what an artist is choosing to do, and when an artist does make changes, it is noticeable.

Making Connections: Chapter 4 supplies you with more tools in your arsenal of how to understand a work of art. It focuses especially on art as a form of communication from the artist to the viewer (you), so it has a lot to do with being able to interpret meaning in different forms. These forms include telling a story, using symbols, or adapting the imagery to a particular style that suits the “message” best, according to the needs and desires of each artist.

1. Look up one or two people who are quoted or mentioned in the chapter (using the index at the end of the text is a good way to find out which chapters feature their artworks.) These include Philip Johnson, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, Donna Rosenthal, Jacques Lipchitz, Jackson Pollock, Edgar Degas, Josef Albers, and Jacques-Louis David.

     How many different styles and forms are represented in their works alone?

Artist quoted                                    Style or styles represented




2. Compare and Contrast – Wood's American Gothic with Rosenthal's He Said . . . She Said is an opportunity to explore two distinct styles of expression using differing levels of emotion and content.

     As you look at the images by these two artists, take note of what comes first to your attention as a viewer. Do you see detailed depictions of objects? Brushstrokes and colors? Formal elements? Do you notice facial features or implied gestures of the hands and bodies? Write your notes and observations here:

     If you were asked to create a portrait of a couple to characterize that couple's relationship to each other and their social context, what would you include? Would it need to literally depict their facial portraits, or could it allude to other things about them? Make your list of inclusions here:


3. Compare and Contrast – David's The Oath of the Horatii with Kruger's Untitled (We Don't Need Another Hero) puts together two works of art from vastly different time periods and artists. The content and meaning of the images of women and men in these two works bear comparison.

     How are the female figures portrayed in each work? Notes:

     What seems to be the role of the male figures in each composition? Notes:

     What were some of the historical events taking place during David's artistic career?

     How has Kruger countered the pictorial content with the written content?


Taking Notes: Chapter 4 concludes the basic introduction to the language of art that began in Chapter 1 and continued through Chapters 2 and 3. You may have noticed that each chapter focuses on a different aspect of understanding works of art. Use your notes to review each image shown in class, so you will be able to recall as much information about each work of art as possible.

Your notes, continuing in the note template you make prior to each class, should reflect specific works your instructor may have used to discuss on each level. They should also indicate examples used in class for clarity on each of the aspects covered. For example, Chapter 1 focused on purposes, Chapter 2 focused on visual elements such as line or texture, Chapter 3 focused on the design principles of unity or balance, and finally, this chapter exemplified differing styles (such as realism or expressionism), form, and content (including symbolic content, iconography).

Preparing for Tests: Chapter 4 puts works of art back into view as whole objects. Test questions could be inclusive. For example, you might be asked to compose an essay in which you discuss a single work of art and review not only its style or its iconography for Chapter 4, but also "backtrack" and discuss its purpose(s) (Chapter 1), visual or formal content such as color or shape (Chapter 2), and design or composition (Chapter 3). Here's an example:

     Using descriptive comparison, discuss iconography in one work of art and how that symbolic content was achieved using visual elements and principles of design, and how it is tied to the purpose of the work of art. Be specific. [Extended Essay: 2 pages min., double-spaced, 12-point font. Cite two research sources.]

As you've seen, discussion of a work of art can also benefit from discussion of its historical context, such as for Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii. Even abstract works by Barbara Hepworth or symbolic works by Bronzino yield more understanding when placed into historical discussion. A question such as the one above asks you, the student, to apply all you have learned about the parts of a work of art and synthesize them in order to demonstrate your grasp of knowledge and analysis.

Test questions can also be specific to identifying a specific style, recalling a story, or assigning correct iconography to an object in a work of art. Review sample questions in the Understanding Art website Online (, in the Student Test Packet, or on ArtExperience for Understanding Art.

Enhancing Your Observational Powers: This chapter completes a set of tools for ways to look at and understand art. These tools can be used throughout the rest of the course and beyond for a fuller understanding of what you are seeing. Having good observational skills can be extremely useful in most lines of work and in life in general. Here are ways to increase your skills by observing art.

1. Equip yourself with a small notepad or sketch book  (live dangerously and use one without lined pages). Go to a local art exhibit—one in the hallway of a local school or library. Select a work of art that appeals to you and spend time viewing it and defining it in terms of:

         Purpose (see Chapter 1)

         Visual elements (see Chapter 2)

         Principles of Design (see Chapter 3)

         Style, Form, and Content (Chapter 4). Try using your Style "spectrum" (see above in Understanding Concepts).

2. Do the same exercise with another work, that has different characteristics than the previous one.

Title: ___ Artist: ___

         Purpose (see Chapter 1)

         Visual elements (see Chapter 2)

         Principles of Design (see Chapter 3)

         Style, Form, and Content (Chapter 4)

         Create a quick sketch of this piece, diagramming and labeling the visual and design elements like a map:

[Start Box]

[End Box]

Return to the first piece and see if anything new occurs to your observations. (Follow the ancient Chinese proverb, “Take a second look—it costs you nothing . . .”)

3. Find a newspaper, arts magazine, or Internet site that focuses on art. Read an article, for example in the Arts section of The New York Times or the Sunday edition of your local newspaper. See the journals American Artist, Architectural Review, Art in America, ArtForum or Art Journal.)

         What does the writer focus on in discussing a show or a particular work of art?

         If it’s a review written about a local show, go see it for yourself and take notes using the process in exercise 2.

     Take notes on the article, including the source and date of the article:

     How does what you saw in person inform you about what the writer was saying? Do you have a different opinion?

For More Understanding: Style, form, and content play important roles in discerning what a work of art is about. As you learned earlier, sometimes research is needed to understand subject matter or symbolic content. Comparing two works, as was demonstrated in the Compare and Contrast exercises can enhance understanding. Research may become a viable means to gain more subjective appreciation of a work of art. Fortunately, you have access to many ways to research art topics. Visit the website for Understanding Art (, featuring a glossary and audio pronunciation guide, sample test questions, and more.

ArtExperience Online for Understanding Art: Go to Foundations and find the Style, Form, and Content section for links, readings, and art examples covering material in this chapter. Be sure to study the many art works from this chapter found in flashcard section.

Notes and Links to Remember: