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What is a contextual analysis you might ask? In the simplest terms, you’re trying to understand what you see in the work of art in a particular cultural moment. This is the “placement” of a work of art in its context for creation and reception. The various details help us understand what a work might have meant in its original (or any particular subsequent) time.

Latin American Art
University of Houston, Fall 2018
Professor Biczel
Due: Monday, October 15—hard copy in class and digital copy submitted via
Blackboard/TurnItIn by 11:59 pm the same day.
No extensions, no late papers, please!
Length: ~750 words (3 pages) [It can be longer if you wish, but short and on point is better than
long and tangential.]
Formatting: standard manuscript, that is—1-inch margin, 12-pt typeface (Times New
Roman or similar), double-spaced, black ink. Your name and class number placed in the
header of the page.
Revisit the Thoma Collection paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s main campus
1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston, Texas 77005
Museum Hours:
Tuesday & Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday & Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sunday, 12:15 to 7 p.m.
Closed Monday, except holidays
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve & Christmas Day
* Reminder: Students of any college or university can receive free general admission to the
MFAH by presenting an art-related assignment and college ID. Bring a hard copy of the
course syllabus, this assignment sheet, and your Cougar Card to present to the ticket desk
This paper is to be a contextual analysis of a single work from the Thoma Collection on display
at the MFAH.
What is a contextual analysis you might ask? In the simplest terms, you’re trying to understand what you see in the work of art in a particular cultural moment. This is the “placement” of a work of art in its context for creation and reception. The various details help us understand what a work might have meant in its original (or any particular subsequent) time. This context might include the following:
• The artist’s life, training, and work (if known);
o Did the artist leave any records pertaining to the work? Did he/she say anything about their intentions? Was anybody else involved (assistants, other artists)?
• Patronage of the work (who paid for it, how, and why);
o I.e. Was the patron an individual or was the work commissioned on behalf on an institution?
• Political circumstances when the the work was made;
• Religious circumstances when the the work was made;
• Philosophical movements of the time;
• Other major forms of cultural expression from the same period;
• Contemporary scientific and geographic knowledge;
• Original setting of the work;
o Where was it originally located?
o Who was able to see it? Under what circumstances?
• Original use of the work.
o Was the work used or seen in any rituals?
(See d’Alleva Chapter 3 for details.)
Remember, you don’t have to answer all these questions as long as an important aspect of the context is considered.
The goal of the assignment is to compel you to connect larger issues presented in class and course readings to one particular artwork made during so-called colonial period. In short, it is both to hone your observation skills and to learn to derive conclusions from what you have observed and what you have learned about the period when the work was made. That is to say: a successful contextual analysis will include formal analysis of the work, a discussion of who made it, when and where it was made, its patronage and/or social purpose, and its cultural meaning and significance. You can also think about the fact that these paintings are displayed in a radically different context than that for which they were made.
All that said, an analysis is not merely a description, though description is part of analysis. You want to consider how formal elements of the artistic composition together with the consideration of the context in which it was made contribute to the overall impression made by the work. This implies that your analysis will contain the following elements:
1) The analytical description of a work of art, i.e. what you see. You should describe the work of art in such words that someone who has never seen it could picture it in their mind.
2) The reading of the work of art that takes into account the circumstances in which it was made. A reading is an interpretation of the work of art based on the effects created by the formal elements deployed by the artists, i.e. the message or mood conveyed by the work of art, together with the consideration of its context. In other words, it seeks to explain not only what one observes in a work of art, but also how it works or was meant
to work on the viewers; how it produces meaning.
In other words, your analysis must build toward a claim about the work’s meaning, a claim that you will introduce in a thesis statement in your first paragraph. That is to say, throughout your written analysis, you will use your observations of the work’s formal qualities and the knowledge derived from the wall labels, course readings, and other readings as bodies of evidence in support of your interpretation. A thesis must be specific, and use both formal and contextual analysis to better your reader’s understanding of the work’s meaning and/or social purpose. To arrive at your interpretation, for example, you might consider what “public” the artwork was made for and how
you deduce it from both iconographic and formal elements contained in the work.
This is not research-intensive assignment. Rather, an exercise in how to connect formal analysis to context. For the understanding of context, refer to:
• exhibition labels;
• course readings;
• two exhibition catalogues at Architecture and Art Library reserve:
o Alcalà, Luisa Elena, and Jonathan Brown, eds. Painting in Latin America, 1550-
1820: From Conquest to Independence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
2013. ND202.2 .P335 2013
o The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820. Organized by Joseph J. Rishel with Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art; Mexico City: Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso; [Los Angeles]: Los Angeles County
Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. N6502 .A79 2006
Notes and bibliography, Chicago Style:
Make sure your paper follows the guidelines listed above and proofread it for incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other errors. Do make sure your paper includes a thesis statement and that the thesis statement is backed up by cohesively structured analysis. Does your paper “flow”?
It is always a good idea to read your paper out loud or, better yet, out loud and to someone else to make sure that your point (thesis) comes across in a clear way and to pick up awkward wording and convoluted or incomplete sequences.
Do consult a dictionary or thesaurus to make sure your words have the right denotation (explicit meaning) and connotation (implication).
Please note: There is no one, correct way to write a contextual analysis paper. An “A” paper would be well written and rich in pertinent detail, and insightful observations and wellevidenced conclusions. It would engage ideas and debates about Latin American context from the course lectures, discussions, and readings. It would be grammatically correct and free of spelling errors. And, above all, it would present a clear, easy-to-follow argument aka
thesis or, in plain English, point.
• Anne D’Alleva, Chapter 3, “Contextual analysis,” Look! The Fundamentals of Art History (Prentice Hall, 2010); PDF on Blackboard; also on Architecture & Art
Library Reserve;
• ARTHelp: Consult Caitlin Duerler, Writing Fellow, MA in Art History program. You can schedule one-on-one appointment with her at ceduerler@uh.edu or attend one of her workshops (see the flyer on Blackboard for topics and dates.);
• UH Writing Center (see syllabus for details);
• I am happy to discuss your ideas or consult specific aspects of your paper by appointment. That said, I do not copy edit drafts or read anything sent to me by email. Do e-mail me for appointment, though.

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