Composing Meaning

Composing Meaning

This paper is to be a concentrated discussion of a single piece in the National Gallery of Art (from the list attached) with particular reference to composition as an instrument of meaning. This paper requires minimal research beyond your sustained encounter with the piece you choose. Acquaint yourself with relevant basics on the piece or artist—beginning, for example, with the “Collections” area of The goal is to have you look closely and reflect actively on specific kinds of artistic decisions and their implications.

The paper isolates one dimension of formal analysis (which was the more general goal in our first paper) and invites you to consider how specific decisions in this realm can fundamentally shape more than form itself.  So: where the first paper asked you to avoid interepretation and related observations about subject and meaning, here you are asked to ponder meaningful reasons for and results of an artist’s choices.

Why composition?

Close attention to composition – understood as the arrangement of a work’s elements in relation to each other and to the observer – can be particularly useful for a brief, intensive analysis like this one because
* it is a prime consideration for almost all works of art
* it compels thought about an artist’s specific decisions
* it requires careful scrutiny of the work itself (rather than generalizations about the artist, etc.)
* it invites inquiry about the very idea of “composition.”  If, for example, this refers to the arrangement of elements, what constitutes an element? A figure? A part of a figure? A group of figures? A plunge of depth or expanse of space? A patch of color? A contour? An area of a canvas? One viewpoint of a sculpture? Other things?
* it attunes us to varied and often subtle dimensions of a work’s intention and meanings.


Organize your observations as you see fit, but do organize. “Composing meaning” should, in fact, apply to your writing as well as to the work you address. What order or tone of discussion will work best? Do certain aspects of this piece prompt a particular structure for your paper?

However you choose to build your discussion, be clear and ground your remarks in specific observations.  Among questions you might ask yourself are:  what kinds of emphasis (or lack thereof) are in play, and how? How do these affect a subject or apparent idea at the heart of the work?  How does composition locate or inflect the position, access, or psychology of the viewer? Does composition conjure, extend, disrupt, complicate space?  How do figures, other elements, or spaces “within” the work relate to its surface, frame, or surroundings? Are matters of scale or color instrumental in the compositional thinking?  Does composition somehow suggest motion or time? Does material or technique drive compositional effects?


Your main research for this paper is time spent studying, taking notes on, and perhaps sketching the object you choose. You should also consult to see whether there is a basic discussion of your work. Object entries include a bibliography, which may lead you to articles or chapters you wish to consult. Note, however, that no more than basic textual research is required. If your object’s title indicates a subject, text, or story, be sure to acquaint yourself with its basic content—whether through or another source (such as a translation/edition of a primary text to which the title refers). Any information more specific than your own observations or content covered in class must, of course, be properly cited in your paper. If you do require citations (footnotes preferable to endnotes), please use the Chicago Manual of Style, the basics of which are available here (click to the “quick guide”):

You may find it useful to refer to one or more other works we have seen to clarify your observations, but do so only briefly, not as a sustained comparison. This is an essay about  how and why a single piece is put together. Study the object itself, not a reproduction!


You do not need to include an illustration of your main work or any well-known others you refer to. If you refer in more than a passing way to less familiar works, include an illustration with a caption (Artist, title, date, city, museum or other collection).

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Christ Cleansing the Temple, probably before 1570


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