1 Chapter 1: Elements, Vocabulary, and Iconography of Visual Art

To intelligently analyze art, we need the proper terminology to describe the elements that make up the work of art. Below is an infographic that reviews the basic elements of art.

Various works of art: line art, shape art, form art, value art, color art, space art, and texture art

Learn More – Video

For more on each of the elements of art and how to identify them, check out the videos on the Elements of Art from the KQED Art School.


Entire books have been compiled with definitions of art by more or less famous people. The notion of art is very difficult to define. This is truer than ever in the 20th and 21st centuries, after Marcel Duchamp introduced the “Readymade” (below), elevating a simple urinal to a museum-worthy sculpture. But one of the broadest definitions to which we may agree is that art is a form of communication that uses a visual vocabulary. The objective of this class will be to lend a voice to the work of art, to make it speak by learning a visual vocabulary in order to interpret it.


Porcelain Urinal
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, readymade glazed sanitary china with black paint

Let’s talk about a few important distinctions when referring to works of art:

The Arts: A comprehensive term describing creative activities, including (but not limited to) music, theater, writing, movie making, etc.

Visual or Fine Arts: Painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, etc.

In general, the more precise the expression, the better. We refer to art by its medium—for example, fresco painting, oil on canvas, bronze, etc. Never use the expression “piece” or “piece of art” when referring to a work—use its correct medium instead. A “work of art,” an “artwork,” “artworks,” etc. are fine expressions to use. We will cover the various types of mediums in art in the next few chapters.

Let’s take a look at three portraits of popes across a period of more than three hundred years. How is each pope represented differently? Can you think of some words to describe these portraits?

Man sitting on a throne
Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Innocent X, ca. 1650, oil on canvas
A skeleton wearing a gown sitting in a chair
Francis Bacon, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1956, oil on canvas
painting of a pope
Michael Triegel, Portrait of Benedict XVI, 2010, oil on canvas

These three portraits retrace the changing fortunes of representational art across time. When Velázquez painted, in the seventeenth century, an artist’s fame was measured by his ability to render a person naturalistically. After the Second World War and the advent of conceptual art with Marcel Duchamp, artists who worked realistically and who showed skills or talent were looked upon condescendingly. Most artists worked in an abstract or conceptual idiom. It became next to impossible to represent the human form if one wanted to have an “official” art career. Bacon’s screaming pope was on the verge of acceptability. Today, as contemporary painter Michael Triegel’s pope portrait shows, it has become acceptable again to work representationally, although most contemporary art falls outside of this category. What this tells us is that definitions of art are never stable and constantly change over time. So does the value system of what is “great art” and what is “not so great.”


As mentioned previously, iconography is defined as the study of the contents of the images. This is especially important for works of art produced from the early Renaissance through the middle of the twentieth century and can also be helpful in analyzing contemporary works of art relying on traditional means for depicting figurative and spatial content.

Watch the following video, “Understanding Art with Iconography.” As you are watching the video, consider the following:

  • How is an artwork’s iconography different from its formal qualities?
  • How does the interpretation of a work of art’s iconography change according to the culture, religion, or subjectivity of the artist?
  • Why does modern art often defy iconographic interpretations?


Now that we’ve defined what iconography is, let’s go back to one of our earlier examples. Take a look at this work of art again and try to identify the elements that might contribute to the deciphering of its narrative content or historical context or tell us what meaning this work may convey. Consider contextual information in the label, such as title, year, name of artist, etc. You may ask yourself the following:

  • Who was Marat?
  • Who was David?
  • What event is depicted?

Death of Marat by David

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793, oil on canvas. By Jacques-Louis David – Google Art & Culture: upload by user FDRMRZUSA. Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=112018

Iconographic Analysis

Marat: eighteenth-century journalist, politician, radical French Revolutionary

Described as a “Terrorist” or “Partisan of the Terror regime organized by Robespierre, Marat and other Deputies of the Party of the Mountain.”

Voted for the death of King Louis XVI in 1792.

Political position: Anti-Monarchy, Anti-Aristocracy, Republicanism, Democracy.

David: renowned neoclassical artist and politician who voted for the death of Louis XVI (like Marat).

Event depicted: Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday as a sympathizer of the Girondins, his political enemies, for his role in the French Revolution. Corday gained access to his private quarters using the letter he is holding and stabbed him to death (knife at the bottom right corner of the painting).

Now, watch the following video that combines both formal and iconographic analysis of this work to fully contextualize and interpret it.



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