Arts Academy

in the Woods

Home // Art Integrated Education // Look at Artwork Differently Through the Five Key Themes of Art

Look at Artwork Differently Through the Five Key Themes of Art

If you love going to art museums but aren’t quite sure what you’re looking at, understanding the five key themes in art can help you look at pieces in a whole new way.

Viewing art is objective and there’s really no right or wrong way. And there are always going to be times that certain works jive with you while others elude you. That’s okay.

But if you’re eager to access a different perspective when you’re staring at a painting, sculpture, photograph, etc., having awareness of the context of the piece can help you view it in a different light.

The Five Key Themes of Art

It should be noted that we’re addressing the five main themes here. Some works may stick heavily to a sole theme, others might combine them, and still another group will diverge from the themes altogether.

Whatever the case, when you can identify the artist’s theme, you may tap into the deeper meaning the artist intended.

So next time you’re at the museum, remember the following five themes and see if they change your experience. For better or for worse!

1. Historical

How many times have you looked at a piece that depicted an event or a battle? The representation of historical scenes has long been a respected theme in art. The artist may have chosen to showcase an event that changed the course of history. Or perhaps they were moved by a battle -ancient, recent, or somewhere in between.

Rather than seeing it as a moment just caught in time, you can ask yourself what the artist intended to show in the piece. What are the expressions on the people’s faces? When did it happen – day or night, recently or long ago, etc. If it’s an event you’re familiar with, does the artist’s depiction match your interpretation? If not, how are they different?

Finally, if you’re not familiar with the historical context, perhaps you take some time to research it and then come back to the piece. See what changes.

2. Power and Authority

Do you tend to skip the gallery that’s full of paintings or statues of stately-looking people from antiquity who mean nothing to you? Similar to the historical theme, you may benefit from taking some time to view at least a couple of them and then learn about them.

Then when you return to the piece, you might have a better understanding of why the artist has rendered the person in that way. Perhaps they’ve placed important books or scientific instruments in the scene. It could be that they wanted to exaggerate the wealth and status of royal figures by paying extra attention to the way they rendered silk, fur, and lace. Do any of these have symbolic meaning, do you think?

By taking the time to study the subject and then seeking out the extra elements in the work that make it special, you’ll be less likely to pass by that room next time.

3. Life and Death

A big theme in art is the dichotomy between life and death. Artists love to explore this universal condition. In some cases, the dichotomy is obvious. More often than not, though, it’s more symbolic. So you may not have paid much attention to that early Renaissance piece with the skull resting on the shelf behind the young and vibrant man in the forefront. Or maybe you didn’t notice the small, bright flowers popping up from the ground around the otherwise dark funeral scene.

This theme translates across multiple cultures as well. The way European and American cultures depict this dichotomy can be quite different from Asian and African interpretations. Again, this is something worth researching and then coming back to get a new view.

4. The Human Figure

If you’re heard the term Rubenesque for a voluptuous woman, then you know the impact art has on culture. And vice versa. During Peter Paul Rubens’s time, women with fuller and more curvaceous bodies were considered the standard of female beauty. Meanwhile, a gander at the athletic, lithe, and muscular men sculpted during Greco-Roman times portrays that as the standard of male beauty.

Yet, artists often explore the human figure as a way to express political or social ideas, emotions, and memories, or simply as a way to show what they think is ideal. When you see a human figure depicted in art, can identify what emotions it elicits in you? Can you go beyond the figure itself and your perceptions of what is beautiful to see something deeper?

5. Religion

Given religion’s ability to both draw people together and polarize them to the point of war, it’s been forever an irresistible theme for arts. Artists in the Judeo-Christian culture have often depicted events from the Bible. And in many cases, the church or synagogue itself commissioned the work. The same can be said for other artists working from their religious backgrounds.

In our more contemporary world, the exploration of religion has become more probing and analytical. Sometimes even sacrilege, depending on to whom you’re speaking. Perhaps you set out to seek only paintings with a religious theme in the museum and take note of all the different styles of representations of different books and stories. At the base of it, are they all saying the same thing? Maybe. And maybe not.

Ready to Head to the Museum?

Armed with an understanding of the five key themes, you can make your next art museum experience something brand new.

Meanwhile, if you’re a parent with an artistic child who loves to go the art museum, then you may want to consider the benefits of an arts-integrated education for her/him/them.

Contact us to set up a tour of our school. You’ll find creative and engaged students learning to see not just museums, but the whole world in a new light.


* indicates required