Art History Thesis

During their senior year, majors concentrating in Art History will write a senior thesis. The thesis provides an opportunity to work independently, under the guidance of a faculty member, on a focused project over a longer period of time than usually possible on the block plan. It is the capstone experience in the major. Though the project is challenging, art history majors consider the thesis among the most valuable experiences of their academic careers.

The thesis is a research-based project. During their work on it, students engage with issues in the field, including formal analysis, iconography, style, production, reception, and historiography, among others. Students will be expected to use primary and secondary sources, critical reading skills, and appropriate methods and approaches in art history. The final product is a scholarly paper of about 25-30 pages. Students also will give a public presentation of the thesis at the end of the senior year as part of a symposium for majors in the field.

The Thesis Process |  Schedule & Deadlines  Policies & Grading  Thesis Topics  Research & Writing  Final Copy  Reimbursement


The senior thesis in art history will show that the student has mastered the following:

  • writing a substantial paper demonstrating knowledge of the chosen subject
  • in-depth research and critical reading  in art history
  • careful analysis and observation of objects and texts
  • independent thought
  • effective organization
  • clear and correct written expression
  • completion of a lengthy independent project in a timely manner
  • communication of some aspect of his/her thesis in a public oral  presentation
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The Thesis Process

In Short

Thesis work will begin in the spring semester of your junior year. At this point, you will choose your topic and make a preliminary proposal in consultation with the art history faculty.

Once preliminary proposals are submitted, you will be assigned a thesis advisor.

Your thesis advisor will work with you to develop your research plan and make assignments to be completed during the summer.

Final thesis proposals are due early in block 1 of the senior year.

During the Senior Seminar (block 2), prior to the New York trip, under the supervision of your thesis advisor, you will do intensive research and produce an outline and/or a section of the thesis.

Following Senior Seminar, in block 3, you will take a thesis block (AH415) with your thesis advisor. In most cases, the thesis will be completed by the end of the thesis block. Individual thesis advisors may have slightly different deadlines for revisions etc.

In block 6 or 7 of your senior year, you will give a public presentation on your research.

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Schedule & Deadlines

Preliminary Thesis Proposals

The preliminary thesis proposal is due at the beginning of block 8 of the junior year. Students consult with faculty prior to submitting the proposals in order to develop a strong and workable topic. Preliminary proposals should describe the topic focus, list possible research questions, and provide names of a few important bibliographical sources and Xeroxes of a few key images. Students are encouraged to consult the appropriate member:

  • Tamara Bentley: Asian art; theory-oriented topics; art market-oriented topics
  • Ruth Kolarik: ancient and medieval art; architecture topics; Islamic art; garden-related topics
  • Rebecca Tucker: Renaissance and Baroque art; Spanish colonial art
  • Gale Murray: 19th-, 20th-, 21st-century European and American art

You will be assigned a thesis advisor shortly after proposals are submitted. Ultimately, some of the senior thesis students will work with each of us. We will make every effort to have you work with the professor who knows most about your topic and/or whose thesis block is scheduled at a convenient time for you.

Summer research

In consultation with their thesis advisor, students will develop a plan for summer work on their topic. This might include bibliographical research, reading books and articles on the topic, viewing works of art, and/or other assignments. The summer research will help students hone and focus their topics, and become familiar with the literature in the field.

Final thesis proposals

The final proposal should be more detailed than the earlier version, incorporating the results of the summer research. It might include more carefully thought out research questions, a tentative thesis statement, and a list of sections or chapters, as well as additional bibliography and key illustrations. Before you hand it in, the proposal must be approved and signed by your thesis advisor.

Senior Seminar

Senior Seminar is held during block 2 of the senior year. During this block, students will work closely with their faculty thesis advisors. Students should be prepared for intensive reading, research, and thinking under the supervision of their thesis advisor. Assignments might include annotated bibliographies, critical article responses, outlines, and/or drafts of parts of the thesis (among others), at the discretion of the thesis advisor. Students will also prepare for the class trip to New York, which takes place in the final week of block 2.

Senior Thesis block

Students will have signed up for the thesis block with their thesis advisors. In consultation with their advisor, students will establish a schedule of meetings, assignments, and deadlines during the block. Students are expected to be on campus for their thesis block.

The thesis should be written in its entirety during the thesis block. You will be handing in drafts of sections/chapters of your thesis for comments on a regular basis throughout the block. Once you have a complete rough draft, you will revise it and put the thesis in final form. In some instances, further work (such as a second draft) may be required after the senior thesis block is over. In this case, your advisor will set a due date.


In block 6 or 7 of their senior year, students will give public presentations on their research. These take place as part of a symposium held by the art department to highlight the work of senior majors. Students will work with their thesis advisors to compose and practice their presentations. The symposium provides a rewarding venue for friends, family,  and fellow students to participate in and discuss the majors’ work.

Presentations are usually scheduled for block 6 or block 7. Please make sure to be on campus. 

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Policies and Grading

Timeliness is taken into account in the grading of your thesis. Failure to meet the final deadline set by your thesis advisor will have particularly severe consequences: you may receive a grade of NC, risk delaying your graduation, and perhaps have to repeat your Senior Thesis and/or Senior Seminar the following year. You must let your thesis advisor know in advance if you have an illness, a family emergency, or other events that will prevent you from meeting a deadline.

You will receive a grade for Senior Seminar and a grade for the thesis block. Your grade in Senior Seminar will depend on your progress on the thesis during block 2, as well as your participation in the New York Trip (journal, attendance, involvement, etc.). The grade for the thesis block is based on the factors listed below. Please keep in mind that, in addition to the quality of your work, your thesis presentation and your ability to perform on deadline and remain engaged over an extended period of time will be considered.

The following is an overview and sample of the grading standards for the thesis:

Table of the grading standards for the art history thesis
Aspect of Thesis Percentage
Quality of Analysis/Scholarly Sophistication 25
Organization/Writing 25
Creativity/Independent Thinking 20
Presentation of an Error-Free Final Copy 5
Thesis Talk 10
Growth During Thesis 5
Timeliness/Initiative 10
Total 100

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Thesis Topics

The thesis should be a substantial research paper. While substance cannot be measured in length, a paper of approximately 25 to 30 pages is appropriate. Longer papers are discouraged. The choice of topic is crucial. The most successful theses will have narrowly focused topics. A topic that is too broad, or too ambitiously conceived, will be impractical and difficult to cover in-depth.

In choosing your topic, keep in mind the following criteria:

  1. Your topic must be in an area of art history in which you have already taken a course. Working on a topic you know little about or have little background for would be a considerable handicap. If you plan to write in an area in which the course work is yet to be finished (i.e, block 8 of the junior year, or over the summer), you should discuss the proposed topic with the relevant faculty member ahead of time, so that you can get assistance as you prepare your thesis proposal.
  2. Your topic should have a substantial body of serious scholarship. Serious scholarship means scholarly journal articles, critical exhibition catalogs, monographs, and books. You may choose works of art that themselves are not discussed exhaustively in the literature but that relate to others that are. (On the other hand, if an entire book(s) has been written about your topic, you might consider narrowing your focus.)
  3. Be wary of topics about which little is written, or for which most of the material is written in languages that you cannot read easily. Also be aware of the limitations of Tutt Library's holdings. Probably all of you will need to use Prospector and Interlibrary Loan. However, you should avoid topics on which our library has nothing.
  4. Topics involving very contemporary art and architecture are particularly tricky. If you choose an artist or movement without any literature other than a few newspaper or magazine reviews or promotional materials, you will not be able to write a paper in art history, your work will of necessity be art criticism. This is not acceptable. On the other hand, there are many contemporary artists whose work has been extensively studied.
  5. It is preferable to choose a topic that involves works of art that you have seen or might have a chance to see. Be aware of the possibilities offered by Venture Grants and the New York trip.
  6. An ideal topic will have been discussed by several art historians from different angles or methodological approaches. This gives you a chance to evaluate the literature from various points of view. Be wary of a topic where there is only a single authoritative discussion. It will be more difficult for you to form your own opinions.
  7. Devise an approach to your material that interests you intellectually. Are you more intrigued by visual problems -- analysis, influences, evolution over time; problems of meaning -- symbolism, literary influences, historical reference; theory or social context? You may choose to analyze works of art from several angles.

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Researching and Writing your Thesis

Keep complete bibliographical notes. Devise a uniform manner of doing this and write the references out in a standard bibliographical form. This will save a lot of time later. Some students prefer index cards. Don't take a note without writing down where the information comes from. Also note where the book or magazine is located, information such as call numbers, etc. If you use information from a web page be sure to note the date that you accessed the page. Keep your notes in a uniform and well-organized manner. The same goes for photocopies of important articles, sections of books, etc. Keep a written record of what kinds of bibliographical searches you have performed -- what indexes you use, what keywords you searched under. This will help your professor make sure you are searching effectively. The reference librarians can help you with computer searches.

Before you begin writing your thesis decide which computer(s) and software you will use. If you are using your own computer be sure that your software is compatible with that in the college labs so that you can print out your thesis without complications. Make sure that you know how to use all the functions of the software that you will need for your thesis. Keep a backup disc or flash drive, as well as a hard copy of your text as you go. Losing your entire thesis the night before it is due is not an acceptable excuse for missing the deadline.

You may wish to devise several computer files -- one for bibliography, one for notes, one for your own thoughts and ideas, and one or more for the actual text.

Photocopy or scan illustrations that you will need in order to write and illustrate your thesis as you go along. Always note the source of the illustration. Hand in copies of the illustrations with drafts. No one can read an art history thesis effectively without pictures. As you begin to write the text, consider which illustrations most effectively make your points. Note them at the appropriate point in the text. You may wish to number them immediately and change numbers as you go if necessary.

Before you stop working on your thesis for any length of time, e.g. the New York trip or another block course, take time to organize your notes, illustrations, bibliography, etc. Jot down any thoughts for further work, ideas of the moment, things to do, books to request from Interlibrary Loan, etc. Then you will be able to take up your work again with a minimum of lost time. Keep everything together in a safe place. Don’t check your thesis notes with your baggage when traveling.

Leave enough time after your reading and research for careful critical thought and evaluation. This is the intellectual and creative part of your thesis. Don't short yourself. Be sure the drafts that you hand in (even rough drafts) are legible, clear printouts neat, and free from errors in spelling and punctuation. They should include copies of your illustrations. Many students have found the Writing Center greatly helpful throughout the thesis process.

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Instructions for Final Copy

  1. Margins and Spacing: The thesis should be double-spaced with 1-1/2" margins at the left, and 1" margins at the right, top, and bottom of each page. (Remember to do this before creating your Table of Contents.)
  2. Pages should be numbered consecutively throughout the thesis. Put page numbers on the upper   right-hand  side of each page
  3. White paper of at least 20% rag content must be used for final copies. (Crane's Thesis Paper is available in the CC Bookstore. Archival paper is also acceptable and seems to work better with color-printed illustrations.)
  4. Thesis must be printed on a laser printer (copies printed on a dot matrix or inkjet printer are not acceptable). Pages should not be duplexed.
  5. The thesis must have either footnotes or endnotes. If you use footnotes, each note must appear in its entirety on the same page as the reference to it in the text. Be consistent in the forms you use for your footnotes or endnotes. (Refer to Chicago Style Manual or Turabian for proper form.)
  6. Illustrations: If possible, you should scan your illustrations. Photocopies are also acceptable. In either case, try to find the best possible illustrations from which to make your photocopies or scanned images. When color is important to your discussion, it is desirable to include scans or photocopies in color. (Illustrations should be on the same quality paper as the text, and should not be inkjet printed.) Illustrations must appear together at the end of the thesis, with  figure number and caption information (see 7f. and 7g. below).
  7. References to illustrations in your text or your notes should be designated as (Fig. 1) or (Figs. 1-2), etc.
  8. Your thesis should include the following material, in the following order:
    1. Title page (thesis title, your name, date, and the honor code)
    2. Table of contents
    3. Body  of the thesis
    4. Endnotes (if you are using endnotes)
    5. Bibliography (Follow bibliographical form in the same source you used for your footnotes.)
    6. List of illustrations including all information you consider relevant, such as
      • for paintings and sculpture: artist, title (indicate if detail), medium (be specific), date, dimensions, collection, or museum.
      • for architecture: name and location (indicate view or room), architect, date.
      • Please consult with your advisor about whether or not to include the sources of your illustrations.
    7. Illustrations with captions. These can be identical to entries on the illustration list.
  9. Your thesis must be carefully proofread and free of typographical errors and errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. A pattern of errors in the final copy will have a negative impact on your grade.
  10. You will need to submit two copies on rag or archival paper (one to be kept by the Art Department, the other in Tutt Library). You may also submit a third copy (for yourself). The Art Department will bind all three copies. Turn in the copies of your thesis to Meghan Rubenstein for binding. Please put each copy in a separate manila envelope labeled with your name and thesis title; do not put them in plastic folders or binders.
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Remember that the Art Department will reimburse you for up to $300 of direct expenses incurred in connection with the preparation of your thesis (Xeroxing, purchase of photos, etc.). You must submit receipts (all at one time, please); expenses without receipts cannot be reimbursed.

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Report an issue - Last updated: 05/18/2022