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Art Analysis

Learning how to analyze art is not much different than analyzing things like data, literature, or rhetoric.

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Consider starting by asking questions:

  • Who is the artist (if known)?
  • What time period was the piece created in?
  • Who was the audience of this piece?
  • What is the historical context of this piece?

Researching these topics will ensure that you are aware of the effects the artist, audience, and
historical context might have on the meaning of the piece. For example, Goya’s Third of May depicts
Napoleon's army shooting Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War, which could be easily
misunderstood without researching what was going on around the time Goya painted this piece.
When analyzing Third of May, it might also be helpful to note that Goya was a Spaniard.


Now that you have all of the background information about the piece you are writing on, you can
implement it in your essay. In the introduction, many writers state the subject (who/what the piece
depicts), audience (who was looking at the piece), date, location, medium (oil on canvas, marble,
etc.), and technique (how the artist created the piece). Stating this information will give your reader
the background they need to understand and follow your analysis.


After stating the basic information about your art piece, describe it. This section of your essay could
include descriptions of characters/figures, the story or theme being depicted, shapes, colors,
lighting, mood, and/or setting. To continue our example using Goya’s Third of May, one might
identify the figures on the left as Spanish civilians and the figures on the right as soldiers of
Napoleon’s army. One might also note the use of dark colors that is contrasted by the bright white
shirt of the main Spanish figure. It’s also appropriate to describe the feelings you have when looking
at your piece. For Goya’s Third of May maybe it’s fear, somberness, or melancholy.


Analysis should make up the majority of your paper. An analysis identifies parts, like
background and descriptive information, to understand a whole, in this case, a meaning out
of the piece. Using Goya’s Third of May as an example, one might point out that the painting depicts
the shooting of Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War and that Goya, himself, was a Spaniard
during this time (background information). Next, one might note how the soldiers are painted with
clear, uniform lines and their faces are not in view, whereas the civilians are painted with a more
painterly brushstroke and their expressive faces face the viewer (description). Based on all of this
information, one might infer that Goya is trying to highlight the tragedy of this event by showing the
humanity and innocence of the civilians and depicting the soldiers as inhumane (analysis). The
conclusions that you draw from your background information and description should all point to
one, larger, unique point you would like to make about your piece.. For Goya’s Third of May, it could
be that this painting represents suffering.


Your conclusion should remind the reader of the main point you would like to make about the
piece. It could also include how this point changes the meaning or typical reading of the artwork.
Dedicating a portion of your conclusion to how your piece influenced the art or artists that came
after it would also be appropriate.

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A Bloody Gauguin: Rebirth and Liminality

In a letter to a fellow artist in 1901, artist Paul Gauguin writes from Tahiti, saying, “Other explanatory attributes—familiar symbols—would endow the canvas with a melancholic realism, and the problems propounded could no longer be a poem.”[1] The dislike for literal meaning is a key characteristic with Gauguin, with his reasoning being that artistic creation should go beyond the bounds of physical reality.[2] Gauguin often participated in the discourse surrounding primitivism, making it difficult for art historians to pinpoint meaning behind some of his work. Less studied by art historians is Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, 1889 (Fig. 1). As such, this paper will discuss Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, to represent the rebirth of Gauguin’s artistic identity and the liminal state it holds between the “savage” and the “civilized.”

After a brief description of Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, this discussion will start with the concept of primitivism as it was understood by Gauguin in the nineteenth century. Shortly after, the discussion will focus on particular concepts that the “primitive” cultures and Gauguin emulated—rebirth and liminality (See note 3).[3]

Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait

This self portrait of Gauguin is made with glazed stoneware, where the red glaze runs down the entire length of the piece (19.3 centimeters). The red glaze pools at the brows, under eyelid area, and upper lip. His portrait depicts his eyelids closed and the mouth and brows in a neutral position, not showing any extreme emotion on the face. On the opposite side of the jug is a decorated, closed handle (Fig. 1).


Primitivism, as it appeared in the nineteenth century, was a concept that revolved around “primitive,” indigenous cultures and their visual arts, with Africa and Polynesia being of popular interest.[4] This nineteenth century philosophy regarded primitive cultures as being pure and closer to divinity because they hadn’t been corrupted by the materialism of modern civilization.[5] While the Impressionists painted the innovations of modern technology in their work, primitivists were more inspired by the wood carvings of the Tahitians and other foreign cultures. Primitivists admired the way in which these cultures held “simple” and “natural” devotion towards spirituality, unbothered by a lack of wealth or abundance of social power.[6] Many of these overseas cultures believed in animism, the belief that everything, including inanimate objects, has a soul. In addition to animism was the belief in rebirth, which is the concept of an entity dying and returning to the Earthly realm through another birth or ceremony.[7] In trying to emulate the “virtue” of these foreign cultures, primitivist artists often took heavy inspiration from foreign art to appropriate and incorporate indigenous processes, mediums, and motifs into their own portfolios.

Gauguin was an avid supporter of primitivism’s philosophy, often writing about the innocence and divinity of the cultures he interacted with.[8] In 1886, Gauguin traveled to Brittany, France, on an artistic endeavor to create something avant-garde. The culture of Brittany was so different from Paris that Parisians often thought of Brittany and it’s Bretons as a whole other society.[9] This is where Gauguin would first take his notions of Primitivism to the canvas, like in Breton Women at the Turn, 1888 (Fig. 2). “But I’m for the country. I love Brittany. I find here the savage and the primitive,” Gauguin describes, “When my sabots clang on this granite earth, I hear the dull, muffled tone, flat and powerful, that I try to achieve in painting.”[10] Gauguin was further inspired by visiting exhibitions in Paris—most notably the Exposition Universelle in 1889. The Exposition Universelle was a world fair in Paris that featured exhibitions of the French colonies overseas.[11] These events are important for analyzing Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, because these provide an accurate historical background for showing how Gauguin was involved in the discourse of primitivism.

Often overlooked by art historians is how Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait reveals Gauguin’s philosophy of primitivism in the context of rebirth. This stoneware piece depicts red glaze going down the head, alluding to blood. Most would think this to be showing death, but on the contrary, as Gauguin said, “Other explanatory attributes—familiar symbols—would endow the canvas with a melancholic realism, and the problems propounded could no longer be a poem.” The melancholic realism would be death, but the concept of rebirth is Gauguin’s poem. Notice how there are no wounds on Gauguin’s portrait and how the red glaze starts from the top of the head and drips down to the bottom. Rather than alluding to death, the glaze that pours down the self portrait would be a type of rebirth—alluding instead to the blood of a parent, such as a mother, or kin, and not the blood of the stone portrait. The artist prided himself in his ancestry and felt that it made him more of a “savage.” In 1889, Gauguin wrote to Theo van Gogh, saying, “You know that I have Indian blood, Inca blood in me, and it’s reflected in everything I do. It’s the basis of my personality; I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on savagery.”[12] Indeed, Gauguin often writes about his Peruvian genetics with a tone of authority, as if he is superior to his European peers. With this personal identification with the primitive, and thus farther from “rotten civilization,” it would make sense for Gauguin to depict a rebirth in Jug in the Form of a Head, Self Portrait because it represents the rebirth of Gauguin’s artistic identity, not his physical self.

What this suggests is that Gauguin, having “Inca blood,” in his physical body, is rebirthing his artistic identity to become more primitive. This interpretation is supported, again, with the red blood on Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait because it drips down the sculpture without appearing to come from any particular wound. This would make the real, physical Gauguin, the parent—and the stoneware piece his artistic identity. Gauguin proudly explains this non-literal tendency of his, saying:

…everything in my work is calculated, and thought about for a long time. It is a sort of music, if you like. I create, by arrangement of lines and colours, using as a pretext some subject drawn from nature or life, symphonies, harmonies, which do not represent anything real in the ordinary sense of the word…simply by mysterious affinities which exist between our minds and such arrangements of colours and lines.[13]

The mysterious portrait represents Gauguin’s artistic identity because it is the start of his artistic shift to Polynesian-inspired art. Gauguin’s art goes through a major transitional period from 1888 to 1891. From Breton Women at the Turn, 1888, we see a small glimpse of his desire to paint something avant-garde using primitivist theory. In 1890, Gauguin sculpts La Luxure, clearly based off the Tahitian art that he saw in the Exposition Universelle (Fig. 3). And once he fully commits to his primitivist endeavors, he travels to Tahiti in 1891, indulging himself in the “primitive” mindset of the Tahitians and creating pieces like Matamua, featuring his own visual interpretation of the Tahitian gods (Fig. 4).[14]Because of this evolution, we can consider Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, to be the rebirth of his artistic identity because it is the symbol by which Gauguin tells the world that he is moving from a European-influenced practice to a Primitivist-infused one.

Further evidence for this stone portrait being Gauguin’s artistic identity lies in his focus on the human head and personal correspondence. Of course, being a self-portrait, the piece would require the human head, but Gauguin often wrote about the connection between art and his mind. In a letter to his wife in 1892, Gauguin writes, “You say that I am wrong in staying away for so long from the centre of the art world. The centre of my art world is in my head, not anywhere else, and I am strong because I am never sidetracked by others and I do what is inside of me.”[15] Though Gauguin certainly was sidetracked by others, his claim to art being in his mind was nonetheless true. A majority of his works were done from the imagination, taking loose inspiration from life. Speaking of another self-portrait he painted, Gauguin writes, “The colour is far removed from nature: imagine a vague echo of my pottery moulded by the intense heat of the kiln. All the reds and violets burnt on to the surface by the great sheets of flame are like a furnace glowing in the eyes, the seat of the painter’s thought…”[16] The last sentence of this quote is especially significant because it references the human head as being the “seat of the painter’s thought.” Not only does the human head identify someone for their portrait, but Gauguin claims that it is the head itself that creates an artistic identity because it holds the painter’s thought. Accordingly, Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, can be identified as Gauguin’s artistic identity because it represents the seat of the painter’s thought made manifest.

The rebirth of Gauguin’s artistic identity in Jug in the Form of a Head is further supported by the stoneware not being thrown. Thrown, or throwing, refers to the method of crafting ceramics, in which the clay is put on a potter’s wheel. Throwing clay on a potter’s wheel is an effective way of crafting a uniform vessel with speed.[17] Many primitivists, including Gauguin, did not throw their ceramics because they wanted to replicate the ancient processes of “primitive” cultures. Gauguin crafted Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait using only his hands and a kiln to set the glaze for the finished product.[18] Even though Gauguin certainly wanted to mimic the tradition of ancient cultures in ceramics, we can also see Gauguin’s attempt at conveying a rebirth. His hands, which represent his physical self, hold the Incan blood he so publicly likes to flaunt. Thus, his Incan blood—the very essence of what makes him primitive—is what symbolically drips down Jug in the Form of a Head, Self Portrait to rebirth his artistic identity and align it with his future primitivist endeavors. In 1895 Gauguin wrote, “My aim is to transform the eternal Greek vase and replace the potter’s wheel by an intelligent hand able to infuse it with the life of a work of art.”[19] From this we can see why his own hand is important. For his jug to be crafted on the potter’s wheel, this would be the equivalent to his artistic identity staying within the realm of European tradition and materialism. But by crafting the jug from his own hand, he has created the ceremony by which he rebirths his art from a primitivist perspective. The physical manifestation of the jug being born directly from his hands is what has reborn his artistic identity. Seeing Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, in context of rebirthing a primitivist artistic identity is not far from what Gauguin himself explained to fellow artist Odilon Redon:

I am leaving for Tahiti, where I shall hope to end my days. My art, which I know you like, I regard as no more than a tender shoot, though one which I hope to develop into a wild and primitive growth, entirely for my own pleasure. What I need to obtain this end is peace and quiet. The honour and respect of other people are now of no concern to me. The European Gauguin has ceased to exist and no one will ever see any of his works here again.[20]

This is not the first time that Gauguin has hinted at the rebirth of his artistic identity. In Self-Portrait with the Yellow Christ, 1890-91, Gauguin has painted himself in the center of the image (Fig. 5). Featured on the left side is The Yellow Christ, a painting that Gauguin completed earlier in 1889, and on the right is Self-Portrait Tobacco Pot as Grotesque Head, one of his ceramics from 1889 (Fig. 6 and Fig.7). The Yellow Christ painting is a show of Gauguin’s work in Brittany, and clearly European, due to its use of cloissonisme, synthetism, and Christian iconography. Juxtaposing The Yellow Christ is Self-Portrait Tobacco Pot as Grotesque Head, a ceramic piece that holds zero resemblance to any other portrait Gauguin has ever made before. Self-Portrait Tobacco Pot as Grotesque Head holds similarity to the Mochica and Chimu ceramic traditions of Peru (200 BC-700 AD and AD 1100-1470, respectively).[21] With this in mind, we can see the physical Gauguin of 1891 positioned between his European style and his Peruvian, or what he would have considered his primitivist style. Like a timeline, the painting presents the artist in almost a liminal state, where he is equally between Europe and savage, but he leans ever so slightly towards the savage, and his face even parallels the angle of the ceramic’s position. This shows how my interpretation of Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, fits into the question of how Gauguin saw his identity in the context of his work. He himself questioned how he fit into the art world—whether he was more European or primitive—and explored this continually.

Speaking of liminal states, the Peruvian cultures which Gauguin took ceramic inspiration from also believed in the journey from one realm to the other, such as the transition between life and death, and this is called a liminal state, or liminality.[22] Birth and rebirth are liminal states because they are metaphysical transitions between the realms of life, death, and the spiritual. I petition that Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, is in a liminal state—not only for it’s depiction of rebirth, but because of the jug’s handle.

A handle is a common feature on most ceramics, but what makes the handle on this piece significant is the connection to civilization and materialism. In 1750, a man named Adam Roberts inspired tea cup set designs to include handles, of which later became mass produced in the 1790s.[23] Primitivists detested how mass production shaped society and the movement of mankind further from innocence. Gauguin himself made commentary on mass production in his early sketches of his daughter, who sits playing with her toys, and most notably, her teacups. Art historians theorize that these sketches were already promoting a negative view on materialism due to the over-indulgence of material delight juxtaposed with the deterioration of the house that surrounds the young daughter. While she distracts herself with her teacups, she is completely unaware of the cracked walls, old table, and arguing couple in the next room.[24] Likewise, what use does Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait have to need a handle? Compared to Gauguin’s earlier works, the handle seems to diminish the primitivist philosophy that he claims to use. This brings us back to the conversation of rebirth. As a liminal state, the rebirth of Gauguin’s artistic identity is shown in two realms. The first realm, the transcendent, is evidenced by the blood birthing the primitive identity. The second realm, the earthly, is evidenced by the handle. The handle represents the material anchor to civilization and the opposite of being “savage.” The handle may have been included in this piece to show the liminal state between the Gauguin who creates this piece in France and the artistic identity he wants to create for himself overseas.

Another liminality of this piece is the red blood. Red is a significant color in Gauguin’s works, most often showing a difference between the physical and spiritual realm. The same is true for Vision After the Sermon, 1888, where Gauguin separates the Breton women from the biblical scene through the use of red to denote that the women see a realm not of their world (Fig. 8). I would like to apply the same here, where the red blood depicts a liminal state of Gauguin’s artistic identity during rebirth. The blood is not of this world, but rather the Incan ancestry from his genetics. As it drips down the face, the red discerns the spiritual world of Gauguin’s “primitive,” “Indian” ancestors from the materialized handle. Like Vision After the Sermon, we see the spiritual realm meet the material.

Now, changing this conversation to see the big picture—the popular interpretation of Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait stems from the interpretation of the art historian Martin Bailey. Bailey theorizes that Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait represents the trauma that Gauguin suffered from experiencing Van Gogh’s self mutilation and one other death-related event.[25] While these two events were certainly significant in Gauguin’s life, I reject Bailey’s interpretation due to their lack of credible correspondence and superficial visual analysis. While Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait does bring the self-mutilation of Van Gogh to mind, it’s hard to believe that Gauguin would sculpt something so visceral in reference to Van Gogh and not write about it, especially when Gauguin consistently wrote about his works and art philosophy. In the letters where Gauguin mentions Van Gogh, he repeatedly refers to Van Gogh as “the catastrophe” and rarely says anything positive about him.[26] Such correspondence is not in line with friendliness, much less referencing said friend in Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait. Rather, I hope that my interpretation has brought new light into understanding Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait as an early primitivist piece in Gauguin’s career.

My interpretation pulls on evidence from Gauguin’s correspondence, visual aspects of the piece, his previous works, and even his future works. This paper has looked at how Gauguin participated in the discourse of primitivism and showed how he experimented with the ideas of rebirth and liminality in Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait to develop his artistic identity. In seeing this ceramic piece under Gauguin’s primitivist lens, we can gain a better sense of his artistic motivations, why his art transitioned so rapidly between 1888 and 1891, and finally, why he claims this:

You were wrong when once you said that I am not a savage. I am indeed a savage. And civilized people are aware of the fact, for in my works there is nothing that surprises or shocks apart from my being ‘a savage despite myself.’ That is why it is inimitable. A man’s work is an explanation of himself.[27]



“A Short History of the Tea Cup,” BYU Women’s Conference, accessed April 9, 2023,

Bailey, Martin, “Drama at Arles: New Light on Van Gogh’s Self-Mutilation,” Apollo vol. 162 no. 523, 2005: 31-41,

Braun, Barbara, Paul Gauguin’s Indian Identity: How Ancient Peruvian Pottery Inspired his Art, JSTOR, 1986, doi: 0141-6790/86/0901-036

Cantz, Hatjie, Paul Gauguin, ed. Raphael Bouvier and Martin Schwander, Basel: Fondation Beyeler, 2015.

Denvir, Bernard. Gauguin, Letters from Brittany and the South Seas, New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1992.

Greub, Suzanne, “Gauguin and Polynesia: Encounter of Two Worlds,” in Gauguin Polynesia, ed. Suzanne Greub, Switzerland: Art Centre Basel, 2011.

Kherbek, William. “Paul Gauguin: Portraits” at the National Gallery. Vol. 32 2019.

Knapp, James F. "Primitivism and Empire: John Synge and Paul Gauguin." Comparative Literature 41, no. 1 (1989): 53-68. doi:10.2307/1770679.

Shackleford T.M., George, Where do we Come From? What are we? Where are we Going? Boston: MFA Publications, 2013.

Rubin, William, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, New York:The Museum of Modern Art, 1984.

[1] Bernard Denvir, Gauguin: Letters from Brittany and the South Seas (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1992), 137.

[2] Hatje Cantz, Paul Gauguin, ed. Raphael Bouvier and Martin Schwander (Basel: Fondation Beyeler, 2015), 23-24.

[3] The negative consequences of primitivist theory cannot—and should not— be understated. The effect the European colonial gaze had on international cultures set a precedence for diminishing the value and representations of these cultures. As such, I wish to make it clear that when this paper says “primitive,” “savage,” or “civilized,” I am referring to Gauguin’s viewpoint, and not my own. This paper only aims to evaluate Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, within the larger canon of Gauguin’s work and life, not the postcolonial effect. For more information on the devastating effects of primitivism, refer to the source in note 5.

[4] Suzanne Greub, “Gauguin and Polynesia: Encounter of Two Worlds,” in Gauguin Polynesia, ed. Suzanne Greub (Switzerland: Art Centre Basel, 2011), 21.

[5] William Rubin, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art (New York:The Museum of Modern Art, 1984), 1-3.

[6] William Rubin, 7.

[7] William Rubin, 17.

[8] Bernard Denvir, 99.

[9] Hatjie Cantz, 46-73.

[10] Bernard Denvir, 38.

[11] Suzanne Greub, 21-23.

[12] George T.M. Shackelford, Where do we Come From? What are we? Where are we Going? (Boston: MFA Publications, 2013), 16.

[13] Bernard Denvir, 99.

[14] Hatjie Cantz, 71-94.

[15] Bernard Denvir, 65-66.

[16] Bernard Denvir, 47.

[17] Barbara Braun, “Paul Gauguin’s Indian Identity: How Ancient Peruvian Pottery Inspired his Art,” JSTOR, (1986): 40, doi: 0141-6790/86/0901-036.

[18] Barbara Braun, 39.

[19] Barbara Braun, 40.

[20] Bernard Denvir, 149-150.

[21] Barbara Braun, 41.

[22] Barbara Braun, 49.

[23] “A Short History of the Tea Cup,” BYU Women’s Conference, accessed April 9, 2023,

[24] Hatjie Cantz, 16-17.

[25] Martin Bailey, “Drama at Arles: New Light on Van Gogh’s Self-Mutilation,” Apollo vol. 162 no. 523 (2005): 31-41,

[26] Bernard Denvir, 55.

[27] Bernard Denvir, 150.

● If you can’t find the word to describe an aspect of your piece, is a dictionary for art terms that can help you find the right word
● Your paper should include background information, description, and analysis
● Your analysis should support a single, unique take away from the piece

Are you ready to show your art analysis to one of our consultants? Here are some questions to get you started.

  • Have I properly described the art work?
  • Does my audience need more context?
  • Does my analysis clearly identify a "whole" and its "parts"?
  • Do I need more explanation on how each part functions?