BA Leerlijnen Kunstgeschiedenis - Universiteit Leiden

Eva le Clercq & Helen Westgeest -


Dit werk valt onder een CC BY NC SA NL 3.0-licentie.

1. Research questions

BA Art History

1.1 Preliminary research

In research, we try to gather new information, present a new vision or solve a problem. This is done by answering a focused research question: the question to which, by means of research, an answer will be provided. It is therefore of great importance that the question on which the entire research is based is well-formulated. The question, after all, defines the area of investigation and provides guidance to organize and evaluate the flow of information. 


1.2 How to get from a topic to a question

Read existing literature on the topic of your interest and determine whether authors contradict each other and whether any information is lacking. Often, the introduction or conclusion of an article or book provides starting points for further research. Another good starting point is to carefully examine the object that you wish to research to see if you notice anything special, before you view the object through the eyes of the experts. 


While doing this, keep in mind that there are several perspectives regarding the choice of topic. You could, for instance, focus on:

  • the artists

  • the work of art

    • the positioning of the work of art within art history,

    • the relationship with the patron,

    • the reason why it was produced,

    • the medium,

    • the style, 

    • the topic and its symbolism

  • the context

    • the political,

    • cultural,

    • social,

    • philosophical context

  • the viewer


When you have found a topic, at least always ask yourself:

  1. "where?" (define the research area),

  2. "when?" (define the time period) 

  3. "what objects?" (define the objects).


To then get from the topic to a question, it is important to define the research field. This makes the research feasible. Formulate what you noticed about the work of art or what was missing from the literature in the form of a question. 

1.3 Research question requirements:


Make sure that the resulting question meets the following requirements. The question is:

  • Answerable: i.e. the question can be answered based on academic research within your discipline (or interdisciplinary) and answering the question must be feasible within the designated time and the specified number of words. When your question can be answered with a mere description of the work of art, the question is of a descriptive nature and is not sufficiently academic. 

  • Unambiguous: it must be clear what the question is referring to.

  • Accurate: the topic must be well-defined to prevent the research from getting lost in larger topics.

  • Open: the question cannot be answered with a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’. 

  • Phrased neutrally: your ideas about the answer to the question must not already be encapsulated within the phrasing of the question. Furthermore, the phrasing must not contain value judgments. 

  • Aimed at source usage: it must already be clear from the formulation that sources will be consulted to answer the question. These sources must consist of academic texts, but can be combined with primary sources (such as manifestos and interviews) and visual analyses. 

  • Incorporated within the text: the research question should be asked within the text and should not be emphasised using quotation marks, blank lines, italics or bold characters. The subquestions should also be incorporated within the text and should not be written as an itemized list. 

  • Not a circular argument: avoid questions that are the same as the criteria for the choice of research object. For example, when you choose a work of art because it is situated on the boundary between photography and digitally created images, do not ask the research question "Is this work of art photography or a digitally created image?". For the research question, take a step beyond just claiming that a work of art belongs within the topic of the assignment.


Thus, the research question should not coincide with the title of the research or with the description of the topic. The research question is more specific than just naming the research topic and is more neutral than a title. The title may indeed be enticing and should invite further reading. 

Moreover, the research question is not a hypothesis. Hypotheses are assumptions in the form of a statement and serve as a starting point for the outlining of a theory. An assumption requires a point of view and is therefore not as neutral as a research question should be. 

Finally, there is a difference between the research question and the research goal. Some authors explicitly mention the goal of their research, such as: "My goal is to expand the Modernist metaphor of a flat surface as a snowy landscape." The mentioning of this goal, however, is not equal to phrasing the related research question, which would be: "What insights does the metaphor of a snowy landscape provide within Modernist ideas?"


When, during the answering of the main research question, too much information is given or too many sidetracks are broached that are not directly relevant, it is a sign that the research question is formulated too generally. In that case, rephrasing is required, in which you should try to make the main research question more specific. The adjustment of the research question is a common part of the writing process. During almost any research the question needs to be adjusted or improved. It is only in the final phase that the conclusion should be matched to the research question - so be reflexive and flexible.


1.4 Different types of questions and phrasing

It is important to realize that there are different types of questions, each one connected to a different type of research. That is, the research question and research method should be connected. The research method follows from the type of question. 

Different types of questions are:

  • Explanatory Question

With this question, you try to find the cause of a phenomenon ("how is it that ...?") This means that you are looking for links, reasons, causes, and consequences. Therefore, the question focuses on a causal relationship. 

  • Defining Question

This question examines how a phenomenon relates to a wider debate.


  • Comparative Question

A comparative question examines similarities and/or differences between two or more phenomena. For example, comparing artist A and B or comparing a theory and a work of art as a theoretical position. 

  • Theory-forming Question

Using this question, new theory is formed. Sometimes art questions existing theories or assumptions. Research questions that investigate this phenomenon are art-philosophical in nature because they suggest new theories, assumptions or viewpoints on the basis of ‘fundamental questions’. 

For art-historical research the following questions are (generally) not relevant:

  • Predictive Question ("What effect will the current budget cuts have on museums?")

  • Advisory Question ("What could museums do to attract more visitors?") 

  • Evaluating Question ("Did the new collection presentation attract more visitors?") 

These are questions that are generally used in statistical research. These types of questions are usually part of quantitative research, in which inferences are based on numbers in collected data. Art-historical research is generally qualitative research, in which inferences are based on critical analysis of the research material. 


1.5 Phrasing main questions and subquestions

The main question is divided into different subquestions. It is wise to formulate the main question and subquestions at the same time to form a coherent whole. The subquestions logically succeed each other and together give a complete answer to the main question. In this way, the main question is an umbrella for the different subquestions. The structure of your paper is based on the sequence of your subquestions. 


Start each sub-research (so each chapter) with a few paragraphs in which you introduce the subquestion and end each sub-research with a concluding statement regarding the subquestion.


Sample phrasing per type of question:  

  • Explanatory Question

"Why were the stained glass windows of the St. Jans church in Gouda not destroyed during the Iconoclastic Fury?" Or: "Why does Cindy Sherman so often use the female body as a theme?"

  • Defining Question

"To what extent does the Villa Rotonda adhere to the rules for architecture that Palladio formulated in I quattro Libri dell’Architettura?" 

  • Comparative Question

"What similarities exist between the way in which Mariano Fortuny and Madame Grès referred to Greek Antiquity in their designs?" Or: "What was the reception history of Van Gogh in France in comparison with The Netherlands?"

  • Theory-forming Question

For example: "How does the theory of Tom Nichols relate to Tintoretto’s painting Poverty?" or: "Can the dichotomy between geometric abstraction and organic abstraction, later formulated by Clement Greenberg, already be found in eighteenth-century German philosophy of art?" or: "How does Rodin’s bust of Camille Claudel (1911) relate to Plato’s classical theory of Mimesis?". 


1.6 Word choice in phrasing

As demonstrated, phrasing is crucial to the quality of a research question. Regardless of what research question you choose (explanatory, comparative, defining, etc.), it is important to phrase it very accurately. Some tips:

  • Fully name the artist and work of art. 

So not: "With what materials did he create this collage?". But rather: "With what materials did artist X (first and last name) create the collage Y (title of the work and the year)?"

  • Consider the number of possible answers that could arise from the question. 

"What is the meaning of..." or "What is the source of inspiration for..." assumes one answer, while multiple possible answers can arise from a formulation such as: "To which insights does ... lead" or "On what did artist X base..."

  • Be as specific as possible.

"What similarities/differences exist between artwork A and artwork B?" does not make clear what kind of similarities or differences you will be looking for and, moreover, the question is too descriptive. Specify to: "What stylistic similarities/differences exist between artwork A and artwork B?" or: "What differences in reception history can be found between artwork A and artwork B?", etc. 

A term like ‘importance’, for example, is very problematic because the term is vague. Do you mean influence on, position relative to others, etc.? Think, therefore, about every word in the question and how it could be interpreted. Limit the possible interpretations as much as possible by specifying the terms to the concepts that you will be using.

  • Use academic phrasing. 

That is, formulate a question in such a way that the answers become verifiable and objective. Avoid colloquial and cumbersome descriptions such as: "How did painter X roughly developed over time?", "Why are there endless variations on this theme?", or "Why do art historians disagree so vehemently about the interpretation of painting Y?". Change this to: "How did painter X develop his stylistic aspects in the period Y-Z?", or: "Why do variations A, B and C on theme X exist?" and: "Why do art historians A, B and C differ in their opinion about the interpretation of painting Y?"

  • A research question does not always have to be formulated as a question.

A non-interrogative sentence can also be used to incorporate a research question into the text, for instance: "The first subquestion focuses on which...", or: "This research will make clear which insights...". 


Bad examples:

  • "What is the importance of genre works in the Dutch Golden Age?"

Importance is a vague term. What exactly do you mean by genre works? Which period of the Golden Age will you be researching? 

  • "Does analog photography have similarities with the medium of painting?"

This question could be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This can be avoided by asking a more complex questions that engages with the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of the issue: "What characteristics does analog photography borrow from the medium of painting?", or "Why does analog photography borrow from the medium of painting?", etc. 

  • "What influence did the primitive art have on the visual art of the 20th century?"

This question does have a limited time period, but this time period is still too broad. Again, it is unclear what is meant by some words. What do you mean by primitive art? A better question would be: "How did Picasso come into contact with the primitive African art in the beginning of the 20th century and how did he incorporate it into his paintings?"

1.7 Relationship between subquestion and main question

Some problems could arise that can be solved by shifting the distribution of the topic across the subquestion.

  1. The subquestions are related to the topic but are irrelevant to the main question.

For example: Main question: "How did feminist thinkers react to Manet’s painting Olympia?". Subquestion: "Which contemporary artists have been influenced by Manet’s painting Olympia?" This subquestion is related to the topic but is beyond the scope of the main question. Therefore, change the subquestion or widen the main question if you think this topic is essential to your research.

  1. One of the subquestions is the same as the main question.

When you are trying to arrive at the main question via a logical succession of subquestions, it is possible that the last subquestion coincides with the main question. If that happens, realise that the goal is not to arrive at the main question via the subquestions, but rather that the main question should be divided into different subquestions. Otherwise, the first subquestions are not relevant to the research and only function as a way of introducing the topic. So make sure that all subquestions support the main question.

Example: Main question: "What is the meaning of the monkey in this painting?". Subquestion 1: "What is depicted in this painting?". Subquestion 2: "What role does the monkey play in contemporary paintings?". Subquestion 3: "What is the meaning of the depicted monkey?".

  1. These subquestions individually answer part of the main question, but together do not fully answer the main question.

Example: Main question: "Why do author A and author B differ in their opinion about the iconography of painting X?". Subquestion 1: "What is depicted in painting X?". Subquestion 2: “How does author A interpret this?". Subquestion 3: “How does author B interpret this?”. Here, an explanation for the difference of opinion between author A and author B is missing. Now, only the nature of the differences has been outlined without engaging with the ‘why’ from the main question. A possible solution is to expand the number of subquestions, or to widen the scope of the existing subquestions by asking: "How does author A support his interpretation and from what context can this choice be explained?" and "How does author B support his interpretation and from what context can this choice be explained?" 



N.B. During the research and writing process:

Have you found information during the research or writing process that turns everything on its head? Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to change your questions. When doing so, try to - if possible - stick to your topic and own perspective.