About the Exam

Attention Art History MA students:

The qualifying exam is scheduled once a semester – the date will be announced by the end of September. For more information, contact the Art History Coordinator at (718) 997-4803 or Amanda.Nocera(at)qc.cuny.edu

Purpose and Structure

The Qualifying Exam, lasting two hours, is meant to test your general knowledge of Art History. Its purpose is to ensure that you are qualified to discuss almost any area of art with some basic knowledge and that you are able to draw upon a broad base of art history in your graduate studies at Queens College. It consists of 25 images of major works in all media including architecture, which are shown for 4 minutes each. Each image is worth 4 points, for a total of 100 points; the passing grade is 65.

Schedule of the Exam

The exam is normally scheduled about halfway through each semester (October and March). You will be notified by mail as to the exact date, time, and place and you must notify the Art History secretary, in writing, of your intention to take the exam. The exams are usually graded within two weeks, and you will be notified by email of the results.

All matriculated, first-semester students must attempt the Qualifying Exam during their first semester on the scheduled date and time. An unexcused absence results in a failure of the exam which will be recorded in the student’s matriculation file.

If you fail the exam, you must retake it within one year (two semesters). Schedule a meeting with the graduate advisor to go over the exam, to identify your main weaknesses and to discuss how best to remedy them.

If you fail the Exam a second time, you must petition the Graduate Committee for a third attempt. Such permission is not automatic and you may be asked to withdraw from the program. Students who fail the exam a third time may not request any further attempts from the department, and will be required to withdraw from the program.

Suggestions for Exam Preparation

You need to start studying for the exam before you arrive on campus and before your first semester as matriculating graduate student since you’ll be busy starting classes by then, and it can take several months to prepare fully for the test, especially if you were not an art history major as an undergraduate.

For each slide, your answers should identify the work as closely as possible: artist or regional school, title or subject, date, medium, and general cultural period — e.g., “Northern Baroque,” “China, Ming Dynasty,” and the like — and then describe its significant stylistic and/or iconographic features: Why is it important in the history of art? How does it exemplify a general trend or a culture, or represent an important innovation or change? Do not simply describe visual features that anyone could see in the work; you need to demonstrate your study and knowledge in some depth, and demonstrate some ability at generalization and abstraction (e.g.: not “this picture has a lot of red,” but rather, “Rembrandt’s red is part of his generally warm and dark color palette, which is typical of much Dutch 17th-century painting”).

Your answers must be accurate within reason, but if you are not exactly sure of some element, give as close an answer as you can, for which you may receive partial credit (i.e., if you don’t know that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was painted in exactly 1482, say “ca. 1475- 1500” or “late 15th-century Italy” or “15th-century Italy” — progressively less precise, but all better than nothing). Try never to leave an answer completely blank; say whatever you know about the item, or about its general category (e.g.: [I don’t know that Rembrandt painted this picture, but] “the warm, dark color scheme suggests this is a 17th-century Dutch painting”).

Most of the material on the exam is drawn from the western art-historical tradition, but there will also be a modest number of examples from Asia, the Americas, and other cultures. All the images that you are responsible for identifying (about 450) are illustrated on this website, with basic information for each. Look at these images repeatedly, like flash cards: ask yourself, “What do I know about this object?,” and when you can say enough about it to yourself, move on to the next one.

In order to prepare for this test, in addition to studying the web images, you should review your textbooks and notes from prior courses, to recall everything you already know. Then, to fill in the gaps, you should read through at least two of the major world-art survey textbooks (Gardner’s Art through the Ages; Marilyn Stokstad, Art History; A. Janson, Janson’s History of Art. Janson covers only western art, while the others cover a wider range of material). Concentrate on broad themes and the general characteristics of each culture, period, and style — not on small details of specific works. That way, even if you don’t recognize a particular work, you will be able to “slot it in” to a general category, and talk about characteristics of that period.

Another good way to prepare is to make visits to New York City museums, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, testing yourself to see how confidently you can identify the works of art on view without first reading the labels.

Copies of past Qualifying Exams are available from the Art History secretary.

Click here to see two Sample Answers.

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