Comprehensive Exam

A Guide to Comprehensive Exams

The exam consists of three parts. 

Part One is a slide exam taken during the final exam period for ARTH 601, Colloquium in Art History.  You receive 25 images representing major works/monuments of world art.  You identify them as fully as possible (Artist’s name, date, medium, location) and then write a paragraph on the work’s significance in the History of Art, as if you were teaching it in a survey course.  Barring any extenuating circumstances, students have three more chances to pass the Image Exam. We recommend taking ARTH 601 during the student’s first year as an MA student. The slide exam is given at the conclusion of ARTH 601 and is an in-class exam for the entire 3-hour period. 

ARTH 601, Colloquium in Art history is offered each Spring semester. This course has one professor of record but will be team taught by all faculty as a way to prepare you for your slide exam (Part One of Comprehensives) and more broadly for your comprehensive exams.

Parts Two and Three are typically taken together

Part Two is a Synthesis Question based on your overall coursework and interests. The topic is developed in consultation with professors and through a bibliography of secondary sources on the area.

Part Three is a Practicum Question.  This is tailored to your interests and coursework, so it might be a museum-based question, a curriculum/teaching question, an arts administration question, etc.

MA Students typically take Parts Two and Three of their comprehensive exams in their last semester of graduate study, following completion of ARTH 601 and all other coursework. These written questions take into consideration your range of coursework, and/or a particular area of interest related to study with the professor who will write the exam questions.  As such they will demonstrate a historiographic knowledge in a chosen field or topic appropriate to areas of the professor’s expertise.  (See below for a list of these “Faculty Areas of Specialization for MA Art History Comprehensive Exams”)

The Synthesis/Practicum portions are due during finals week prior to the conclusion of classes for the semester. The precise date will be set by the Graduate Director in advance.


Procedures for the Literature Review and Practicum:

  • Declare Intention: In the first week of the semester, inform the Graduate Director that you will be taking your exam.
  • Meet with Primary Reader: In the second week of the semester, contact a professor with whom you'd like to work to ask if they will be the primary reader for your exam. Ideally this is a professor you have worked with so that you can collectively discuss your prior coursework, areas of interest, and professional goals. If they agree, this professor will be your primary reader and together you will draft your exam questions.
  • Prepare Bibliography: Based on the guidance of your Primary Reader and building on research for past seminar papers, prepare a bibliography of materials related to your area of focus. This process should begin early in the semester – ideally by week three and typically the question will be provided by week four.
  • Review Bibliography: While not mandatory, it is a good idea to review your bibliography with your Primary Reader at some point over the semester.
  • Read Items on Bibliography: This does not mean reading every book from cover to cover, but rather skimming, reading introductions and conclusions, and determining the source’s arguments and methodologies. Keep notes on these sources to use when writing your exam question.
  • Take the Exam: The Comprehensive Exam is to be researched and written over the course of the semester and it is due during finals week on a date set by the Graduate Director of the Art History program

Exam questions are emailed to students in a .doc or .docx format with appropriate directions for formatting and submission.  Students return the exams by email to their committee which consists of the primary reader who wrote the exam, a secondary faculty reader, and the graduate director.

  • Grades: The exam will be evaluated by two faculty members, one of which will be your Primary Reader. Each portion of the exam is graded separately and is rated as Pass or Fail. Exceptional cases may earn a High Pass. If they fail any or all sections of the exam, they may retake them three times. Please be aware that in most cases additional attempts at the exam will take place during the subsequent Fall or Spring semester.

Expectations of Quality: Please approach the written portions of the Comprehensive Exam with seriousness and care. The exams should be an example of your best work and serve as a culmination of your training in the program. Approach the exam, not as a student, but rather as a trained scholar and holder of an advanced graduate degree. The work should exemplify a full semester of sustained work and revision.


The Parts Two and Three of the Comprehensive Exam:

  • Synthesis: This section of the exam will require the student to demonstrate mastery of the scholarship on a topic, theme, geographic region, or time period in order to gain a broad sense of what has been written on the topic, assess differences in interpretation, and determine unexplored areas of inquiry. This engagement with past scholarship will be shaped by the research question and will require synthesis and critical thinking. Typically, this portion of the exam is 13-15 pages
  • Practicum: This section of the exam addresses career skills and seeks to emulate the sorts of challenges that the student may encounter in the workplace. The exact nature of the Practicum question will vary depending on the student’s individual career goals. Examples include being asked to design a class syllabus on a particular topic or preparing an exhibition proposal highlighting a certain artist or subject. The section builds on the subject area chosen for the literature review and is usually about 5-7 pages in length.

Sample questions:

Synthesis Question

  • Every empire has marginal communities from which it benefits and from whom it draws resources. Consider the way economic, political, and/or cultural imbalances have affected the way art and architecture have been understood. Perhaps art and architecture can help us recover the voices of marginal groups from the mists of history or perhaps art and architecture play a role in reinforcing and exacerbating ideas about center and periphery. Select three examples from art history that you believe exemplify this problem. At least one should be a modern example and one should be taken from an earlier historical moment. You may define ‘marginality’ in any way you deem appropriate. To support your point, please provide an overview of relevant scholarship as it pertains to your examples.
  • Gender has been a central topic of interest in recent scholarship on American (U.S.) and Renaissance art. In your essay, consider how the feminist intervention in the discipline of art history has shaped the way scholars in these two fields address the agency of women as artists and patrons. What are the commonalities in theoretical approaches, and what are the divergent questions and foci that arose from two very different cultures? For the purposes of this essay, consider the scholarship on one or two artists and/or patrons from each era. Please note that you are NOT writing mini-histories about women artists or patrons; instead, think comparatively and in historiographic terms.
  • Definitions of modernism vary greatly. How do scholars define the term differently? Do scholars diverge in their construction of the concept across movements? In other words, does a scholar of the Bauhaus define modernism differently from a scholar of Fauvism or Futurism? Support your argument with specific quotes from secondary sources as well as with works of art put forth as iconic examples of modernism. Which works of art do scholars employ most frequently to represent the concept? Which works were the most contested and why? Do you notice a difference in the parameters of the term over time? How have approaches to the study of modern art changed? And has there been an expansion or contraction of the parameters of modernism to incorporate or exclude new works or movements?

In your essay examine at least five scholarly approaches to the subject that you believe have determined the scope of the field. Be sure to justify your choices by engaging in a critical analysis of the author’s methodology and relating his/her ideas to the broader historiography of early twentieth century European art. 


  • Please design a syllabus for a course entitled "Art and Tourism". You may define the parameters of the course as you see fit, but it should be suitable as an undergraduate seminar course aimed at juniors and seniors. Assume a fifteen-week semester with a midterm, final and paper or technology based assignment. Please provide a subject/title for each day's lecture and be sure to include readings. Also provide an overview of your pedagogical goals for the course and discuss the major themes, events, and artists you plan to highlight.
  • You have been asked by the National Museum of Women in the Arts to prepare a proposal for a library exhibition of material related to female artists. While material from the NMWA should form the core of the show, you are expected to introduce works from other DC institutions, such as the Library of Congress and National Archives, to enrich the exhibit. In addition to introducing the audience to the material related to women artists in DC institutions, this is also an exercise in exhibition design. How will you group the objects? What theme(s) might emerge from your particular selection? Your proposal should include the following:
  1. A rationale for the project and a checklist of your objects.
  2.  An introductory plaque for the exhibition telling us about the works as a group and the theme(s) of the exhibit. Write 3 object labels. Think about your viewer and what you want them to know about the artists.
  3. Do a rough floor plan of the exhibit to show overall design/layout and placement of objects. How does your layout or grouping of objects elucidate the themes and subthemes of the show?
  4. An outline of a teaching session to complement the exhibition.
  5. A bibliography of about 15 sources that provide scholarly background for the exhibit.

Please imagine an exhibition of contemporary Italian artists who are informed by Italy's rich historical and religious past.  Imagine you have a small in gallery in Florence, and a budget sufficient to borrow works and to produce some audio-visual displays for visitors to absorb.  What would you propose?  How might your studies of museums and galleries inform your curatorial decisions?


Faculty Areas of Specialization for MA Art History Comprehensive Exams

Dr. LaNitra Berger:
Arts of the African Diaspora
African American Art
African Art
20th Century German Art

Dr. Robert DeCaroli:
South Asian Art (India)
Southeast Asian Art
Arts of Dynastic China

Dr. Heidi Gearhart:
Medieval European Art, 500-1400
Byzantine Art, 400-1450
Medieval and early Modern Islamic Art, 650-1700

Dr. Michele Greet:
20th-century Latin American Art 1900-present
20th-century European Art 1900-1950
19th-century European Art 1850-1900

Dr. Angela Ho:
Renaissance and Baroque Europe, 1400-1700 
Europe in the Global Context, 1400-1700

Dr. Vanessa Schulman:
Art of the United States, Colonial to 1945
History of Photography
19th-20th century American and European Architecture

Dr. Jacquelyn Williamson:
Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology
Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology
Ancient Mediterranean Art and Archaeology