Students with an average of 3.5 or better in the major at the end of the junior year are encouraged to extend the range of their study beyond that normally available at the undergraduate level by writing an honors thesis and applying for departmental honors. 

Students who choose to write a thesis will declare the general area of their topic with their advisor in the spring of their junior year, carry out the research in the fall term of their senior year, and bring the paper to conclusion in the spring term. (See Thesis Schedule). Students will enroll in 2 credits for the thesis, which may be counted towards elective credits for the major.

Departmental honors are awarded to students whose thesis receives a grade of A- or higher.  Students may also submit their thesis in the annual competition for the College Alumni Society David M. Robb Prize in the History of Art.


The Senior Thesis is a valuable component of the Honors Program.  With a major GPA of 3.5 or better, a student may elect to prepare an essay (normally 40-60 pages) of original research and interpretation under the supervision of a faculty advisor.  Students may select a topic of their choice, whether drawn from coursework completed at Penn, study or travel undertaken during a summer or abroad, or of any other inspiration.  Recent theses include the following titles:

 -- “Iconography of the Mosaics of the Cappella Palatina in Sicily of the Twelfth Century,” Dana Katz (2005)

-- "Pittura infamante: The Role and Implications of Patronage in Leonardo's Last Supper," Pamela Stewart (2004, winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Frederick Meier, Jr. prize for the best thesis at Penn)

-- “La Loïe Fuller, la fleur animée de Paris: A Study of the Performance Posters of Loïe Fuller, c.1900,” Lucy Gallun (2004)

-- “Out of Conflict, Comfort: The Social and Historical Significance of Henry Moore,” Dana Sandberg (2004)

-- “Constructing a Mechanized Modern Architecture in Post World War I Europe,” Steve Correll (2004)

-- “Courting the Collector: The Art of Donor Development,” Sarah Zilinski (2004)

Students are encouraged to start thinking about a thesis in the junior year.  An Honors Thesis requires a great deal of commitment and motivation, but it is immensely rewarding – many students find it to be the most rewarding aspect of their undergraduate career at Penn.

When considering whether to write a thesis, students should consider the following:

  • What works of art, artistic movements, or critical approaches have most interested you in your coursework? What works have raised the most questions for you, or challenged your thinking about art or society?  What are you most passionate about?
  • What special skills or opportunities have you had that you might bring to bear on your research?  For example, fluency in Spanish and a junior semester spent in Barcelona might have given you special preparation to write a thesis on nationalist art movements in 1930s Spain.  Or an internship at Sotheby’s may inspire you to investigate the Antwerp art market in the time of Rubens or twentieth-century legal protection of looted sites.
  • With whom would you like to pursue your research?  One faculty member will serve as your advisor.  Frequent meetings and discussions foster a strong collaborative spirit with faculty as a student pursues his or her research.


Students wishing to pursue an undergraduate honors thesis project must apply to do so, according to the guidelines given here. Students applying to the honors thesis project must have at least a 3.5 in the major.

All applications must be typed and submitted in hard copy to Professor Shaw. E-mailed applications will not be accepted. Please limit your application to one page.

D U E    D A T E :    FRIDAY, 4/8/2016 by 3 p.m.

Please include the following information in your application:

  1. Your name and contact information: please include your Penn email address.
  2. Proposed topic area: describe your topic as clearly as possible, keeping your discussion to one paragraph. Here, you want to provide answers to the following kinds of questions: What are you considering as your main subject? What art historical materials will be under consideration? What do you see as your main points of interest? What do you hope to achieve in this project?                                                                                                                     
  3. Preparation for this project: describe your preparation as clearly as possible, keeping your discussion to one paragraph. As above, please provide answers to these kinds of questions: What courses have you taken that relate to this project? Have you done previous work, such as a term paper, on this subject? (If so, please include the paper title and the course information.) What other experiences (travel, museum experience, and the like) have you had that might pertain to this project?                                                                           
  4. Faculty affiliation: In advance of submitting your proposal, be sure to consult with the Undergraduate Chair about your topic and your possible faculty advisor. Please nominate two faculty members for consideration of your proposal.

All thesis projects must be concluded in autumn semester with a grade of Satisfactory (S) and in spring semester with an A-level grade in order to qualify for acceptance as an honors thesis. Those projects that do not achieve these grades will be credited as independent studies courses.