Overview of Categories
Definitions of Categories
Titles or Names
Materials and Techniques
Examination History
Treatment History
Subject Matter
Descriptive Note
Critical Responses
Related Works
Current Location
Collecting History
Exhibition/Loan History
Cataloging History
Related Visual Documentation
Related Textual References
Person/Corporate Body Authority
Generic Concept Authority
Subject Authority
Cataloging Examples
Entity Relationship Diagram
The CDWA and Other Metadata Standards
Metadata Standards Crosswalk

Categories for the Description of Works of Art

18. Descriptive Note


A textual description of the work, including a discussion of issues related to it. Important information in this note should be indexed in other appropriate categories.



The DESCRIPTIVE NOTE should contain a single coherent statement covering some or all of the salient characteristics and historical significance of the work of art or architecture. Topics covered in the note may include a discussion of the subject, function, or significance of the work.

As a supplement to information recorded in controlled fields, free-text notes, such as the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE, allow for the nuance and detail necessary to capture a precise description. This makes it possible to include very specific details that cannot be described in other elements.

Cataloging rules
For the subcategories in this section, basic recommendations and discussion are provided below. For a fuller, more prescriptive set of cataloging rules for some of the subcategories, see Chapter 8: Description in Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO), which deals with a critical subset of the CDWA.


Important information in the DESCRIPIVE NOTE, including proper names and dates, should be indexed in the appropriate categories, including the following: CREATION, CONTEXT, RELATED WORKS, SUBJECT MATTER, and PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION.

The DESCRIPTIVE NOTE provides a succinct note about the work in a form easily read by end users; however, there may be many other free-text note fields in an object/work record. The required number and type of notes should be determined by the cataloging institution. In addition to the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE, notes may be attached to any category in the CDWA by using the REMARKS subcategory. In addition, many categories have an additional subcategory dedicated to description or display for that category, which is then indexed in controlled subcategories (e.g., SUBJECT MATTER - DISPLAY, which is optional, may be used in addition to or instead of DESCRIPTIVE NOTE when discussing the subject; the indexing subcategory SUBJECT MATTER - INDEXING TERMS is required).

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18.1. Descriptive Note Text


A narrative text or prose description and discussion of the work or group of works.


[for Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi, ca. 1400, Pinacoteca, Siena, Italy]
The Adoration of the Magi in Siena was produced by Bartolo's workshop but probably executed primarily by Bartolo di Fredi himself. Although it is unknown where the altarpiece originally stood, the quality of the materials, large size, and the influence that the work had on other artists are all evidence of an expensive commission and prominent location, possibly in the cathedral of Siena. It illustrates the artist's late stylistic concerns and was extremely influential in Siena and elsewhere.[1]

[for Revised competition design for the New Houses of Parliament, Westminster London, by Sir Charles Barry, ca. 1836, Drawing Center, British Architectural Library of the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, England]
After the destruction by fire of the Houses of Parliament on the night of 16th October 1834, it was decided to hold an architectural competition for a new building. Of the ninety-seven designs submitted, Charles Barry's scheme won the first prize. His success lay in a well conceived plan and in the collaboration of A.W.N. Pugin to whom is owed the inventive Gothic detail that is so important a part of the new Palace of Westminster. From February 1836 (when the competition result was announced) continuous modifications to the original design were made to meet changing requirements and the elevations shown here were drawn after the competition and before the finalized design. As built, the north and south fronts are shorter, the keep-like Victoria Tower stops the south-west corner, and the Clock Tower, not designed in its final form until the mid-1840s, stops the north-west corner. [2]

[for a group of works]
152 design drawings and models for the East Building project that I. M. Pei & Partners gave to the archives of the National Gallery of Art in 1986.


Optional: Record a brief essay-like text that describes the content and context of the work, discussing some or all of the salient characteristics and historical significance of the work of art or architecture, including a discussion of the significance, function, or subject of the work Enter information clearly and concisely. Capture salient points that are not already fully described in other elements.

Form and syntax
Use natural word order. You may use phrases or complete sentences, but always begin the note with capital letter and end it with a period. Use sentence case (not all capitals or title case). Capitalize proper names. Avoid abbreviations. Write the note in the language of the catalog record (English in the United States). Names and other words in foreign languages may be used within the note when there is no commonly used English equivalent. Use diacritics as appropriate.

This note serves to qualify, explain, supplement and integrate information about the work. Topics covered in the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE may include those listed below. Omit any of these topics if they are not significant or are explained adequately in other elements:

1. A clarification of disputed or uncertain issues concerning attribution, original location, identification of subjects, dating, or other relevant historical information.

2. A concise description and discussion of the subject content and the method of representation.

3. A concise description and discussion of the function or use of the work, and the circumstances surrounding its manufacture or condition.

4. A concise description and discussion of the significance of the work related to other works from the same period, place, artistic school, etc.

5. A discussion of the creator's style, his or her technical expertise, and how this work is representative of his or her oeuvre.

List information in the order of importance, chronologically, or from general to specific, depending upon which is appropriate for the particular work. If none of the above ways of ordering information applies to the work, list information in this order: What is the work (work type, subject, style), who is responsible for it, where was it made, when was it made.

For groups
For a group of works, use this subcategory to record the description of the group, noting its extent and contents.

Various issues
The following recommendations may be adjusted to accommodate local needs and preferences:

All information in the descriptive note must be derived from an authoritative source. It is highly recommended to cite your source and page number. Do not plagiarize: You may paraphrase the information, but do not copy it verbatim. If information in the note ultimately comes from a literary or unreliable source (as opposed to a modern reliable source), be careful not to state it as if it were proven fact. Do not use this note to record extremely volatile situations that may change in a few months or years. Instead, situations recorded here should be relatively long-standing.

Explain any controversies or issues regarding the attribution to an artist or any other facts that are in dispute among scholars or experts. If an issue is in dispute, be careful not to express it as a certain fact. When two sources disagree, prefer the information obtained from the most scholarly, authoritative, recent source.

Be objective. Avoid bias or critical judgment, either positive or negative. Express all information in a neutral tone, including artistic styles, comparison to other works, rulers, other people, art, architecture, events, politics. Do not write from a subjective or biased point of view, even if your source expresses a fact or discusses a topic, such as politics or religion,.in a subjective way.


Free text: This is not a controlled field. Use consistent format and syntax when possible. Any significant information in the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE should be recorded in the appropriate controlled fields, including significant people, corporate bodies, subjects, dates, media, and techniques.

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18.2. Remarks


Additional comments pertinent to the information recorded in the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE - TEXT.


Optional: Record a note containing additional information or comments on this category. Use consistent syntax and format. For rules regarding writing notes, see rules for DESCRIPTIVE NOTE above.


Free-text: This is not a controlled field. Use consistent syntax and format.

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18.3. Citations


Identification of the sources used for information recorded in DESCRIPTIVE NOTE - TEXT.


Optional: Cite the source or sources used. It is optional but highly recommended to record the source of the note, particularly if you have used a certain source or sources extensively and/or if the information represents an opinion or is not widely available, or if you are paraphrasing from the source.

Form and syntax
Display the BRIEF CITATION for the source, as described in RELATED TEXTUAL REFERENCES. Alternatively, display the FULL CITATION from RELATED TEXTUAL REFERENCES.

Avoid copying a source verbatim. If you must do so, place the quote within quotation marks in the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE; then generally cite the source briefly in the DESCRIPTIVE NOTE and give a full citation in DESCRIPTIVE NOTE - CITATIONS.


Authority: Ideally, this information is controlled by citations in the citations authority; see RELATED TEXTUAL REFERENCES.

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18.3.1. Page


Page number, volume, date accessed for Web sites, and any other information indicating where in the source the information was found.


Optional: For a full set of rules for PAGE, see RELATED TEXTUAL REFERENCES - CITATIONS - PAGE.


Free-text: This is not a controlled field. Use consistent syntax and format.

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[discusses the artist's style, for a sculpture]
Descriptive Note: The virtuosity of the sculptor is apparent in the rendering of a variety of textures, including flesh, hair, lace, and satins. Verhulst has employed decorative foliage and curving volutes below the armor to mitigate the truncation of the figure at the shoulders and chest.

[discusses the subject, for a portrait of a woman with her cat]
Descriptive Note: The sitter was from the provincial French region of Orléans, but the artist imbued her with Parisian sophistication. The cat she holds is known as a "Chartreux cat," descriptions of which first appeared in 18th-century France. While some at this time valued this breed as a companion animal, it was primarily bred for its fur.

[subject is discussed, for a Japanese Edo screen]
Descriptive Note: This scene represents a popular episode in the 10th-century "Ise Monogatari" (The Tales of Ise) series of poems on love and journeying; in this episode, a young aristocrat comes to a place called Eight Bridges (Yatsuhashi) where a river branched into eight channels, each spanned by a bridge. He writes a poem of five lines about irises growing there. The poem expresses his longing for his wife left behind in the capital city.

[discusses uncertainty regarding the subject, for a painting by Dosso Dossi]
Descriptive Note: The painting's precise meaning is uncertain, although it seems to be an allegory with the message that prosperity in life is transitory and dependent on luck. The nude woman apparently represents Fortune, holding a cornucopia containing the bounty that she could bring; however, she sits on a bubble, which could burst at any moment. The man personifies chance; he holds up lottery tickets, which he is about to place inside a golden urn, a timely reference to the civic lotteries that had just become popular in Italy. The tickets may also refer to the painting's probable patron, Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua. One of her emblems was a bundle of lots, denoting her personal experience with fluctuating fortune.

[for a group, discusses the contents of the group]
Descriptive Note: Comprises a pair of candlesticks, an inkwell (with a purple glass liner), pen tray and a letter knife. Each piece is engraved and decorated in light blue enamel with an angular pattern.

[a relationship to another work is mentioned, for a drawing of Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus]
Descriptive Note: Poussin used this study in formulating a painting now in the Museo del Prado. This drawing is based on Raphael’s famous fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. The drawing is more animated than is typical for Poussin, but it shows his characteristic tendency to abstract forms and to employ wash quite broadly.

[relationship to other works is mentioned]
Descriptive Note: In May 1891 Monet began his first series, using wheatstacks just outside his garden at Giverny, producing 30 canvases depicting wheatstacks in various conditions of light and weather.

[discusses the manufacture of the work, for a work by contemporary artist, Robert Smithson]
Descriptive Note: The Spiral Jetty was a counterclockwise coil of mud, salt crystals, rocks, which were hauled in by truck, but were indigenous elements of the landscape at Great Salt Lake. While clockwise spirals were powerful positive forces, the artist equated this counterclockwise spiral with destruction and entropy, drawing upon symbolism from many cultures.

[discusses the manufacture of the work, for an ancient Mississippian bannerstone]
Descriptive Note: This bannerstone is a double-crescent-shaped stone, typical of the "winged" type. Although the purpose of bannerstones is uncertain, it is assumed that they were status symbols in the form of adornments or insignia, perhaps carried on a wooden staff (with the holes arranged vertically); many scholars believe that bannerstones formed part of an atlatl (a stick used in pre-Columbian cultures to throw spears).

[discusses method of representation, for an architectural drawing]
Descriptive Note: The drawing depicts a longitudinal section of the cathedral, showing that the main dome and minor ones are constructed differently.

[discusses subject and influences, for an architectural work, the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC]
Descriptive Note: The design was influenced by the Greek Parthenon. Built into the design are symbols of the Union; for example, the 36 exterior Doric columns represent the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death.

[comprises a physical description, for a Koran]
Descriptive Note: The Ibn al-Bawwab Koran is a small volume containing 286 brownish paper folios. Each text has fifteen lines of round script written with a straight-cut reed pen to produce letters of uniform thickness. The brown ink is enhanced with blue and gold.

[discusses creation date, for St. Peter’s, the Vatican]
Descriptive Note: Between 1452 and 1455, Bernardo Rossellino drafted a plan to extend the foundation of Old Saint Peter’s. In 1506, Pope Julius commissioned Donato Bramante to continue plans to rebuild Old Saint Peter’s, but by 1515, upon Bramante’s death, only four large pilasters had been erected. In 1546, Michelangelo took over as lead architect. By 1564, upon Michelangelo’s death, plans and construction for the dome were under way, but the dome was not completed until 1593 under the architects Dominico Fontana and Giacomo della Porta. Between 1603 and 1614, Carlo Maderno directed the construction of the nave and portico, and Bernini laid out the Piazza San Pietro 1656-1667.

[source is cited, for an ancient Egyptian bas relief; a brief citation is displayed, which would include a link to the full citation for the source]
Descriptive Note: Mentuhotep II was the founder of the Middle Kingdom, reuniting Egypt after the chaotic First Intermediate Period. This relief comes from his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri in western Thebes. The high standards of the royal Theban workshops are evident in the delicately modeled low relief and the finely painted details.
Citation: Hibbard, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986) Page: 30.

[source is cited, for Van Gogh's Irises]
Descriptive Note: This work was painted when the artist was recuperating from a severe attack of mental illness; it depicts the garden at the asylum at Saint-Rémy. The cropped composition, divided into broad areas of vivid color with monumental irises overflowing the borders of the picture, was probably influenced by the decorative patterning of Japanese woodblock prints. There are no known drawings for this painting; Van Gogh himself considered it a study. His brother Theo recognized its quality and submitted it to the Salon des Indépendants in September 1889, writing to Vincent of the exhibition: "[It] strikes the eye from afar. It is a beautiful study full of air and life."
Citation: J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Collections (1991) Page: 129

[online source is cited, discusses relationships to contemporary works, for a statue of Parvati]
Descriptive Note: As was typical of this period, this sculpture was created using the lost-wax technique, meaning each sculpture requires a separate wax model and thus is unique. Iconographic conventions for this figure include the conical crown with mountain-like (karandamukuta) tiers, swaying hips in a triple-bend (tribhanga) pose, and the one hand is posed as if holding a flower. Parvati in this pose is often placed beside Shiva in his role as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja).
Citation: Metropolitan Museum of Art online Page: accessed 1 February 2004

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NOTE: The outline numbers are subject to change; they are intended only to organize this document.

Revised 5 February 2010