The Books that Shaped Art History II

WHILE WORKING AS AN EDITOR at The Burlington Magazine some years ago, I came across a list compiled some time previously by the then-chief editor, Richard Shone. It was a roll-call of some of the most important art history books published during the twentieth century. He had wanted to commission a series of re-reviews of the books, but had never got around to doing so.

This seemed to me good idea, and worth picking up. After some discussion and refinement of the list, I set about commissioning the articles, and raising the funds to pay the authors. For the series to work, it would need in-depth articles by leading art historians, as well as new voices.

It was an interesting time, commissioning and editing the articles against the backdrop of the financial crash, but somehow it came together, and the series unrolled in the pages of The Burlington from 2010.

Following the success of the series, it was not difficult to find a publisher to take on the articles as an anthology. Thanks to the persuasive charm of Jacky Klein, the book was sold to Thames & Hudson, who did a remarkably good job of producing the volume, published in 2013.

Encouraged by the many positive reviews (not a few of which pointed out the absence of John Berger, which I now heartily regret) and general enthusiasm for the book, I set to work on a list for a second volume (to be published directly as a book rather than appearing first as articles) which was to trace the story of art history back to its founding in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Together, the two volumes would provide a complete account of the evolution of art history since the Enlightenment. It would also provide an introduction to some fascinating writers little-known to an English-speaking audience, such as Franz Kugler, Hippolyte Taine, and Eugène Fromentin. An introduction was planned that brought in the influence of some figures outside of art history, such as Kant and Hegel, to give a more rounded, if not less complicated, picture.

The publisher showed no interest whatsoever in taking on a second volume, and nothing came of it. The proposal has been languishing in a desktop folder for almost a decade.

Here, in any case, is my list of books.

  1. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764. (Most recently translated into English as: ‘The History of Art of Antiquity’, Getty Publications, 2006). Winckelmann was the major founder of the modern discipline of art history. His 1764 publication The History of Ancient Art was the first work to bring together the art of ancient Greek and Rome, as well as other areas of the Near East, and provide a description which accounted for its evolution and historical importance. In the words of one recent writer, this book ‘revolutionized and gave new impetus to the fields of art historical and archaeological studies’. Since Vasari’s Lives, the study of art history had broken down into studies of individual artists and schools; Winckelmann provided a model for art historical writing that traced the evolution of art through history in a way which proposed a profoundly new definition of art itself. The History of Ancient Art was, as Kenneth Clark (who was elsewhere sceptical of Wincklemann’s view of classical statuary) once put it, ‘the first book which claims to be a history of art rather than a series of biographies’.

  2. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, London, 1778. Reynolds’s discourses, or lectures in art, were given at the Royal Academy after its founding in 1768. They were conceived as advice to students at the Academy, and concentrated on cultivating their experience of the history of art. They were, according to Roger Fry, who edited an edition of the Discourses in 1905, amongst the best ‘applied aesthetics’ ever written; they take their place in a tradition of theoretical writing by artists, reflecting on the art of the past. Alongside Diderot, and Winckelmann, Reynolds was one of the towering figures of eighteenth century art writing. He was also a pioneering figure in the field of art theory.

  3. Luigi Lanzi, Storia Pittorica della Italia dal risorgimento delle belle arti fin presso al fin del XVIII secolo, 3 vols., Bassano, Remondino, 1795-1796. (Translated into English by Thomas Roscoe as: The History of Painting in Italy, from the Period of the Revival of the Fine Arts, to the End of the Eighteenth Century, London, Simpkin and Marshall, 1828). Lanzi’s History of Painting in Italy was the first treatment of the history of Italian art viewed as a succession of stylistic developments rather than one based on the biographies of artists; as such, it played a key role in the move away from a Vasarian approach to the history of art. Lanzi was strongly influenced by Winckelmann, whose scientific approach combining connoisseurship and a systematisation of objects provided the ground for Lanzi’s book. His revisionist view of Vasari was supported by Carl Friedrich von Ruhmohr in his important volume Italienische Forschungen (1827-1831). Lanzi was a strong influence on the Berlin School of art history, principally Rumohr, Franz Kugler, and Gustav Friedrich Waagen.

  4. Karl Friedrich von Rumohr, Italienische Forschungen, Berlin, 1827. (No English translation). Rumohr is one of the key figures of his age, and wrote one of the most important books in the field of art history — from today’s perspective he is an unjustly neglected figure, both for his art historical contribution and colourful, eccentric personality. He was a dandy, individualist, and a gourmet who published a famous book on cooking – his only to be translated into English, to date. His Italienische Forschung presents an ‘entirely new interpretation of Italian painting’, and the ‘first full history since Lanzi and Winckelmann to be based on early documents’, in the words of Udo Kultermann (1995). He also offered an assessment of art historiography to date, covering Ghiberti, Vasari, Lanzi and Cicognara.

  5. Franz Kugler, Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte, 3 vols., Ebner & Seubert, Stuttgart, 1842 (Parts translated into English by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake as Handbook of painting: the Italian Schools, London, 1874 ). Kugler, a leading representative of the Berlin School of Art history, is one of the founding figures of an approach to the history of art that combines empirical evidence to create as overview of the subject. His ‘Handbook of Art History’ is one of the first survey books in the field. Amongst other achievements he was the first to describe the style of the Carolingian period. The second volume was translated into English in 1851 by Lady Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake, bringing his work to an English-speaking audience (a further translation was made in 1874 by Joseph Archer Crowe). He can be considered alongside Carl Friedrich von Rumohr and Karl Schnaase as representing the under-researched ‘Berlin School’ of art history. Kugler’s most famous student was Jacob Burckhardt.

  6. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 3 vols., London: Smith: Elder, 1851–1853. Ruskin was the most influential art critic in Britain during the nineteenth century, whose aesthetic vision of life was the basis for his later work as a political reformer. The Stones of Venice, a three-volume treatise on Venetian art and architecture, was instrumental in focusing attention on the achievements of Gothic and Byzantine architecture, at a time when Winckelmann’s vision of the classical world held sway, and attention was otherwise focused on the revival of classicism in Renaissance Italy. Ruskin’s devotion to his subject was complete. As Francis Haskell once wrote, ‘… with the possible exception of Rome, no city had ever before been subject to such loving and meticulous scrutiny… he [Ruskin] never again attempted to construct so (relatively) coherent a historical synthesis of past civilisation as he had done in that work of youthful genius, The Stones of Venice…’. Alongside the five volumes of his Modern Painters (1843–1860), and The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Stones of Venice can be considered one of the greatest and most influential works by a towering figure of nineteenth-century art writing.

  7. Jacob Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien: ein Versuch, Basel: Schweighauser, 1860. (Translated into English by S. G. C. Middlemore as ‘The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy’, 1892). The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy is a classic of historical writing that more than any other book contributed towards the modern understanding of the Italian Renaissance. As one recent commentator put it, the ‘fascination of reading [Burckhardt’s] book is its vision of Italy as the birthplace of modern individualism, political calculation, science and scepticism’. Burckhardt’s famous formula (borrowed from Michelet), of the ‘discovery of the world and the discovery of man’ stands at the inauguration of the modern conception of the world, at a time when modernism itself was being forged in the painting Manet. His Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, although it was just one part of a projected, but never completed history of the Italian Renaissance, is perhaps the most important and influential book to be published in the field of art history during the nineteenth century.

  8. Crowe and Cavalcaselle, A New History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century, 3 vols., John Murray, London, 1864. This ground-breaking work presented a new history of Italian painting based on documentary research, particularly into individual artists’ biographies. It was the first attempt to bring to put together the oeuvre of an artist on the basis of stylistic traits. It was described in The Burlington Magazine in 1904 as an ‘epoch-making’ work and ‘the starting point of modern criticism’.

  9. Hippolyte Taine, Philosophie de l’art, Paris, Hachette, 1881. (First lecture version translated into English by John Durand as: The Philosophy of Art, London, 1865) Taine held the first chair in the history of art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, from 1864 to 1884. In 1865 he began a series of lectures that were published over the next five years, and gathered together in two volumes in 1881 under the title Philosophie de l’art. His sociological, contextual approach has been described as ‘unprecedented in its breadth and rigour’ (Morton, 2002), and was hugely influential. His method was positivist, and also drew on a tradition of German aesthetics, but the originality of his approach was also due to the course of his career outside of the Academy and his writings as a journalist. Taine was a distant precursor of the social history of art that arose in the 1970s, but in his own time became the foil for a tradition of formalism, most notably in the work of Heinrich Wölfflin.

  10. Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873. Pater’s Renaissance is one of the great works of art literature of the nineteenth-century, and a key work for the aesthetic movement. As Kenneth Clark wrote in his introduction to the 1961 edition, the importance of Pater’s book lies less in its art historical accuracy (many of the works Pater discusses by Leonardo have since been reattributed, for example), but rather as a major work of art criticism, looking forward to modernist aesthetic theories, and which had an intoxicating appeal for a young generation: ‘its slow-moving sentences produced an unconscious revolution in the minds of thousands of young men’, Clark wrote (Clark, 1961). Studies in the History of the Renaissance closes with an essay on Winckelmann, whose admiration of beauty in Greek art was a major source of inspiration for Pater’s own aestheticism. Burckhardt, by contrast, Pater never read, and his views on the Renaissance also diverge from the moralism of Ruskin, who was lecturing in Oxford as Pater was completing his book.

  11. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, L’art du XVIIIme siècle 2 vols. Paris: A. Quantin, 1873-7 (Translated into English by Robin Ironside as: French XVIII century painters: Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, La Tour, Greuze, Fragonard, London 1948). Edmund and Jules de Goncourt’s collected volume of essays on eighteenth-century painters played in major role in the revival of interest in eighteenth-century painting, notably the work of Watteau, Boucher, Chardin La Tour, Greuze and Fragonard, and creating the terms in which those artists, and the period from which they arose, were subsequently understood. Their valorisation of the sketch, and also of the fragment and of colour as a pictorial value, marks them out as pioneers of modern art criticism. Alongside their other writings, including novels, and their famous Journal, the volume on eighteenth-century painters is the most important synthesis of art history and criticism produced by the leading literary figures of their age. Its place in the art historical canon derives not only from its strong literary qualities, but also from the pioneering use the Goncourt brothers made of letters and other documentary material; taking an approach to their material that has been compared to the forensic vision of the realist novel.

  12. Eugène Fromentin, Les Maîtres d’autrefois: Belgique, Hollande. Paris: s.n., 1876. (Most recently translated into English by Andrew Boyle as: The masters of past time: Dutch and Flemish painting from Van Eyck to Rembrandt, London 1948). Fromentin was a painter and writer whose final book, Les Maîtres d’autrefois, an account of sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish artists, was to have a sizeable impact on the study of this neglected period, and on art history in general. His approach can be compared to that of Burckhardt, and of Taine, and he has been seen as one of the first modern art critics.

  13. Giovanni Morelli, Die Werke italienischer Meister in den Galerien von München, Dresden und Berlin: Ein kritischer Versuch [von Ivan Lermolieff, aus dem Russischen übersetzt von Dr Johannes Schwarze]. Leipzig: E. A. Seemann, 1880. (Translated into English by Louise M. Richter as Italian Masters in German Galleries: A critical essay on the Italian pictures in the Galleries of Munich, Dresden, Berlin, by Giovanni Morelli, London, George Bell, 1883). Morelli’s book (originally published under a Russian pseudonym) caused a ‘profound sensation’ when it was first published, according to Charles Eastlake — particularly in Germany, where it countered many of the basic positions of a tradition of philosophical aesthetics in the study of art. ‘The novelty of his opinions, his method of analysis, and the unsparing way in which he destroyed the reputation of many famous pictures…. raised at first a storm of protests. But his views have now, for the most part, been accepted… In his own country he has founded a school of criticism, and has had many distinguished followers’ (Eastlake; intro. to Kugler’s Handbook, 1891). Morelli was a pioneer of techniques of connoisseurship, combining an approach both scientific and aesthetic, for the purposes of attributing works of art. His work has been described as ‘the first thorough reassessment of the techniques and standards of connoisseurship since they were established by Vasari in the sixteenth century’ (Fernie, 1995). Morelli continues the scientific approach of the Berlin school, for example in the case of Rumohr, but acts as a bridge to a later age, and has been cited as forerunner of Freud in his focus on the significance of apparently marginal details. He was also the first art historian to make extensive use of photography; the connoisseur, he once wrote, must ‘live among photographs’.

  14. Alois Riegl, Die spätrömische kunst-Industrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn im zusammenhange mit der Gesammtentwicklung der bildenden Künste bei den Mittelmeervölkern. Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staats-druckerei, 1901-2. (Translated into English by Rolf Winkes as Late Roman Art Industry, Rome, Bretschneider, 1985). Riegl’s monumental volume on late Roman Imperial and early Christian art is the culmination of his development of a concept of ‘Kunstwollen’, or ‘Will to Form’, by which he countered Hegelian views of historical determinism, implying a ‘world spirit’ that unfolded according to developmental stages. In dispensing with a notion of progress that had informed thinking on the history of art since Vasari, Riegl stood at the head of an entirely new approach to art, moving away from an older paradigm dominated by classical art, to a modern, anthropological approach.

  15. Julius Meier-Graefe, Entwicklungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst: vergleichende Betrachtung der bildenden Künste, als Beitrag zu einer neuen Aesthetik, 3 vols. Stuttgart, 1904. (Translated into English by Florence Simmonds and George W. Chrystal as Modern art: being a contribution to a new system of aesthetics, New York, G.O. Putnam’s sons; London, William Heinemann, 1908). John Rewald described Meier-Graefe’s Entwicklungsgeschichte der moderne Kunst as ‘the first broadly conceived general history of modern art’. Meier-Graefe was a German novelist, art critic, and founder of the important journal Pan, and was living in Paris when he began work on his study of modern art. A committed Francophile, his book offered a pioneering account of the work of Delacroix, Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Van Gogh, throwing light on their work and their importance in an artistic tradition.

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