By John Murphy

March 16, 2019

The books that shaped art history is an anthology of adept essays, each reflecting on a book by an accomplished art historian. First published in 2013, it has recently been reprinted in paperback. The volume opens with an exposition of Emile Mâle’s 1898 study of medieval art; it concludes with an essay on Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence: A history of the image before the era of art, originally published in 1990. Within this framework the contributions range from the Renaissance of Erwin Panofsky and Michael Baxandall to Svetlana Alpers’ view of seventeenth-century Dutch art; T.J. Clark’s enquiry into Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution to Roger Fry’s Cézanne. Although the range is expansive, the book’s title seems unapologetic in its claim, avoiding qualifications that may be suitable: ‘Western art history’, or perhaps the sly use of the indefinite article, ‘an art history’?

The essays are arranged according to the chronology of their publication and the current of the book is the course of twentieth-century art history, with time driving the nominal topic of the history aside to expose more of the period of its authorship. The contributing authors introduce the art historians through the protocols of their respective approaches—connoisseurship, formalism, iconography, social history—and recall their maxims, including “Vision in itself has a history” (Heinrich Wölfflin), “Making precedes matching” (E.H. Gombrich), and “The period eye” (Michael Baxandall).

With the publication’s careful organisation and the clarity of the individual essays, art history may seem comfortably contained, known and recognisable in the way that spotting familiar faces in the crowd imparts a sense of reassurance, and occasionally deliberate avoidance. And so it is refreshing to note John-Paul Stonard’s allowance in his introduction that

“Sometimes great art history exists in the form of an inspiring individual whose method is so strange and original that it can only be apprehended in the publications of their pupils and followers.”

Front cover to Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, 1956

Front cover to Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths




The book’s photographs of the art historians register the biographical aspect of the essays. Bernard Berenson, for example, appears like a character groomed from the late novels of Henry James, and the essay by Carmen Bambach on his masterly study, The drawings of the Florentine painters classified, criticised and studied as documents… (1903) elicits sentences of similarly opaque elegance: “Most presciently, Berenson noted the fact that left-to-right strokes in areas of modelling with parallel hatching are not enough to uphold the authenticity of Leonardo’s drawings …”. 

Susie Nash aligns Erwin Panofsky’s frequent metaphors of “conquest, invasion, war and liberation” with the period immediately after the Second World War when he delivered the lectures that became the basis of Early Netherlandish Painting. Alfred Barr used comprehensive questionnaires in compiling his monograph on Henri Matisse, and the method’s reliability was queried in a review by Anthony Blunt, who had recently concluded his interrogation by M15 following the defection of fellow-spies Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. Occasionally the biographical details are more unsettling. On learning that Kenneth Clark’s body trembled after writing of the “golden hair and swelling bosoms” portrayed in Rubens’ Graces, the reader may be left with unwelcomed thoughts of his body’s activities when not writing.

The book’s illustrations remind us of the first editions’ handsome covers and dignified page layouts; they restore the innocence of first sight, before the contents became known and broken into numberless morsels within student essays. They suggest a nostalgic farewell to the final period when printed books and journals were the sole and essential source of information, the essays uniting in a type of pre-website brotherhood.

Kenneth Clark photographed by Cecil Beaton, May 1955.