24 September 2022

16 reference books that shaped art history.. and shaped my career

Svetlana Alpers
Art of Describing, 1984

In this account of the history of art as it was written in the C20th, 16 essays were written by leading art critics and curators, looking at the impact of each pivotal art book. Each essay in The Books that Shaped Art History by editors Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard (2013) mapped the intellectual development of its author, set­ting out the premise of the work and placing it within the broader disciplinary field. Each chapter analysed a single major book, setting out its prem­ises, discussing its position within the field of art history, and looking at its significance in the context both of its original reception and its legacy.

This book provides a great roadmap of the field by reading art history and reassessing the impact of some of the most important works of art history. An excel­lent introduction by the co-editors specifically explored how art history was shaped by the outstanding contribut­ions, as well as by the dialogues and ruptures between them. 

Kenneth Clark
The Nude, 1976

The contributors to this book had a brief to tell of the personalities and stories that lay behind the special texts of modern art history. Such an approach of course ran contrary to the current of much academic art writing in the C20th, which regarded personalities and stories as the province of chatty amat­eurs. As a result these biographically informed essays achieved insights that would be lost if these great books were read as if they were self-contained artworks.

If I had selected the seminal art books myself, I would certainly have chosen Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement; Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion; Cl­em­ent Greenberg's Art and Culture; Erwin Panofsky’s Early Neth­erl­and­ish Painting; and TJ Clark's Image of the People: Courbet and the 1848 Revolution. And Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the C17th.

But I must admit to never reading the essays on art genres that I did not like or didn’t know about. Rosalind Krauss’ The Origin­al­ity of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, for example, brought struct­ur­alist and post-structuralist thinking into art history.

Irwin Panofsky,
Early Netherlandish Painting, 1971

Many of these art historians turned out to be popular with scholars and lecturers for decades, which meant that they had ample opportunity to update their texts to suit the changing times. In the first edition of Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement (1936), he couldn’t wait to welcome the new cold age of steel and glass, which he hoped would do away with the warm muddle of individual creativity. What he wanted was an impersonal architecture serving the greater social and political good.  Lately arrived from the chaotic Weimar Repub­lic, Pevsner's longing for the blank slate of perfect order made psychological sense back then. But, as the 1930s reached their ter­r­ible end, his certainty about absolutism started to fade. By the time Pioneers of the Modern Movement was re­published in 1949, he had toned down his architectural views, becoming one of the C20th's most honoured of English art historians.

Roger Fry's Cézanne was first published in 1926 in a French magaz­ine with virtually no illustrations, and all Fry received in return were some free copies. Even when his friends Virginia and Leonard Woolf came to the rescue a year later and did an English version for their Hogarth Press, Cézanne: A Study of His Development, it still left a lot to be desired. Fry did not locate Cézanne historically on the change from the naturalistic C19th to the conceptual C20th. What really made Fry's heart pound were the geometric shapes making up Cézanne's serene, stable art. By carefully scrutinising the interrelations of form and colour, Fry set down the principles of a proto‑formalism that would become the dominant way of writing art criticism for decades.

Regarding Kenneth Clark, we know that he wrote the first draft of The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art (1956) when he was chairing the Independent Television Authority, the body charged with ushering in commercial television. Clark was already embarked on his journey from public servant to public intellectual, from the anon­ym­ity of the National Gallery to the global exposure of his tv series Civilisat­ion. While there was no doubting the fine scholarship underpin­ning The Nude, this was a book seeking a mass audience.

Katherine Hughes noticed the connections that bound the writ­ers of this core library together. Pevsner studied under Hein­rich Wölfflin, whose  Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art is included here. Clark was a friend of Fry, and wrote early drafts of The Nude at Bernard Berenson's idyllic Florentine Villa I Tatti (Harvard Centre for Italian Renais­s­ance Studies). Krauss started off as a follower of Greenberg.

Sometimes the essayists agreed, sometimes they argued and often they simply ignored one another. As a result, the overlaps between these 16 foundational texts were often messy and contested. So even though The Books that Shaped Art History questioned the very status of art history itself, any contested quality in the essays I missed would have gone straight over my head.

Heinrich Wölfflin
Principles of Art History, 1929

How appropriate that this book was initiated by Burlington Magazine, one of my two favourite art journals. A monthly publication that has covered the fine and decorative arts since 1903, this journal was the work of art historians and connoisseurs that included Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson.


Student of History said...

The chapters were easier to read than the original authors. Clement Greenberg's views, for example, started to make sense.

St Ouen said...

In just sixteen essays, to cover the core texts that underpin contemporary art history, is a tall ask. These short introductions, all under the auspices of the Burlington Magazine, each take one key text from across the last century or so, and its author, in a dozen pages tries to persuade you of its significance. And in most cases they succeed admirably. You may argue about which texts were included and which were not, but the serious ambition of the project is inescapable. Myself, I would certainly have included John Berger (The Moment of Cubism) but this collection has stimulated me to go back and re-read the books by Pevsner, Gombrich, both Clarks and to read anew those by Krauss and Belting. This beautifully printed and presented compendium, with its wonderful photographs of the art historians, copious notes and helpful bibliographical essays will play a major role in reinvigorating and enthusing the current debates about art history.

St Ouen

Hels said...


Oh yes agreed! I think original authors often presented a problem to contemporary readers.

Some didn't write in our language. Some authors were so invested in their radical views that they needed an sub-editor to make the thinking clearer. Often times cultural and political views have changed, and as I noted, some rethinking might have been needed in any case.

Hels said...


thank you for referring me to the readers' reviews of The Books that Shaped Art History.

Alfred Barr’s writing on Matisse was great, as was E.H Gombrich's Art and Illusion, and Richard Verdi on Cezanne. For me personally, discussing an art historian's position within art history and comparing art historians within one book has been vital.

Rachel Phillips said...

Interesting, I am finding it hard to imagine such a book but I can see its uses for the art history student setting out on their journey. I suppose in a way I have relied upon others to point me in certain directions without the aid of such a book of essays, and then found my way through the shelves myself. For me Robert Hughes, art critic, was influential in my need and hunger to find out more and to feel that I could say what I liked, he gave me confidence in art history and it not being too sacred. His work on Goya is one of his best. I am also a reader of Kenneth Clark and alao repeat viewer of his Civilisation series which taught me much about art in Europe. Clement Greenberg too opened my eyes to Modernism and thinking about what is art in modernist terms. Pevsner I always think of as an architectural historian and have never read anything on art history that he has written. I had better correct that. I agree that times change, and views change, and Clark is regarded as old fashioned and often sounds it, but without him I would not have been able to think further for myself. He opened the box.

Hels said...


thanks for a thoughtful response. In the olden days, high school and tertiary students used to buy their own texts books. These days students rely on printed reading lists, so they have a ton of choice. I agree with you about Australian-British art critic Robert Hughes, but sadly he had a long illness and died in 2012 before "The Books that Shaped Art History" was published.

I too valued Kenneth Clark in his "Civilisation" series, and will add that Hughes was also excellent in "The Shock of the New".

Student of History said...

Helen years ago the students had to create a list of their favourite art historians and you did the same. Do you still have your list? How does it compare to The Books That Shaped Art History?

Assistant said...


Helen asked me to show you the following.

Student asked who were the most influential art historians during my years as an under-graduate student at Melbourne University. The answer: Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, EH Gombrich, Nikolaus Pevsner and Adolf Katzenellenbogen. If I had thought a bit longer, I would have added Otto Kurz, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower. All trained at German-speaking universities!

At least three of these men appeared in The Books that Shaped Art History. See https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2015/12/german-speaking-art-historians-who.html

Sue Bursztynski said...

An impressive array of art books! I haven’t read them, alas! Imagine an art text that wasn’t illustrated, even in the 1920s.

Gombrich’s Story Of Art was my Year 12 textbook, and it was quite a while till I discovered that it was considered a classic. It has been complained that there were no women artists in it. Still - it made a huge difference to me when I went to London and saw so many of the paintings mentioned in the book.

Assistant said...


Helen said she wished she went to your high school :) She didn't find Gombrich's Story of Art (first published 1950) until into her post grad work in Art History.

Gombrich's English was excellent and he didn't write with that obscure art history jargon that made some books so difficult to read. Connoisseurship in art at last had a meaning.

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde minha querida amiga. Dicas de livros maravilhosos. Tenho certeza que você dará influências em novas pessoas.

Assistant said...

Luiz the art history students and TAFE librarians discovered which books were well received and easily understood. Later students happily benefitted from this advice.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I'm a complete novice when it comes to art ... but I'm beginning to enjoy it more now as I visit local exhibitions at the Towner Art Gallery here in Eastbourne, and see films on some artists etc. We've been studying the Russian Revolutions in the early 20th century ... and I showed some of the art works. I came across a book 'Art and Power' - the Avant-garde and Soviet State 1917 to 1928 .. by Andrei Sarabyanov, Natalia Strizhkova - published by Kroll, Unicorn.

It is an incredibly erudite book on that period ... and how the art, that was approved of, was distributed throughout Russia ... and records of what was in the State Archives ... it is very detailed ... works transferred. For example it lists all the works distributed by the Museum Bureau in the Period 1919-21; then distributions of Avant-garde Works to Union Republics (1922 - 1929) ...

Then at the weekend I was at a talk on the Clergy House, Alfriston (the first property owned by the National Trust) - where one of the founders of the Courtauld Institute of Art had had an interest in the area around here ... Robert Clermont Witt - I remembered I'd bought a book of his, published in 1903 'How to Look at Pictures' ... not much good for my Russian talks ... but it's here to read some time. Coincidences of life ...

Cheers - Hilary

Assistant said...


Helen said she got to art history via history, using paintings and other art modes to fill in the blanks when texts were limited to royal and church versions of history, censored, excluded the marginalised populations etc etc.

She loved "Art and Power: the Avant-garde and Soviet State 1917-1928", and not just because Helen's family were keen on Russian music, literature and art. The authors understood the issues that existed in the Soviet art world after the Revolution and carefully analysed the artists' responses to the official party line. Thank you for discussing this reference book.