The Books that Shaped Art History

What is a masterpiece? Art historians and critics don’t always agree on the precise definition, but it generally has something to do with originality, enduring appeal and talent. Those are the characteristics of the sixteen art history books and their authors, selected by editors Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard for their enlightening and beautifully produced anthology, The Books that Shaped Art History.

Included in Shone and Stonard’s canon of 20th-century art history are such authoritative works as  Émile Mâle’s L’art religieux du XIIIe siècle  en France (1898), Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) (1915), Roger Fry’s Cézanne: A Study of His Development (1927), Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s Matisse: His Art and His Public (1951), Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961), and Rosalind Krauss’s The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985).

A collection of sixteen essays about these masterpieces, The Books that Shaped Art History takes a close look at what made the books unique, influential and timeless. Most of the essays, penned by prominent curators and scholars, appeared previously in The Burlington Magazine, the doyen of art history periodicals. Both Shone and Stonard have been editors of the British magazine.

Each essayist analyzes a single book, looking at its main arguments, its reception at the time, its legacy, and even its shortcomings. The essays cover patronage, connoisseurship and theory, and include details about the authors of these touchstone works, the art historians or critics—Mâle, Wölfflin, Fry and others—who have passionately studied, written about and, in some cases, interviewed artists. As Stonard writes in his introduction, The Books that Shaped Art History offers “a roadmap of sorts for reading art history.”

At the core of these essays are the artists and works of art that have so consumed scholars and critics: medieval French cathedrals, Florentine painters of the Renaissance, Bernini, Raphael, Courbet, Cézanne, Matisse, the Moderns and the avant-gardists. In fact, writing about The Books that Shaped Art History is a bit like opening up a Russian Matryoshka doll: this article is about a book of essays about books about art.

Stonard’s introduction to the anthology provides an excellent overview. He neatly summarizes the impact of each of the trailblazing books under review. The essays themselves are illustrated with black-and-white images of the original books—showing page spreads and covers—and photographs of the sixteen influential authors. A section at the end of the collection gives further background on the authors and the publication history of their landmark works, as well as short biographies of the essayists, who include MoMA curator John Elderfield, professor of Russian Studies Boris Groys, medievalist Alexandra Gajewski, and Cézanne specialist Richard Verdi.

The essays are uniformly well crafted and succinct, each clocking in at ten or twelve pages. They often highlight one or two ideas that were game-changers, giving the reader a potent sense of what made the books so broadly influential.

In the case of Mâle’s L’art religieux, the key idea was that the 13th-century French cathedral—with its architecture, sculpture, stained glass, liturgy and music—presented a complete and comprehensive view of Christian life in the Middle Ages (Gajewski). As for Fry’s Cézanne, it was the assertions about the artist’s unwavering gift as a colourist, and the powerful relationship between form and colour in his work (Verdi). Greenberg broke new ground in Art and Culture with his definitions of avant-garde art and kitsch: the avant-garde interprets the art of the past, and kitsch is the art of the masses (Groys). In The Originality of the Avant-Garde, Krauss was among the first to apply structuralist and poststructuralist theories to art (Anna Lovatt).

The sixteen essayists also make it clear where each of these art history books fell short. Krauss’s neglect of social and historical context in the study of art was “deeply troubling for Marxist and feminist critics” (Lovatt). In Matisse, Barr tended to over-compartmentalize the artist’s oeuvre, which “did obfuscate at times” (Elderfield).

Elderfield’s essay is among the liveliest and most entertaining in the collection, as this delightful sentence proves: “Far more than any previous publication, Barr’s book on Matisse brought the big guns of North American institutional scholarship—with its special access to artists, archives, galleries, collectors and teams of researchers—to bear on a modern subject for the first time.” Elderfield even makes a parenthetical aside about an MI5 interrogation. 

When the innermost Matryoshka doll reveals the art at the centre of The Books that Shaped Art History, some precious nuggets are uncovered: the Venus de Milo “makes us think of an elm tree in a field of corn” (Kenneth Clark); Cézanne accentuates the entire paint surface (Verdi); Matisse was pulled in two directions, towards the structural-abstract-decorative and the perceptual-realist-Impressionist (Elderfield).

The Books that Shaped Art History is a compelling book that will appeal both to readers already familiar with the selected works of art history and who wish to re-visit the Masters, and to those who are new to them. For this reviewer, it provided a welcome journey through art history.

The Books that Shaped Art History (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013) is available through the NGC BookstoreTo place an order, or for more information, please call 1-855-202-4568. 

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