Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2012
Ingrid R. Vermeulen Picturing Art History: The Rise of the Illustrated History of Art in the Eighteenth Century Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011. 359 pp.; 150 b/w ills. Paper $69.50 (9789089640314)

Ingrid Vermeulen undertakes an important self-reflexive task in Picturing Art History: the examination of the transition from unillustrated to illustrated texts about art. Surprisingly, that transformation had little to do with technological changes. Using three specific publications as examples, she argues that eighteenth-century scholars increasingly came to conceive of the artistic past not as a series of biographies of artists, but rather as a seamless “chain” of artworks in which historical progress can, and indeed must, be seen to be fully understood. Vermeulen tracks her topic through four related questions: What types of images were considered appropriate to the study of art history? How should we understand the notion that drawing and reproductive print collections, along with illustrated art books, embody the artistic past? How did collecting traditions relate to art-historigraphic traditions? And to what extent did eighteenth-century scholars believe that works on paper were faithful representations of the artworks they studied? (12–13) She organizes her answers into three chapters dedicated to case studies of individual projects by Giovanni Bottari, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Jean-Baptiste Séroux d’Agincourt, each of whom mobilized a different type of visual resource, namely prints, drawings, and book illustrations.

Vermeulen repeatedly remarks upon the ways eighteenth-century scholars organized their books on art using models (region, school, master-pupil relationships) already established in major print and drawing collections. Although Bottari never fulfilled his proposal to illustrate his updated edition of Vasari’s Vite, he clearly felt that visual reproduction would allow the book to better demonstrate Vasari’s central idea that painting develops through phases of birth, growth, and perfection. As librarian to the Corsini collection in Rome, Bottari assembled more than three hundred volumes of reproductive prints by following an implicitly Vasarian model. Vermeulen argues that Bottari went beyond merely reproducing Vasari’s organization; he also expanded and reoriented it, filling in gaps in early fifteenth-century art that were missing from Vasari’s account (28–31). In his mind, these early phases were crucial to establish a starting point from which later development or progress could be judged. Working from the assumption that, during the Renaissance, painting and engraving styles matched (41), Bottari preferred prints from the period to represent the dominant styles of the time. The volumes of reproductive prints were clearly meant to be viewed as a visual counterpart to Vasari’s Vite, even though they were never integrated into one unit that contained both text and images (61).

Like Bottari, Winckelmann had access to a major collection that helped to shape his ideas: in this case, the Roman sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi’s drawings, which covered more than 300 years of Italian art history (91). Vermeulen’s argument here parallels the one she made in the previous chapter, namely that Winckelmann derived the progressive structural framework of his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764) from close contact with Cavaceppi’s collection. She discusses the importance of drawing collections as a foundation for connoisseurship and for the “invention” of art history (106). For Winckelmann, however, it was not possible to use the artist as a basic organizing unit, given his objects of study. He solved this problem, Vermeulen asserts, by applying a progressive model to classical art in four phases: beginning, progress, stagnation, and decline (119). In this way, he could organize his material, yet avoid the thorniest chronological questions. Winckelmann used stylistic features that would, in theory, be visible to readers in reproductions in order to make a visual case for his historical groupings. His goal to show the progressive development of classical art therefore guided his choices of the twenty-four prints he included (122). Vermeulen’s connections between Winckelmann’s study of the Cavaceppi drawing collection and his conceptualization of a progressive model for the development of classical art remains somewhat speculative, underscored by her repeated use of qualifying phrases such as “may have,” “could be,” “might have,” “possibly” (148–49). This chapter also includes discussion of other eighteenth-century European authors who used drawings to illustrate art history.

D’Agincourt absorbed all of these practices but declared chronological illustration as the pillar of his major work, the Histoire de l’art par les monumens, published between 1810 and 1823. Seeking to fill the gap between classical and Renaissance art, d’Agincourt used the developmental model to organize what amounts to the first history of medieval art, comparing his visual compilations, consisting of over 325 plates illustrating some 1400 works of art, to museums (179). He sought to reveal change over time through visual comparison and contrast. By breaking away from organization by regional schools, Vermeulen argues, d’Agincourt aimed to present the history of art as “a single historical continuum” (185, 213). He used details to emphasize expression, scale to subtly suggest highpoints, and accumulations of multiple images on a single page to make his points realizable “at a glance” (202). Works chosen for illustration had to be “fundamental to the represented history” (213), and he used the outline style to correct overly romanticized reproductions from earlier artists (218–30). Especially convincing are the images on pages 228–29, where the juxtaposition of a recent photograph of a miniature from the fourth–fifth century Virgil manuscript now in the Vatican Library and the same scene depicted in three different engraved copies allows modern readers to do the type of visual evaluation that d’Agincourt practiced for years as he prepared his magnum opus. A long discussion of tracing allows Vermeulen to delve into the debates around reproductive prints’ accuracy and fidelity to the original (236–50).

As much as I learned from reading Picturing Art History, I have to admit that overall it was a disappointing study of a fascinating topic. As one would expect, Vermeulen makes connections to connoisseurship, art preservation, collecting, display, and reproduction more generally, as well as the antiquarian, paleographic, natural science, and historical methods that contributed to distinguishing art history as a distinct discipline. Sometimes, however, the narrowness of her focus limits her argument. Several of the problems she discusses, such as the organization of artists or works of art, were not just problems in print and drawing collections or in books dedicated to art, but affected the design and installation of works in temporary exhibitions such as the Salon exhibitions of the French Academy or the collecting and hangings of paintings in private and, later, public collections. Indeed, some of her contextual points of reference (such as the museum itself, discussed beginning on page 179) emerged in the historical period she studies, and thus could be seen as responses to broader cultural imperatives. This reader expected some discussion of the rise of empiricism as one of the ideals of the Enlightenment, whereby actual physical sensations were considered the source of all true knowledge. This idea is especially pertinent to her chosen authors’ insistence on “seeing art develop under their very eyes” (a phrase that appears on page 9 and is repeated verbatim on page 265). Inasmuch as viewing an artwork generated visual sensations in the eye that travelled to the brain to be processed into ideas, it would seem that books about art that did not provide any concrete visual experiences would have a much harder time making truth and accuracy claims in the context of the rising cult of sensibility and materialism. Surely the rise in illustrated art books participated in the new directions of eighteenth-century metaphysical thought.

A fundamental methodological weakness of the book is that Vermeulen takes the notion of development or progress in the arts at face value, only turning to examine this idea on page 110 in a brief section on the notions of genealogy, first steps, and growth from childhood through maturity to decline. She carefully tracks where each author situated the beginning and end of various historical phases, but never critically investigates what lay behind shifts in periodiziation and developmental models. Indeed, Vermeulen’s book can be said to follow implicitly the developmental or progressive model. First, she studies Bottari’s re-edition of Vasari’s Vite: an unillustrated book, but one that made a strident call for the use of reproductive prints. She then discusses Winckelmann, who applied Vasari’s notion of progress and phases to the art of classical antiquity and searchingly illustrated only twenty-four prints of lesser-known works instead of the most famous examples. Finally, she studies d’Agincourt, who broke away from print and drawing collection topoi altogether, rejecting organization by school and master-pupil relationships and preferring instead a more-or-less strict chronology, amply illustrated with complex comparative plates. This summa of art-historical illustration is abruptly followed by a period that this reader felt Vermeulen, perhaps unknowingly, cast as one of decline. Of the major post-d’Agincourt works cited, Luigi Lanzi surprisingly did not illustrate his book at all; Giovanni Rosini, even as he illustrated some 250 works, chose to do so as single works rather than compilations; and Franz Kugler saw fit to dispense with illustrations all together, referring readers to other illustrated books or references listing the best reproductive prints. Even if she could not avoid ending without evoking the ubiquitous illustrated surveys of Gombrich, Janson, or Honour and Fleming, one senses that, for Vermeulen, the golden age of illustrated art history had come to an end with d’Agincourt’s publication.

More problematic from a methodological standpoint are Vermeulen’s frequent reversals. She asserts an idea and develops it, only to undercut or severely qualify it. Bottari did not “follow Vasari to the letter,” yet he “relied on an important observation from Vasari” (29). He either “admired sixteenth-century engraving more than modern engraving” (41) or “did sometimes prefer modern to antique reproductions” (45). On page 93, Roger de Piles is said to have argued that “drawing collections were important sources of connoisseurship and art history,” but on page 95 we learn that “he preferred prints to drawings in art-historical matters.” She states that D’Agincourt either “stressed a purely chronological range of artworks” (185) or “the chronology was not strictly maintained” (186). And so on. (See also 207, 210, 214, 218, 233, 245, and 265). This tendency suggests an intellectual model that seeks a rule and has a hard time integrating or accounting for exceptions.

While Vermeulen can be credited with pointing out instances that veer away from the general rule she seeks to establish, she never considers the dialectical nature of history itself, which moves back and forth between ultimately unstable positions. As Walter Benjamin and many others have shown, the dialectical model of history puts pressure on the progressive and linear model advocated by Vasari and employed by many of Vermeulen’s eighteenth-century authors. In spite of Benjamin (and others’) intervention, a progressive, linear model still seems to underlie Vermeulen’s enterprise. Perhaps it is because of this methodological limitation that the book ultimately passes over the broader issues at stake in its fascinating examples: the relationship between words and images, originals and copies, and finally between art and history itself. The basic question that I hoped the book would answer, how the inclusion of images changes not only the practices but the conclusions of art-historical understanding in this period, also remains unexplored. Despite these reservations, however, Vermeulen’s book will become an important reference. I hope that other scholars will develop the questions implied by her work.

Pamela J. Warner
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Rhode Island