Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2006
David A. Levine and Larry Silver "Quo Vadis, Hagia Sophia?" Art History's Survey Texts College Art Association

H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art: The Western Tradition, 6th rev. ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004). 1032 pages; 1326 illustrations, 976 in color. Cloth $95.00

Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed; 2 vols. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005). 1150 pages; 1306 illustrations, almost all in color, Paper w/CD-ROM $189.90

Marilyn Stokstad et al., Art History, 2nd rev. ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005). 1264 pages; 1409 illustrations, 1004 in color. Cloth w/CD-ROM $120.00

Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993). 1128 pages; 1437 illustrations, 462 in color. Paper $60.00

Laurie Schneider Adams, Art Across Time, 2nd ed.; 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002). 1104 pages; 1000 illustrations. Paper w/CD-ROM $150.94

Laurie Schneider Adams, World Views (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004). 160 pages; 151 illustrations. Paper $40.00

Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History, 7th rev.ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005). 960 pages; 1458 illustrations, 700 in color. Paper $102.00

David Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn Linduff, Art Past / Art Present, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005). 656 pages; 760 illustrations, 470 in color. Paper w/ CD-ROM $88.40

Martin Kemp, ed., The Oxford History of Western Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). 576 pages; 690 illustrations, 575 in color. Paper $29.95

E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 16th rev. ed. (London: Phaidon, 1995). 688 pages; 444 illustrations, 380 in color. Cloth $49.95

Bedrock forms a foundation for everything built on it, but it also resists alteration until the forces of erosion penetrate to its very depths. In just this fashion the foundational art-history texts we commonly call “surveys” have tended to remain stubbornly similar to each other and to converge on a consensus of objects—what traditionalists have lauded and revisionists have castigated as “the canon.” That canonical roster of artworks reproduced and discussed in these massive introductory books itself remains shaped by the expectations of modern museum-goers, who chiefly seek out easel paintings on whitewashed walls by known and named artists, primarily Europeans. Out of these expectations two principal currents emerge to inform the priorities of art historians who write and use survey books. First is the great tradition of history painting and ideality that runs through art academies from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century; this heritage centers on Italy and later France as the bearers and keepers of the flame. The other, a counter-current of pictorial culture, sometimes seems to protest against that heritage, whether through the verisimilitude of lesser, more worldly pictorial genres without dominant human figures or narratives (landscape or still life) or else in the sequence of “isms” that arose in direct opposition to the Academy and the Salon, from Impressionism to modernist abstraction. That’s it; game over; drive home safely.

By this construction, antiquity emerges retrospectively as the prologue to revived academicism, defined by its heirs as “the classic,” to be rudely interrupted by the “Middle Ages,” which were given their very definition by the Renaissance, whose own “rebirth” situated them as an aberration and a middle term in the “progress” narrative of art history that Gombrich surely was right to recognize as having its own roots in Renaissance art writing.

There are still haunting taxonomic questions in this narrative, sometimes heavily freighted with ideology. For example: Is Egyptian art already “Western” and the seed pearl of later greatness or, as the recent A History of Art in Africa by Monica Visonà et al. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001) proposes, is it a distinct phenomenon immersed in its separate continent’s traditions? Is the religious naturalism and portrait verism of Flemish oil painting (celebrated) and painted sculpture (ignored) a separate-but-equal “Northern Renaissance” or merely Johan Huizinga’s “Waning Middle Ages”? How much consistency must a period display across decades or national boundaries to merit a single period label, e.g., “Baroque”? And how should a counter-current, such as art in seventeenth-century Holland, be construed to fit within such a sweeping label, despite its religious and political differences? Spain and England always pose such problems from the periphery of the Continent and of academic tradition; as a result, they correspondingly tend to be reduced to representation in the survey by a few maverick artist epitomes (El Greco, Velázquez, Goya).

No field of creativity is more immured in the established canon than architecture: the roster of major building monuments in the large general surveys manifests astonishing consistency. Architecture is for the most part treated in these books as secondary to the pictorial arts, so here the geographical range remains even more limited, the transmission of tradition even more narrowly defined. Even the very material of stone determines the canon. Egyptian temples beget Greek temples, which take on arches in Roman basilicas, then (allowing for some brick construction) evolve into medieval architecture, only to be realigned into the orthodoxy of Italian Renaissance palaces and churches by named architects who read Vitruvius and wrote their own treatises. (Don’t even think about looking for a discussion or picture of a non-Italian city hall in these books.) So it goes. This is essentially the narrative codified in the standard general textbooks, led by Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman’s tersely titled Architecture (subtitled From Prehistory to Post-Modernism), lavishly produced by Prentice Hall, but confined entirely to the Western tradition.

When H. W. Janson published his visual anthology Key Monuments in the History of Art (1958; followed by Henry Millon’s Key Monuments of the History of Architecture, 1965), or Gombrich told his Story of Art (1st ed. 1950; see below), the consensus had already formed. Of course, several useful surveys had gone before them, especially the original edition by Helen Gardner of Art through the Ages (1926; long since ghostwritten in subsequent editions by teams of authors) or the collaboration by David Robb and J. J. Garrison, Art in the Western World (1935), extinct today. Now, like most textbooks (Gardner and Marilyn Stokstad especially), even the Janson brand is being revised by a team of authors in its 7th edition (stay tuned; after relatively cosmetic changes in recent editions of Janson, this new textbook collaboration may represent a real shift of thinking and of chosen images, but early inspection of sample chapters—admittedly of the Renaissance section—show remarkable consistency of objects with greater attention to circumstances of context and patronage).

Unbridgeable contradictions are built into any construction of a survey text, dependent as they are on artificial taxonomies to divide up and organize the vast body of world visual art. Moreover, categories of medium—sculpture, painting, printmaking, architecture, etc.—and those of period have always mixed uneasily with geographical categories. In other words, the omnibus textbooks reflect long-held conventions within the discipline. But now, in the twenty-first century, discussion of digital and film-based media already taught in art schools and in upper-division art history classes has expanded greatly. These works often resist display in a conventional gallery or museum setting, and thus are poorly reproduced in the still photographs of textbooks. In consequence of the broadening of media categories, sculpture has been completely redefined to encompass works that may easily be confounded with spaces. Prints have enjoyed a powerful revival (not that they were ever in eclipse except in survey texts), as have “decorative arts” (the very term is pejorative and, like the equally unfortunate designation “primitive,” marginalizes these objects). In similar fashion, architecture now encompasses urban designs, whole civic developments (think of the World Trade Center projects), as well as landscape design. But try to find much about city planning or gardens (other than Versailles) in traditional surveys. Likewise, many other, newer creations, such as performance, video, cinema, installations, earthworks, not to mention spectacolor moving displays or virtual, interactive web-based artworks, have received only token representation in most survey texts.

And that is just for “Western” visual culture—the long-established term signifying western Europe and the United States. Even their continents have been neglected within the geographical limitations of survey texts. Historical and linguistic biases against Germanic and Slavic regions have led to the omission of Eastern Europe and Russia. Only a few token images from the Americas other than the United States (Diego Rivera has given way to Frida Kahlo) make any appearance. “Islamic art” not only encompasses an entire religious tradition that spans a territory from Spain to Southeast Asia but also focuses much of its cultural energies on objects—books, metalwork, carpets—that are scarcely represented in any survey text. Africa and Oceania still exist chiefly as a means for discussing European artists and trends, and their twentieth-century and contemporary ambitions remain unexamined. Compared to Europe, they remain what Eric Wolf so aptly termed “the people without history.”

To date, no survey of art history has attempted to give truly balanced attention to all parts of the globe by providing simultaneous views of artistic developments across continents. In contrast, global historians have written world histories organized along the major epochs of human development and global interconnections; see, for example, David Christian, Maps of Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Michael Cook, A Brief History of the Human Race (New York: Norton, 2003); and J. R. McNeill and William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (New York: Norton, 2003). These scholars define basic, successive phases of global history through conventional technological divisions, initially featuring the stone tools and carvings of Stone Age caves (40,000 BCE), then agriculture (10,000 BCE), that arose in several regions. Their story continues with the development of powerful city centers, beginning with Sumer in Mesopotamia (4000 BCE), the solidification of Old World connections through trade networks and the consolidation of major world religions at the beginning of the Common Era, and eventually the rise of ocean navigation (1500 CE) that shifted relations of power and trade toward a new, European assertion, leading to the establishment of colonies and eventually to imperial rivalries in a global network. It culminates with an accounting of the electronic era that, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, provided the technology to initiate a truly worldwide interconnected web forming the contemporary world. These world histories have largely abandoned the progress-and-conquest narrative of William McNeill’s earlier classic, aptly titled The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963, rev. ed. 1991), though subtitled A History of the Human Community.

What would an equivalent survey of art history look like? To what degree could authors—and, importantly, teachers and students—abandon their focus on framed paintings in museums for wider inclusion of places and even alternative definitions of “art” itself? And in what ways would teaching become less straight-jacketed by the standard textbooks’ overall uniformity?

A good antidote to conventional art-history accounts can be found in the revaluation of (no other name currently exists) “non-Western” ways of making visual imagery that can be seen in art and other scholarship over the course of the last four or five decades. (In fact, a completely fresh, comprehensive term for “all that other art” is desperately needed, though most of us simply describe art outside Europe and North America in bald geographical terms, which results in misleading composite categories like “Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.”) Symbolically, these artworks have migrated from natural-history museums, whose nineteenth-century founders had construed them as surviving products of Stone Age technology and defined them as “primitive,” to take their place (albeit seldom prominently) in art museums, where they are displayed as valuable works in their own right, rather than artifacts of tribal authority, kinship, or other anthropological concepts. A marvelous analysis (and witty send-up of the prejudices) of this process can be found in Shelly Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress (Berkeley: University of California, 1998).

Inevitably there are tensions in any survey-text project: first, to serve the traditional, seemingly inherent interest in Western art, as the Eurocentric older editions of these books did, but also to reach out and encompass a much wider and more diverse range of cultures—an impulse that is increasing the pressure on the canon. American students come now with a variety of cultural literacies and backgrounds. A common current teaching technique for the survey is to give students access to some of the art history of their own background, in which they may take special interest. Textbook authors can no longer assume that the average freshman student is from a Eurocentric background and knows basic information about Greco-Roman mythology, the stories of the Bible, or other bodies of Western intellectual tradition on which the old surveys were founded. This is one (if not the only) motive behind the efflorescence of sidebars, boxes, timelines, and other apparatus in the big surveys: to provide capsule explanations of the cultural history on which iconography, styles, and other elements of art history are built.

Part of the problem (as one learns quickly in textbook focus groups, which have become increasingly necessary as part of the landscape of publishing for such diverse audiences) is that the teachers who typically teach the survey (often the most junior faculty) seldom have a broad background in world art. Graduate training has encouraged them to specialize. Even if a professor has the full spectrum of art history at hand, to ask him or her to teach world religion as well as art, to demand familiarity with the political history of every region of the globe, and to be versed in the ethics and anthropology of colonization and liberation is a tall order. The survey teacher today who aims to present art as a fully international experience must be able to shift adroitly from the painting-centered visual culture of the West to calligraphy or metalwork or weaving, and this too imposes new analytical skills, even in defining art and its values for particular audiences. These problems are made all the worse by the paltry coverage and poor integration of non-Western themes in the textbooks. Little wonder that this material is seldom taught in survey courses.

But, let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how up-to-date and inclusive any survey text may be if nobody reads it. The books here under consideration are neither repositories of learning intended to function on some ideal plane, nor lengthy reports on the state of the field meant to inform our colleagues (although they may serve that function as well), nor elaborate apologias brought into being to legitimize art history to the scholarly world at large. Rather, they are practical tools that must earn their keep every day by helping to instruct and stimulate beginning students. Thus, in addition to the way they shape and characterize art history, we also must take very seriously their effectiveness as teaching instruments. Do they lay out their material in a stimulating format? Does their scale invite, or merely daunt? Do they try to solve problems faced by students coming for the first time to a new and strange field? Do they help their readers to become better thinkers and viewers? Is their mixture of prose and images a pleasure to read? Do they instill a love of art and art history?

There is no guarantee that a forward-looking, conceptually sophisticated text will be especially useful in the classroom. Indeed, it is easy to imagine an inherent conflict between the impetus to be cutting-edge in scholarly terms and the drive to be clear and persuasive to novice learners. New ways of doing things are often intellectually messy, if only because nobody has had the time yet to work out the bugs. And intellectual messiness can bring about confusion and anxiety, emotions not usually associated with effective learning. Too much revision of content or familiar canon might well cause panic even for experienced instructors, who already feel pressed by limitations of time and training.

Thus, tensions exist in the survey business, and not just between the old painting-oriented, Eurocentric canon and a truly decentered global account, but also between theory and practice. Let us now examine the existing survey texts in turn and see what special features or intellectual gambits or unusual foci distinguish them.1

The Big Three: Janson, Gardner, and Stokstad

The U.S. market for survey texts in art history is dominated by three products offered by two publishers: Art History by Marilyn Stokstad (2nd rev. ed.), Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya; hereafter simply called Gardner), and History of Art: The Western Tradition by H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson (6th rev. ed.; as mentioned, the Janson text is currently undergoing substantial revision by a new team of authors; the following comments apply to the most recently published edition). These impressive, muscular books are more alike than dissimilar, sharing a long list of standard equipment that has become nearly de rigueur in today’s textbook marketplace. All are enormous tomes, ranging from 1030 to 1150 pages and weighing up to twelve pounds in their hardcover editions. Gardner’s table of contents alone stretches to an extraordinary nineteen pages. The other two are not far behind. Designed primarily for use in two-semester survey courses, each book is also marketed as a two-volume paperback set, each volume purchasable separately. Gardner, Janson, and Stokstad are also available in abbreviated editions; but in any configuration, these are all imposing publications. All are equally sumptuous, luxurious productions. Crack open any of them at random and you will meet artfully laid-out pages, each containing double columns of text interspersed with many large, high-quality color illustrations. These Cadillacs of the art-history world pack all manner of bells and whistles into their elegant packages, including CD-ROMs, color-coordinated timelines, and colorful historical maps. All have extensive glossaries, bibliographies, and/or suggestions for further reading. It hardly needs saying that all three texts are the result of enormous corporate efforts, involving multiple authors, numerous editors, teacher focus groups and other marketing studies, and huge outlays of capital. Additionally, they are all nearly equally expensive for students to purchase.

More to the point, the Big Three are similar in content. All focus essentially on Western art, as that tradition has been understood since the late nineteenth century. Janson does so fully, declaring that focus in its subtitle. Stokstad and Gardner devote substantial chapters to Asian and African themes, but those sections seem grafted onto chassis designed originally for a more restricted mission. With some minor variation, each of these texts examines a similar canon of works, comprised mostly of objects that have long been regarded as classics. On this body they hang additional examples by members of some historically neglected groups. All three texts include examples of paintings, sculptures, and/or prints by women and artists of the African diaspora—two groups resoundingly excluded from earlier editions. Like the non-Western chapters of Stokstad and Gardner, these novel entries have little impact upon the basic structure of the narrative, however.

Under the circumstances, is it possible to identify any meaningful differences among the Big Three that might elevate one text over the others for a specific audience of students and faculty? We think so, but the distinguishing characteristics here are fairly subtle. Each text offers particular advantages and disadvantages, and whichever one chooses to assign as a teaching tool, one is bound to be pleased with some features and unhappy with others.

Although all three books generally follow a chronological outline, the authors organize their material a little differently from one another. In this respect, Janson is the most old-fashioned, but also perhaps the most lucid for the average student. The book carves up art history into four eras, each corresponding to one of the so-called major epochs of Western culture (Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern). Each part is then further apportioned into chapters devoted either to particular cultures or to styles. Gardner and Stokstad eliminate the larger divisions, simply lining up their chapters chronologically from the beginning of time to the present. This method has certain advantages: it jettisons artificial and perhaps indefensible points of demarcation and allows for the integration of the non-Western chapters, which do not fit into the neat quartile system defined by scholars of the distant past. For novice students, however, many of whom may be so unfamiliar with world history that the word “antique” conjures up nothing more than an old table, the Janson system may be the superior one. At least it provides a way for these students to structure the vast body of material before them, to keep it from mixing together into an undifferentiated muddle.

The texts are also significantly at odds in the way they organize the material of the individual chapters. Janson tends to privilege chronology and medium as orchestrating principles. Turn to Janson’s first Baroque chapter and you immediately learn about Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, those pioneers who laboriously forged the key elements of Baroque style around 1600. Only toward the middle of the segment will you find mention of Gianlorenzo Bernini, arguably the supreme master of Baroque creativity, whose main contributions came about somewhat later in the century. Gardner and Stokstad, conversely, tend to introduce individual historical periods and styles with works of art deemed to represent the spirit of the age. Thus, their sections on the Baroque open with extended discussions of Bernini. Only pages later does one read about Caravaggio, Carracci, and other earlier masters who led the charge away from the mannerisms of the previous era. This method, which subordinates chronological development to an idea of the essential nature of a style, may have certain advantages for beginning students. It confronts those readers immediately with the central, binding idea of the chapter, as it brightly illuminates the distinctiveness of the particular style at issue. The problem is that it also risks seriously skewing the historical picture. As teachers of art history, we tend to emphasize works of art that fit into our accustomed narrative, and exclude the ones that do not. Caravaggio, the anti-Mannerist pioneer, usually gets more attention than, say, El Greco, who does not fall neatly into any standard scheme. Emphasizing stylistic concept over historical development, the approach of both Stokstad and Gardner may only worsen that problem.

The Big Three also differ in the way they handle supporting materials—documents, early biographies, eyewitness accounts, and so forth. Janson does the most with primary sources, inserting four separate color-coded sections containing passages written by contemporary artists, biographers, theoreticians, and others pertaining to the art of the time. These carefully selected and edited texts tend to be stimulating and to the point. Moreover, they are just about the right length, long enough to chew on, yet short enough so that even resistant students may be cajoled into reading and thinking about them. Any number of the passages would make excellent points of departure for in-class discussion, replacing a designated volume of sources or a packet prepared by the instructor for that purpose. Gardner and Stokstad also include source materials from the past, but insert them in sidebars within the chapters instead of gathering them together in discrete sections. These portions tend to be very brief, in many cases dwarfed by commentary supplied by the editors. Although it may make them easier to digest for some students, this method of introducing primary voices is likely to be less effective in stimulating discussion than that employed in Janson. The sidebars simply do not supply enough raw material to work with.

Once you open them up, these books also look different from one another. Of the three, Janson is the most elegant in presentation. The book’s pages seem dense with text in the style of history books of the past, their many small, gray words appearing to whisper rather than shout their contents. The tasteful page layouts exude a Martha Stewart elitism, giving the impression of art history as a genteel pursuit. These qualities will undoubtedly appeal to some students and their instructors, but may turn away others for whom such touches feel exclusionary.

Stokstad takes a substantially different approach to presenting its material. Borrowing eye-catching devices from the popular magazine industry, it makes extensive use of large print, bold captions, and color-coded sidebars. These devices may strike some as undignified for a college-level book, but by dividing the pages into small segments, they make the main text appear less formidable and perhaps less forbidding to the weak reader. Stokstad goes too far, however, in printing every new vocabulary term in large bold letters. Because the eye is immediately drawn to the highlighted words, the practice may create the erroneous impression that the history of art is all about memorizing jargon. Gardner also uses colored sidebars and expanded lettering to divide the subsections, but with greater subtlety than Stokstad. The eye is never distracted from the illustrations and main text. These distinctions may sound trivial, but they can have profound impact. For many students in the introductory survey course, the visual appearance of the text can convey more profound meaning than the words themselves.

Most importantly, although all three texts plow pretty much the same ground, their methods of approach diverge in a variety of ways that may prove consequential to students and their instructors. Of the Big Three, Janson is by far the most object-oriented. Focusing upon a relatively limited number of examples, its authors describe and characterize the individuality of nearly every illustrated work. They also take pains to remind readers regularly how the formal traits of particular paintings, sculptures, and buildings reveal the unique artistic character of the culture and period of their creation. These practices should be very helpful to novice students trying to grasp the characteristics of period and personal styles. The book’s focus on formal elements comes at the expense of concentration on context, however. Indeed, historical and social information is relatively scant in Janson. This imbalance is hardly surprising for a book first published in 1962, and which, through the current edition at least, has largely maintained its original approach, despite changing individual elements. As mentioned above, the upcoming edition promises more context.

Both Stokstad and Gardner, by contrast, pack their pages with extensive historical and cultural information. These texts tend to present works of art as expressions of their place and time, conditioned by the historical events surrounding their creation, rather than as objects in dialogue with other objects, or as products of forces intrinsic to the artistic enterprise. They read, as a consequence, more like broad cultural histories than like traditional art-history texts. In general, Gardner pays more attention than Stokstad to maintaining a narrative thread. Gardner tends to be slightly more eloquent, Stokstad a bit more concise. Individual works of art and the formal properties associated with them, however, often seem to take a back seat to the sweep of history in both these volumes.


Frederick Hartt first published his Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1976 to provide an alternative to the Janson and Gardner texts, then the most popular two-semester surveys. The book has since gone through three revisions, the current fourth edition published posthumously by Prentice Hall in 1993. Physically, Hartt’s survey text cannot compete with the impressive two-volume sets produced within the past few years. Its relatively unattractive layout, featuring mostly halftone reproductions, lacks the polish of those newer books, not to mention accessories such as colored maps, sidebars, and elaborate captions. Still, the Hartt text boasts some special qualities that may make it a worthy contender for some instructional situations.

Unlike the major competition at the time of its writing, Hartt’s survey presents a fundamentally contextual approach to art history. The author, a leading specialist in Italian Renaissance painting, was fascinated by the interconnections between art and power politics, and his survey takes many opportunities to explore that interest. Every section begins with a preface outlining the most pivotal political events of the time, and hinting how those happenings may have colored the era’s artistic production. The author pursues those matters in the body of the text. The section on the early Renaissance, for example, on more than one occasion refers to the dynamic struggles among Italian city-states as factors conditioning the unique character of Florentine sculpture and painting. This approach may seem unremarkable today, but thirty years ago it was a daring departure from that adopted by the book’s more strictly formalistic rivals.

Hartt’s survey remains the most copiously illustrated of the available texts. To be sure, most of the book’s 1467 pictures are halftones, many reproducing old photos from the Alinari archive (there are, however, 489 fairly good color plates). Matters of semblance and quality aside, however, that strategy makes for success, for it provides students with generous comparative material and their instructors with added flexibility. As is to be expected from this author (who does not pretend to present a consistent global picture of art history), the largest concentration of illustrations occurs in the Renaissance and Baroque sections. The book dedicates ten pictures to the sculpture and architecture of Bernini, for example. In comparison, Gardner provides seven, Stokstad six, and Janson five. Hartt’s text could support nearly a whole class session dedicated to that one artist, were an instructor so inclined, whereas the others probably would not.

Perhaps the most significant factor distinguishing Hartt’s text from its main contemporary rivals, however, is its unique voice. Unlike Gardner, Stokstad, and the newer editions of Janson, this book does not give the impression of being a corporate production. On the contrary, every page reflects the thinking of one scholar who spoke with prodigious self-confidence, authority, and passion. Hartt’s text features some of the most extensive and rich descriptive passages of any of the survey texts, prose that generally encourages careful looking at and appreciation of the pictures. Here, for example, is Hartt on the landscape in Giorgione’s Tempest:

Nature, around the figures, is wild, weedy, and unpruned. The air is pregnant with storm. Ruins, a river crossed by a plank bridge, and the houses of a village are illuminated by a lightning flash, which casts the shadow of the bridge upon the water. The lightning is serpentine rather than jagged for the first time in any painting known to us, and looks the way lightning really looks.

(Gardner, by contrast, handles the matter in a single impersonal sentence: “Dominating the scene is a lush landscape, threatened by stormy skies and lightning in the middle background.”) The book also pays close attention to issues of iconography, as a rule offering more thorough and intricate readings than any of the Big Three. The result is an unusually coherent, persuasive production. Students may not come away from this book with an appreciation for every approach to art history, but they should understand one particular point of view very well.

To be sure, Hartt’s writing is turgid in spots. Some of his sentences seem to go on forever. Portions of the text give the impression of having been written for a roomful of scholars rather than a class of novices. Also troubling, Hartt’s approach to his material tends to be somewhat formulaic; his plan of beginning each chapter by outlining the main political events of the period wears thin. For this author, the history of art still meant primarily the history of Western art. Although the book contains chapters on “The Far East” (Indian, Chinese, and Japanese art), those portions leave no appreciable imprint upon the narrative as a whole. (A section on Islam is, however, well incorporated into the Medieval section.)

Who then might choose to use Hartt’s Art? The book seems most suitable for college students with fairly high reading abilities and a good foundational understanding of European history. It may also ably serve those attending institutions lacking good image archives and websites, who therefore might benefit from the book’s copious illustrations. For those who prefer a single authoritative voice, however quirky, to faceless corporate authorship, this book will hold appeal. Its days may be numbered, however. The book has not been revised in more than twelve years, and no new revision is at present contemplated by the publisher.

Schneider Adams

Laurie Schneider Adams’s split-volume Art Across Time (2nd ed.; a third edition is planned for 2007) clearly aims at providing a hyper-accessible alternative to the Big Three and Hartt. The book brims with innovative features calculated to make its subject matter manageable and meaningful for the average college student who might previously have had little contact with art and the humanities. Moreover, it does an admirable job of incorporating less familiar material into the curriculum and of drawing attention to diverse methodologies and approaches. Like other entries to the field, however, the book also has some unwelcome attributes that may reduce its effectiveness as a teaching tool.

Schneider Adams boasts the most distinctive and highly engineered format of all of the survey texts. Nearly every page abounds in brilliant colored images that outweigh the printed words in scale and density. Cropped to their edges and floated frameless against the white paper stock, many of the pictures are vital entities, ready to jump out toward the reader. Most pages include large color-coded sidebars, maps, charts, drawings, thumbnails, and extensive captions that further diminish the visual weight of the running narrative with respect to the graphics. The overall effect is stunning. Rather than an inert illustrated text, Schneider Adams’s book is a dynamic visual experience. Students with weak reading skills, especially, should find this approach engaging. Art historians, however, may be disconcerted to see their treasured objects transformed into de-contextualized colored shapes, packaged for easy memorization.

Schneider Adams’s main system of organization resembles that of most other survey texts. The author divides art history into seven unnamed parts, each one corresponding more or less to some canonical historical epoch. Within each part fall the usual subdivisions. More interesting is Schneider Adams’s method of drawing non-Western material into the discussion. Rather than dedicating independent chapters to art outside of the traditional mainstream, the book intersperses its running text with short comparative segments entitled “Windows on the World.” These well-illustrated spreads, each between two and about twenty pages long, treat a wide array of interesting art subjects, from “Rock Paintings of Australia” and “Mesoamerica and the Andes” to “Mughal Art and the Baroque” and “African Art and the European Avant-Garde.” Students perusing these brief portions may gain some initial insight into the art of other cultures while attaining a broader perspective on the Western tradition. Since Schneider Adams occasionally tries to link the contents of the “Windows” directly to themes explored in the main text, these segments may evade the charge of tokenism sometimes leveled upon the longer non-Western chapters inserted in other texts.

The Schneider Adams survey also makes notably effective use of its many sidebars. Quite a few of those panels provide case studies of particular works of art. Others examine various methods of analysis as they apply to art history. Still others supply snapshot biographies and career assessments of important saints, patrons, political leaders, and other figures of historical importance. Were a student to encounter only those invitingly packaged short sections and nothing else in this book, he or she could still learn quite a bit.

Arguably the book’s most distinctive feature, however, is the character of the running text. Of all the surveys designed primarily for two-semester courses, Schneider Adams is by far the most economical with words. Paragraphs tend to be short and to the point, almost journalistic in character, their component sentences tight and terse. Formal description is kept to a minimum. Complexities and ambiguities (to some, our subject’s most salient characteristics) likewise receive scant attention. The text offers adequate factual information, but little to ponder. These attributes appear by design, part of a strategy to make the book highly accessible. It may well be effective for some audiences. The problem with the author’s reductive approach, however, is that it cuts out much of what makes reading and learning about art a pleasurable, uplifting experience, and risks turning art history into an arid affair. Schneider Adams’s choices of objects and discussion points occasionally exhibit a self-indulgent quirkiness that some instructors may find annoying (e.g., representing Rembrandt’s religious art with two Old Testament histories from the 1630s without including any of his more mature biblical representations). In her attempt to simplify matters, the author sometimes presents interpretive hypotheses as though they were certainties, a practice that could inadvertently mislead novice readers and cut off discussion and thought about live issues.

To the dilemma of how to integrate non-Western material into the survey, Schneider Adams and her publisher have recently offered a unique solution: World Views, a supplement treating exclusively non-Western subject matter. Admittedly this optional “extra” is slender compared to her thick main textbook, a kind of “separate but equal” presentation of what is still defined by what it is not, namely, “Topics in Non-Western Art.” A second book is also an added cost to the student. But at least now the interested teacher and student can incorporate major Asian traditions along with a side dollop of Mesoamerican rock art and Amerindians (“First Nations”) to a survey class’s prevailing diet of Europe.

As in her main course, Schneider Adams brings austere virtues—simplicity, brevity, and clarity—to her side task, no mean feat for someone whose expertise is Italian Renaissance art and its relation to psychology, two exclusively Western concerns. She manages a judicious selection of well-reproduced monuments, about a baker’s dozen per chapter (eleven in all, of varying lengths), and she spotlights (albeit in inadequate boxes) outstanding media and issues (Chinese calligraphy, the pagoda, Persian miniatures). Some juxtapositions are useful and distinctive; for example, instead of merely dividing India or China into separate “early and later” chapters—though she does this too—she combines the Buddhist art of India and China into a single chapter, and another subsection points out the “synthesis” (actually more like a shifting disputation) of Buddhism and Hinduism at Angkor. While three millennia and all of Mesoamerica get lumped together, Japanese prints get a separate chapter. “Africa” is represented only by Benin; no later works or other regions are mentioned, even from the nineteenth century (if historical objects are the limiting factor).

Although this is a thoughtful, often original overview, it must be faulted for ignoring any recent creations and seeing the non-European world as a closed history. In view of the woeful inadequacies of Sherman Lee’s old survey of Indian and East Asian art, A History of Far Eastern Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1964), one can imagine another, more specialized author benefiting from and expanding upon Schneider Adams’s ambitions of reach, despite her limits of grasp. It also utterly fails to relate any of the other regions of the world to the core material in Europe, especially in terms of chronology, something that the integrated volumes currently attempt and sometimes achieve.

In short, this useful, if painfully over-brief volume is really more a “handbook” than a survey in its own right. It could never stand alone, even for a world art course aiming at such breadth in one semester. However, as a supplement it does offer more than is currently available in any standard Eurocentric survey, including her own.

World Views is one of a number of recent survey texts that cluster all (or much) non-Western art into a single compendium. Some of these are intended as supplements to the big surveys, acknowledging that they are by nature oriented (pun intended) to the “Western tradition.” Others, notably Michael Kampen O’Riley’s Art Beyond the West: The Arts of Africa, India and Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Korea, the Pacific, and the Americas (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001), aim to provide a larger foundational text for a second survey course that some schools are offering, called, essentially, “Everything But the West.” These books offer food for a separate extended discussion. The amalgam of non-Western cultures into a single book essentially mirrors a recent practice at museums, which have renamed departments that used to be called, collectively and dismissively, “Primitive Art,” as “Arts of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas,” or the like. Whether a change in nomenclature represents a step forward or not remains to be examined. And this review cannot fully consider partial surveys of this kind except to note that they are a half step from truly integrated world art history, which some schools already offer.

Honour and Fleming

A quarter-century ago (1982) two distinguished British scholars, Hugh Honour and John Fleming, collaborated on a bold new survey, The Visual Arts: A History, now in its seventh edition. Like all of its rivals, this book has swelled over time, and it retains the fundamental historical organization from ancient to modern. But as its size has expanded, so has its coverage, and this book fairly lays claim to be the most global of all current survey texts. Its five parts reflect this: Foundations of Art, Art and the World Religions, Sacred and Secular Art, The Making of the Modern World, and Twentieth-Century Art and Beyond. Part 2, Art and the World Religions, in particular devotes full and separate chapters to the history of religious art in India and East Asia (“Buddhism, Hinduism and the Arts of South and East Asia ”) as well as early Islamic art. Furthermore, by lumping together under part 3 art extending from “Medieval Christendom” to “Enlightenment and Liberty,” this text reminds students of the basic continuity of Christianity and monarchy as bedrock ideologies informing European art before the modern era.

Within each of the five sections of the volume, Honour and Fleming aspire to present a global range of the regions and objects covered. Along the way, they still fall victim to Eurocentrism and overcondensation, but in different fashion, with some individual chapters better attuned to period distinctions than those of their rivals. For example, in part 3, the sixteenth century is treated in one discussion ranging across Europe, rather than separating the century and the continent into North and South, as in so many other texts. Immediately following comes a single chapter of works covering the same period from “The Americas, Africa and Asia.” This may enable the student to fathom the moment at stake better, but in order to do so, he or she must range in one chapter from Mayan and other Mesoamerican art across Africa to the vast range of Islamic “gunpowder empires” (Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal), then across Ming China and Zen Buddhism, ending in Edo Japan. If that roster seems confusing to you, consider what a muddle of geography and periods it throws at a novice. On the plus side, “India” and “China” are no longer represented as monoliths in a single chapter covering millennia and uneasily inserted into the chronological flow of the West (usually somewhere around “Medieval”).

In similar fashion, the nineteenth century of part 4 gets interrupted every other chapter for peeks at “Eastern Traditions” (featuring the importance of exported Japanese prints) and another conglomerate of “Indigenous Arts of Africa, the Americas, Australia and Oceania” (a compound chapter on the model of World Views and its brethren). Near the end of the final chapter a couple of sections discuss “Post-Modern Multiculturalism” as well as “Globalization, Sensation and Spectacle.” Their range of artists’ nationalities is impressively wide and inclusive, even if Berlin (featured for its urbanism in a context box) as well as London and New York still seem to be the centers of world art display.

All current survey texts feature close-up case studies of documents and specific contexts, but Honour and Fleming are particularly strong in their rendition of this shared innovation. For example, the chapter on ancient art uses an annotated quotation from an ancient source in which the pharaoh Thutmosis III instructs his vizier, which is followed by a box on Hatshepsut, the one female pharaoh, which in turn leads early in the book to considerations of gender in Egypt. Each chapter has a similar range of close-up views as well as primary-source documents. Another example is the focus on early India through images of Buddha’s life, Ellora as both sculpture and architecture, and Konarak building accounts. For these unfamiliar topics—for teachers as well as students—such features deepen the reader’s understanding in the midst of wider coverage. In presenting architecture, the book ventures beyond the conventional, limited discussion of single buildings, and “Urban Development” receives impressive ongoing attention throughout: Çatal Hüyük, Jericho to Athens, the ancient Roman city, Constantinople, medieval towns, Rome under Pope Sixtus V, Isfahan and Samarkand (albeit no Chang’An/Beijing or Nara/Kyoto or modern Tokyo), then the modern phenomena of factories and public parks, futuristic cities (Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright), and finally contemporary Berlin.

Even if the majority of their chapters still focus on Europe and the United States, Honour and Fleming manage to stay contemporary in their attention to issues. As in the Hatshepsut box, these concerns often emerge through discussions of context and clever pairings of images and subjects. For example, they consider the representation of Europeans by those who were visited by them for trade or conquest: “namban screens” of Portuguese ships by Japanese artists are placed alongside European texts describing what they found on their travels—Cortes and Dürer on Aztec treasures, Dapper on the destroyed Benin capital in west Africa, a Portuguese merchant at Vijayanagar; the world-wide Jesuit missions are accompanied by a quotation from Pacheco on religious art in Spain. The presence of Europeans in African art gets a box, as does “the shaman’s mask” of the Pacific Northwest. Slavery emerges through Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship. Feminist scholarship (especially that of Carol Duncan and Mary Sheriff) is incorporated into a contextual discussion of “Sex Objects and Virtuous Mothers” in Fragonard and Greuze. All of these segments are both informed and thoughtful, sure to stimulate debate in class.

The by-now usual amenities are found here: clear maps, site plans of building complexes, timelines. One wishes that the plans and sections were bigger, but architecture is not slighted in this book, and a beginning student of architectural history could fruitfully use it (though it would not replace Trachtenberg and Hyman or others devoted to that subject). Probably no other book is more generous to the non-Western world, both in addressing its religions and in generous illustrations of “key monuments.” Compared to more simplifying texts, which stress terms and “isms” for easy digestion by students (some might say spoon-feeding), Honour and Fleming probably make the most demands on a reader’s intelligence in their writing. This book is not pellucid either in layout or prose, but it is possibly the most wide-ranging and rewarding survey currently available.

Wilkins, Schultz, and Linduff

In the early nineties, a trio of art historians—David Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn Linduff—took an innovative turn at textbook writing in Art Past / Art Present, whose smaller size and simple presentation hover between one-semester and two-semester scope. Now in its fifth edition, this book strives above all for clarity of presentation without abandoning seriousness of content. Linduff is the author of the sections on non-European material, which receive authoritative treatment and respectable representation of well-chosen examples (expanded with each edition) within a book that still is chiefly devoted to Europe and the United States.

In some respects Wilkins and company offer the student an illustrated timeline with neutrality concerning period terms and with relatively little of the context boxes, maps, or other apparatus of their peers. Each section opens with a remarkably succinct historical introduction that also broadens the range of represented objects; later editions have devoted subsections to introduce new epochs, e.g., Romanesque art. In the twentieth-century section political and military history appears first, complemented by “intellectual and scientific activity,” then an overview of wider artistic developments and consideration of the twentieth-century artist as well as the culmination in the present of postmodernism. Innovative pairings of images juxtapose a Giacomo Balla painting with a Pininfarina automobile design, a Laurie Anderson performance with a William Kentridge video. New media include the AIDS Quilt, a Haring graffiti drawing, a Nam June Paik installation, and stills from Eisenstein’s Potemkin and Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but no works of the newer digital media (though that may come in the next edition). Representative artists range from Jacob Lawrence to Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel, all presented in self-portraits.

Art Past / Art Present uses a powerful terseness. Double-page openings make its concise points with large pictures and limited text. The book fires and then moves on. There are advantages and disadvantages to this unique format. It has a tendency toward “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, de Stijl, Pop, Op, etc., etc.), into which earlier periods (High Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque) also fall neatly. It also has a tendency to move in predictable, if clear, patterns according to chronology and from medium to medium. This makes for a coherent, teachable narrative, if a bit formulaic. Photography, sculpture, and architecture are not forgotten amidst the painting-dominated topics (though prints are largely invisible here after their invention; Dürer and Rembrandt appear largely to exemplify new techniques). Some topics just do not summarize easily or reduce to paradigmatic instances. Women are well represented, especially in the latter day: the Pattern and Decoration group gives us Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro as innovators, and there is a theme box on “Representing Women” (but it too is only a couple of pages of brief text amid five images). For the most part, inclusion of non-Western arts remains sporadic, and selections carry an almost symbolic weight: Bobo masks stand for Africa, Pueblo kachinas for North American native cultures, and Ozu for Japanese film and architecture.

In effect, as with the use of Ozu as paragon of Japanese cinema, these two-page spreads operate like a succession of context boxes in Honour and Fleming. They tend to focus on one artist, one monument, or one period phenomenon (Gothic sculpture, academic art), interrupted for good discussions of particular techniques (lost-wax bronze casting, mosaic, fresco, etching) and useful general concepts (classicism, illusionism). This has the advantage of giving each chosen topic its own parity and seriousness. Non-Western monuments are integrated with their rough contemporaries: Sanchi with Pergamon, Teotihuacán with Roman imperial fora, Chang’An and Ellora with the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The European Renaissance and Baroque, especially in Italy, form the literal heart of this book (not surprising, given the expertise of both Wilkins and Schultz in that field), so this model is abandoned in its center (despite a half-hearted aside about Zen Buddhism). Timelines are omnipresent, but maps are not.

Probably the closest comparison to Wilkins/Schultz/Linduff is Schneider Adams, which also began life as a one-semester book that swelled in later editions. Both works aspire to limpid clarity and efficiency that wears learning lightly, and both succeed, though Wilkins et al. still seems a more comfortable fit for the one-semester course than for a full year. Schneider Adams sometimes comes across as a kind of Big Three Lite, a book that seems inspired by the best qualities of an instructor’s manual that can be shared between students and teacher. By contrast, Art Past / Art Present focuses better on individual works and phenomena, rather than larger trends. Sometimes it falls into a rhythm of one artist/one work, so that the relatively greater influence or importance of some artists is lost—perhaps intentionally. Similarly, each century is treated as a discrete event composed of smaller events. Nevertheless, the series of isms and the progress of media across period intervals do suggest running narratives while successfully avoiding positivist assertions of progress or inevitability. This book works best as a strong, regular armature to support lectures that can range more widely—building on this foundation to be more topical or more engaged in depth with particular issues or contextual instances.


One of the advantages of starting last is that one can learn from earlier efforts. As the latest entry in the survey sweepstakes, The Oxford History of Western Art, edited by Martin Kemp, takes a lesson from the Stokstad model and employs a team of specialists as authors. Their clearly signed segments foreclose any univocal authorial voice for this work; conversely, they provide a specialist’s command of material. As the title indicates, this book, like Janson, makes no attempt, not even token, to look beyond the confines of Western art; however, it does make the most diligent effort to encompass the full range of media over history, and does an outstanding job of overcoming the usual prejudice in favor of painting. The reader also should be warned: here art does not include architecture. So this book will have a difficult time finding its audience in a conventional course, where architecture is usually included, and where the Big Three surveys define the course parameters.

Like Wilkins/Schultz/Linduff, the Kemp book works best as a matrix—especially by medium—for a more innovative course. Its particular virtues lie in its diversity of art forms and moments. It too moves chronologically by medium (Greek sculpture, Roman painting and mosaics, early prints), with each section of a period written by a separate author. A course taught to studio artists might benefit particularly from this book’s approach: offering considerations of monumental sculpture or prints or photography as separate endeavors that can be tracked over time. Few other volumes give such lavish attention to materials, especially of sculpture, decorative arts, and illuminated manuscripts. Nowhere is the medium of stained glass so lovingly reproduced and explained. Once more benefiting from the formulas developed by its predecessors, this book at times seems like a collection of the greatest hits of technique and context boxes drawn from those earlier volumes. Several of its topics work extremely well for teaching, especially of the early Renaissance: the altarpiece, civic or commemorative sculpture, domestic arts. Multimedia interiors (even the Sacro Monte di Varallo) and ceiling paintings are presented separately and vividly for student appreciation and awe. What is too easily lost in these episodes is any narrative sense of connection except medium by medium. Consequently, this book places a larger burden on the instructor to provide coherence or historical clarity for a beginning student.

Indeed, the biggest muddle of this book lies in its handling of conventional easel painting. A large section, “The Art of Nations,” tries to present separate traditions as if the reader were strolling through the galleries of a museum, but the examples are few, cluttered, and jumbled together within a wide historical range, 1527–1770. This provides stimulating juxtapositions of pictures and painters, but it gives students no opportunity to savor and absorb the great names from the single examples offered. As a result, this text may irritate instructors accustomed to the approach of the other large survey texts, which generally include at least two works each by the major artists. Still, even in this section there are novel insights to be gleaned by the attentive: on the hierarchy of genres in France, views of Venice and Rome, the Tudor image. Particularly commendable are “Forms in Space” (Malcolm Baker) and the closing sections on “Academies, Theories, and Critics” (Karen-Edis Barzman) and colonial art—confusingly called “the international diaspora” (Tania Costa Tribe). This last topic is almost invisible in any other textbook. Such are the innovations and charms of discovery in Kemp.

The social dimension of modern art emerges as a strength of this anthology. Thoughtful teachers will pillage part 4, the long nineteenth century, for ideas about “publics,” design and industry, the rise of art history, criticism, and museums (a topic revisited at the end of the volume). Moreover, the twentieth-century section is fully original and distinctive. It takes the International Style as a point of departure—once more overly brief in famous names and depth of discussion—but quickly departs for unfamiliar ports of call. Here we find not only “alternative media” (chiefly sculpture in the wider sense and the best discussion of modern photography anywhere) but also “alternative centers” that break the limits of the book’s Western assignment and point to globalization: the Soviet Union, India, the African diaspora, and Canada/Australia (showing an Oxford publishing bias). As advertisers like to proclaim, “You won’t find this anywhere else.”

Despite this praise for its conceptual layout, the interested instructor will also find disappointment in the book as produced. Most of its sections offer little more than captioned illustrations, however well selected by topic and individual item. Its actual text is astonishingly brief, and its level of sophistication and demand on the student is probably the greatest of all the books under examination here. This book will require extensive commentary from the instructor’s lectures and perhaps additional readings to supply the kinds of features embedded in the lavish U.S. productions. Moreover, Oxford’s layout and quality of reproductions (as well as their size) must be judged subpar when compared to the competition. This is the least lavishly and least handsomely produced of all the volumes under consideration. But there are real-world compensations: in its most recent softcover edition, this is easily the cheapest purchase for students, half the price of its rivals. With the Kemp book students may also be able to afford some additional paperbacks chosen by an instructor, or supplement this book with visits to websites for more conventional coverage of certain artists or periods.

So who uses the Kemp volume? For a class on the rise of modern visual media it is optimal, defining an increasingly expanding public sphere à la Habermas and tensions between private delectation (those interiors) and industrial mass-production. It has truly thoughtful discussions of issues rarely broached (or confined to introductions) in the standard surveys, such as the history of art history and criticism or the history of museums. For better or worse, it omits architecture, film, maps, and other potential elements of visual culture, and minimizes familiar and conventional genres as such (landscape, portrait, still life). But no other book does such rich justice to sculpture, stained glass and other decorative arts, prints, and photographs.


First published in 1950 and now in its 16th edition, E. H. Gombrich’s Story of Art is the oldest art-history survey text currently in print (Gardner having been so profoundly revamped since its first appearance in 1926 that it does not qualify for this title). The book has swelled over the years, now stretching to some 688 pages and 413 mainly color illustrations. Most of the additional girth has settled in the twentieth century, the earlier “Postscript” on the post-World War II art scene bulging into a full chapter with subdivisions. Other portions have been significantly amplified as well. Still, today’s Gombrich remains true to its original plan and function of over fifty years ago: to provide a succinct introduction to Western art for “all who feel in need [of] some first orientation in a strange and fascinating field.”

Gombrich packages its material unlike most recent survey texts. Rather than organizing around various stylistic categories, chronological sequences, and/or geographical locations, The Story of Art identifies various turning points in Western culture and shows how the art of the time gives visual expression to those ruptures with the past. The book’s structure reveals itself immediately in its table of contents. Each of its twenty-eight segments boasts a short, catchy title that hints at the nature of its unifying idea. For instance, a chapter entitled “The Realm of Beauty” focuses on changes that occurred in fourth-century Greece, one called “The Parting of the Ways” looks at developments in Rome and Byzantium from the fifth to the thirteenth century, while “Permanent Revolution” examines the ever-changing patterns in nineteenth-century art. References to time and place appear only in the subheads. Although perhaps vulnerable to the charge of excessive reductionism, this scheme has the advantage of making the basic theme of each division clear even to the casual reader. More important, by focusing upon broad shifts in thought and culture rather than upon narrower concerns of the discipline, such as stylistic categorization, the book places art history in the broadest possible context, linking it to pressing cultural concerns that are both historical and ongoing. It thus addresses, if only indirectly, a matter perennially on the minds of many students: our field’s social relevance.

Gombrich is also unusual in presenting the history of art in language almost completely devoid of the specialized vocabulary of our discipline. The book suppresses troubling stylistic terms such as Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque—they are completely absent from the chapter titles—usually mentioning them in the text only as seeming afterthoughts. Its pages contain no arcane terms emphasized in boldface. Tellingly, there is no independent glossary. The vocabulary is simple, everyday, and immediately accessible. Concepts unique to the discipline are also downplayed. Yet the ideas set forth are never oversimplified, nor ever simpleminded. Along the same lines, the book assiduously avoids supplying the reader with fact upon fact or in creating barriers—of assumed prior knowledge or shared cultural background—that students must climb before reaching the rewarding visual material. On the contrary, Gombrich proves himself a minimalist in this matter too, providing just enough in the way of cultural context and other collateral information to allow the art to shine forth.

The most outstanding feature of the book, however, may be its generous, personal tone. Rather than adopting the emotionally detached, faceless writing style typical of much art history these days, including several of the texts treated in this review, Gombrich presents the history of art as a personal narrative that speaks directly to the reader. The book tells a compelling story in a compelling voice. The author is said to have originally written The Story of Art with his twelve-year-old granddaughter in mind. That sounds about right. The book treats its audience as tenderly as its subject matter, respecting its intelligence and curiosity while agreeably making allowances for its limited knowledge. This makes it a delightful read, one well suited to engender a love of art and the discipline of art history. The fact that this plan was devised by one of the great scholars of his generation makes its successful application here all the more edifying.

To be sure, the Gombrich text lacks certain attributes that have become practical requirements for art-history survey books. It contains no inserts, long captions, or sidebars intended to expand the general knowledge of readers. Other than a brief chapter on Islam and China from the second to the thirteenth century, it offers no coverage of non-Western subjects. It considers almost no nonwhite or women artists. It pays no direct attention to topical social issues. It does not take much note of varying methodologies.

Moreover, despite the expansion mentioned above, Gombrich lacks material heft, its chapters being generally much less expansive than those of the more recent art history survey texts. The book’s sections illustrate and discuss only ten to fifteen works of art each. Stokstad, by contrast, presents an average forty-six works per chapter. This brevity makes the Gombrich nearly an impossible choice for anything but a one-semester course unless supplemented by other texts.

Most problematically for some, Gombrich’s writing demonstrates little of the balanced impartiality toward historical periods that we have come to take for granted in recent art-historical writing. Although the author clearly admires art from all phases of Western development, he is essentially a classicist who prizes the achievements of the Greek fifth and fourth centuries and the Italian Renaissance above all else. The book is neither democratic nor even superficially representative when it comes to the selection of works. (This feature is by no means atypical, for none of the texts ultimately use any disinterested system to guide their contents.) As the introduction proclaims, only the best objects have been chosen for illustration and discussion. The best according to whom? To the author, of course. We just have to take Gombrich’s word for it. Or do we?

Thus, the particular “broad shifts in culture” that Gombrich chooses for his book’s architecture expose a bias in his perspective toward the traditional “great moments”—Periclean Athens and Quattrocento Florence. This predilection makes Gombrich appealing because, like the old Janson, he is reassuringly willing to tell us which moments in history to admire, which artists are heroes, blithely clearing out the troublesome underbrush of revisionist history. Even William McNeill modified his original conceptualization, articulated in The Rise of the West (though that book was never as convinced of Western triumphalism and historical progress as its title would suggest), in his more recent introduction and newest collaborative book. Gombrich remains an unreconstructed apologist for the Western academic tradition, rooted in Greco-Roman art and climactically realized in the Renaissance.

Yet, despite its deficiencies, Gombrich’s text stands out as one of the great achievements of art history, a standard by which all other introductions to the field ought to be measured. It succeeds admirably in demonstrating in clear and accessible language the intrinsic ties between art and history while communicating a deep, abiding love for its subject matter. Strikingly, the formula devised by Gombrich to achieve these ends has not been widely adopted. On the contrary, most of the recent survey texts have gone in the opposite direction: professionalizing the curriculum on the one hand, while expanding its perimeters on the other. It is true that Gombrich was able to present his art history as a clear, fluid story because he conveniently left out many of the messy bits—the kind of art that does not fit neatly into his schema. At this juncture, however, our field might benefit from giving Gombrich’s means of engaging the novice student another careful look. If the aim of the survey text is to open students’ minds to the excitement of studying art and art history, then telling a compelling story, even if in some respects an incomplete or otherwise faulty one, would seem a necessity. Over-simplifications could be corrected later, once the seed of curiosity has been planted.


The current crop of art-history survey books performs well in a number of critical areas. Nearly all of these texts present the reader with a wealth of up-to-date factual and interpretive information in an easily accessible, convenient format. Nearly all include an extensive corpus of large, high-quality color illustrations keyed to the text. Many come with potentially useful ancillary products, such as CD-ROMs and study guides. Almost all are interspersed with user-friendly tools, such as timelines and colored historical maps. Furthermore, the available titles come in a variety of levels of sophistication. Some, particularly The Visual Arts: A History by Honour and Fleming, seem most appropriate for advanced, experienced learners with a background in the humanities. Others, such as Schneider Adams’s Art Across Time, are intended for novice readers. The books also provide choices in methodology. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Stokstad’s Art History, and several other options present elaborately contextualized approaches to the discipline. Janson’s History of Art and Gombrich’s Story of Art still carry the earlier standard of formalism. Hartt’s text offers the most in the way of iconography. Honour and Fleming, followed by Stokstad and Gardner, provide the most non-Western material, and Schneider Adams appends a supplementary volume for this content.

In other respects, however, the available array of art-history surveys leaves us wanting. Most critical is their consistently monocular perspective on the boundaries of the subject matter: none of the texts provides a true alternative to a particular vision of artistic development that first originated in Europe a century ago and has prevailed ever since. We are all familiar with that vision: one where art originated as an amorphous intercontinental affair (Gombrich’s “Strange Beginnings”) but eventually nested in the Mediterranean basin and western Europe, restricted itself mainly to painting, sculpture, and architecture, and became the province of men licensed by their societies and paid by the rich. Even those volumes that incorporate extensive chapters on non-Western subjects and integrate women and other traditional outsiders into their accounts do little to shake the underlying message of that old narrative: namely, that the “great” painting, sculpture, and architecture (in that order) of western Europe (and the United States, as an extension of Europe), our valued cultural patrimony, is the natural culmination of centuries-old traditions of noble art.

There is another way in which the current options fail us: none does a very good job in helping students to identify and develop expertise in the fundamental methods of our discipline. How many times have we heard that perennial question of our beginning students (usually asked right before the first exam), “What of all this material do we really have to know?” Our initial response is often annoyance, followed by a one-word answer: “Everything!” Upon reflection, however, we can identify certain important skills that we want our introductory students to develop, skills that are essential to the practice of art history. First and foremost, we want our students to learn to derive information from works of art by careful, informed looking. They should not depend entirely upon explanations provided by experts, but should begin instead to use their own eyes and powers of analysis to recognize telltale traits from which they derive significant information. Second, we want students to learn how to frame interpretive questions when confronting a work of art, and then to have some idea of what kind of materials they need to arrive at answers. Third, we want them to remain fascinated with the mystery of art, so that they will share our enthusiasm to find out more, and will value both the work of art itself and the enterprise of learning. Our task as teachers is to arouse our students’ curiosity while also offering some means of how to satisfy that curiosity.

The current array of texts does very little to foster the kind of critical thinking and skills acquisition essential to preserving and growing our discipline. Most of these books inundate their readers with information from page one. Philosophy, history, geography, climatology, and psychology all come almost immediately into play. Objects are described and learned explanations offered at a rate that can overwhelm even the most able students. Very little attention is paid, however, to the processes through which this information came to be acquired, or to helping the students gain those skills themselves. The assumption seems to be that the students have already learned how to look before they have even hit the caves of Lascaux. It’s all explained in the introduction, after all. (By the way, how many of us have actually read those introductions, and how many of them really provide guidance to students as they embark further into the examination of the rest of the book?) As anyone who has had the pleasure of teaching an art-history survey knows, however, few students have a clue that we are teaching a dynamic practice. Most of them think that art history is all about memorizing facts. All too often in a large lecture course that task indeed becomes the default requirement—a status quo attributable to both current textbook formats and pedagogical demands.

By no means does the modern survey text correct that misapprehension. On the contrary, the books form a powerful phalanx supporting that very notion, reinforced by supplementary CD images without commentary but with caption data. Do any of these texts present a persuasive case for art history as the most effective means of introducing students to the world of art? Whereas in the past no such rationale seemed necessary, now with increasing focus accorded to context, history, and social dynamics in a history of art that has moved ever further from the making of art and appreciation of art, perhaps it has become so. Quite a few of the students who use these texts will be art students, adding further tension for the authors and an additional consideration for instructors in deciding what text to adopt.

This assessment of current survey texts is meant to be comparative and evaluative, not to propose specific recommendations to individual users, whether teachers or students. Obviously, the choice of text by any particular instructor will be driven by the aims and the breadth of the course as well as a preference for the approach and writing style of an author. Some professors have enormous enrollments of students with little background or experience: they may be drawn to a book because of its packaged extras, ranging from computer-gradable tests, CD-ROMs of images, and instructor and study guides. Others, who have more experience with this vast and demanding range of topics, may want a book better tailored to their approach. This may mean an outlook that takes close note of political, religious, or cultural history, or makes more thematic interpretations of individual works, or one that encompasses more of the world’s regions than the basic European and American art survey of half a century ago. Or else it stresses art forms such as architecture, prints, cinema, or video rather than the standard emphasis on paintings. A few texts even add a reflexive note about scholarship, museums, and other institutional discourses about art history—not always easy to bring into a lecture hall by the “sage on the stage,” but still valuable for the more analytical students.

Perhaps this evaluation is tinged in places with nostalgia for the earlier editions of these books; as readers and teachers we have consistently responded with enthusiasm to a clear authorial voice. Those single writers (Gombrich, early Janson, Hartt, or the true collaborators Honour and Fleming) brought passion and insights and principal preoccupations (sometimes idées fixes) to their enterprise, which added consistency and conviction as well as evident personality and intelligence to their writing. Sometimes current collaborations by teams of scholars, especially in the hands of successive authors within a short period of time (e.g., Gardner, though this book is chiefly by a pair of authors) or else a kitchenful of cooks (e.g., Stokstad’s team and the forthcoming Janson), show their seams of construction all too clearly. As the saying goes, “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.”

As noted in the prefatory remarks, survey texts tend to follow rather than to lead. There is much call in the discipline as a whole for diversity and inclusion—of other continents, of women and artists of color, of kinds of objects and materials, of subjects, of contextual issues or interpretive conflicts, and of hidden or overlooked histories. One of the first major revisions of Janson by the author’s son, Anthony F. Janson, expressly tackled these issues—feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism—only to deny their useful roles in such a text on the grounds that “embedded in current gender politics in Western society, there is a risk that a major shift in social outlook might call some of its conclusions into question.”

But this tide could not be turned, and the omission of women artists, quickly redressed, failed to avoid the basic problem that their text was too cast in stone to respond to changing questions for broadening, heterogeneous audiences. At a time when the latest (sixth; a new edition is on the way) edition of Janson still contents itself with presenting the “History of Art” with “The Western Tradition,” e.g., Europe and America, most other textbooks (Gardner, Stokstad, Schneider Adams, certainly Honour and Fleming) have made genuine efforts to include the great historic traditions of India, China, and older visual cultures in several inserted chapters (albeit a small percentage of their books). Perhaps the most thorough effort to be fully integrative of world regions has been made over the years by Honour and Fleming, yet it remains true that no introductory survey text can truly claim yet to have a world art portfolio.

The “features” included within almost all contemporary surveys offer truly fascinating case studies or technical explanations, supplemented by revealing, well-chosen documents. And few other commercial art books can afford the high-quality design and production, or the sheer size, of these textbooks. As such, they remain valuable for their presentation of vast quantities of images to introductory classes, despite their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Even so, there is always a problem of what to include and what to leave out, even in such enormous tomes. But one of the things we have also found rich and meaningful is the use of multiple works by a single innovative artist or architect or works in multiple media by those artists who were so versatile (almost inevitable with Dürer, Michelangelo, Goya, Picasso). Otherwise, all too often artists become lone flies frozen in amber, represented by only a single image, like a Platonic essence.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves. Too many of us were trained as specialists and struggle to expand our reach within a single semester’s materials, even when we remain quite comfortably centered as usual on Europe. Though we ask undergraduates to take classes that range across all periods and regions, as individuals we remain intimidated by encounters with the unfamiliar. The imagined world-art text of the future—the one not mired in the habits and traditions of the present surveys—might use a consistent voice and approach to encourage an instructor to try new materials. Moreover, the use of certain kinds of case studies of certain artists or types (e.g., religious buildings and their variety or decoration) can be as illuminating on first acquaintance for teachers as for students, making the expansion of range of instruction that much easier.

By no means should our criticisms here be mistaken for denigration. We have sampled and adopted virtually every one of the books under review in this essay and found much merit in them all. Moreover, anyone who has tried to write a textbook quickly learns that back-seat driving is a lot easier than taking the wheel. Nevertheless this remains a case where the tail truly wags the dog, where neither the forward gaze of the discipline nor its new ambitions and questions find an echo in these books that introduce it to most newcomers. These textbooks provide more of a rear-view mirror than a window toward the future.

Dare we imagine our own “wish list” for a future survey book? Could some adventurous, well-intentioned publisher produce, at considerable start-up expense, a wholly new survey, global not only in content but in spirit, strong-voiced and opinionated, passionate about art, coherent in presentation and attentive to the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of the discipline? If so, would art historians nationwide toss out their lecture notes, course plans, and slide lists to embrace the new perspective? Over the long run, we might well hope so. At least the effort would be a real change from the publishing consensus that currently exists.

But as we have also noted, however much the varied features, expensive production values, and good ideas of the present surveys tend to converge (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery), they still have individual flavors and distinctive characters. If we may hold out hope for a new world-art text of the future, perhaps even by some heroic single author, there still remains much to choose from out of the current roster of textbooks. Both publishers and authors should be commended for their own heroism, past and present, and both students and their teachers should take advantage of how much of the history of art can be encompassed in a single volume.

1 To our knowledge, this is the first comparative review of the major art history survey texts in more than fifteen years. For a previous essay, see Bradford R. Collins, Art Journal 48: 1 (Spring 1989), pp. 90–93, 95; 48: 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 190–94; 49: 3 (Fall 1990), pp. 318–23.

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