Cover image for The Shaping of Art History: Meditations on a Discipline By Patricia Emison

The Shaping of Art History

Meditations on a Discipline

Patricia Emison


$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03306-8

120 pages
6" × 9"
14 b&w illustrations

The Shaping of Art History

Meditations on a Discipline

Patricia Emison

“This book brings profound issues into new and vivid focus.”


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  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In this provocative book, Patricia Emison invites the reader to consider and reconsider how past thinkers—from Pliny and Alberti to Freud and Fried—have conceptualized the history of Western art. What a book review attempts to be for a book, this extended essay attempts to be for several hundred years’ worth of books in a field: an indicator of problems with the old attempts and hopes for the new ones. It is a defense of art history for those outside the field who question its reliability or even its importance; it is a critique of art history for those in the field who may have been preoccupied with looking at trees but who might be interested in trying to see the forest.
“This book brings profound issues into new and vivid focus.”
“At a moment when the discipline of art history is in flux, beset by new methodologies and conflicting theories of what matters in a work of art, it is refreshing to find a seasoned scholar stepping back and calmly appraising the strengths and weaknesses of the profession.

Wittily, lightly, endearingly, the author convinces readers that room still exists for passion and generosity in dealing with the universe of wonders that is the world of art.”
“This wise and thoughtful book would make an excellent text for a methodology course and should be read by all who are interested in the field. Emison’s reorientation of art history will seem confrontational to some, but for an old veteran like me, it was a very consoling read.”

Patricia Emison is Professor of the History of Art at the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of The Simple Art: Printed Works on Paper in the Age of Magnificence (2006), Creating the 'Divine' Artist from Dante to Michelangelo (2004), and The Art of Teaching: Sixteenth-Century Allegorical Prints and Drawings (1986).




1. Why Not Just Write Biography?

2. Toward a More Chaotic Definition of Style

3. Venturing Somewhat Beyond Freud

4. Rated XX

5. The Bottom Line

6. Back to Idolatry?

Brief Bibliographies

List of Illustrations



Why Not Just Write Biography?

Its [a newspaper article’s] somewhat ambitious title was “The Book of Life,” and it attempted to show how much an observant man might learn by an accurate and systematic examination of all that came in his way. It struck me as being a remarkable mixture of shrewdness and of absurdity. The reasoning was close and intense, but the deductions appeared to me to be far fetched and exaggerated. The writer claimed by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man’s inmost thoughts. Deceit, according to him, was an impossibility in the case of one trained to observation and analysis. His conclusions were as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid. So startling would his results appear to the uninitiated that until they learned the processes by which he had arrived at them they might well consider him as a necromancer.

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, chapter 2

The first writers on art had little interest in biography. They wrote instead about materials and technique. They recorded for posterity the best ideas had by painters, sculptors, architects, and gem cutters: ideas of practice rather than of theory. They also said a bit about patronage, both the exemplary and the lamentable. Not until Giorgio Vasari took up his pen, shortly before 1550, did anyone think that the artist’s life ought to be the organizing principle for writing about art.

The two most important writers on art before Vasari were Pliny the Elder (23–79) and Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72). Pliny wrote an encyclopedic natural history in Latin, thirty-six books’ worth, which treated incidentally objects made of nature’s materials, whether in marble, bronze, or mineral and botanical pigments. Pliny was no dull compiler: he dared to criticize the emperor Nero (37–68) as a crass patron who equated expensive materials with good art. He related how Nero ordered a portrait of himself to be gilded and thereby diminished its beauty while increasing its material value. He described convincingly the personalities of playful yet seriously competitive artists: who could paint the thinner line, who could hoodwink even an artist into mistaking paint for reality?

Alberti was more of a theorist than Pliny and prescribed how one would make a more ambitious, a more intellectual art. He was proud of redefining Pliny’s project, as was Vasari after him. For Pliny art was craft; for Alberti painting was a liberal art. Alberti wrote a pioneering treatise, On Painting, in 1434–35, consisting of three short books on perspective and invention. It was not available in print until 1540 in Latin, 1548 in Italian. Alberti’s work constituted an enormous leap of imagination about what the pictorial arts could accomplish. He foresaw a culture in which the best minds would aspire to have something to do with painting, whether directly or indirectly. His vision now seems the less startling because reality so soon conformed to his hopes, but in the 1430s nobody but Alberti was thinking in those terms. His treatise may not have been absolutely instrumental in making it happen, but even if it had had no effect whatsoever (a claim belied, I think, not least by Mantegna’s painted and printed inventions; Leonardo seems also to have read Alberti), he would deserve respect for seeing the future so clearly.

Vasari (1511–74) wrote biographies, thereby de facto elevating artists to the status of great men, the likes of emperors, kings, dukes, and saints—although it was part of Florence’s mostly quiet social revolution that Lives had also been written during the fifteenth century of the more intellectual ilk of merchants as well as of the biographers themselves, the humanists. Artists started painting and sculpting self-portraits modestly in the fourteenth century, more forwardly in the fifteenth century—not least, the amateur artist Alberti himself, whose plaquette of himself in profile, accompanied by a winged eye, remains among the most memorable of images (fig. 1). Vasari, who well knew that manuscripts (let alone printed books) might survive when paintings and sculptures didn’t, wrote three books of lives, 133 in the first edition and 158 in the second (plus some supplemental chapters). Following good humanist principle he organized the whole with prefaces, so that the book had an organic structure, culminating in the longest and most admirable Life, that of Michelangelo. The history of art became a three-act play with Michelangelo, “il divino,” as the deus ex machina.

Vasari used two organizing principles: biography and historical period. There was some precedent in ancient rhetorical writing for organizing careers into stylistic periods, but it was slender. Cicero (106–43 b.c.) notably discussed style in his assessment of oratory, and he was followed to some extent by Quintilian (35–95)—two authors nearly as fundamental for the history of Western art as they were for the history of Western literature. The other precedent for Vasari’s tripartite scheme can be found in histories of the world, which divided into three basic categories: before Revelation, after Revelation, and the Apocalypse. For example, the Weltchronik, a massive illustrated book published in German and in Latin by Dürer’s godfather, Anton Koberger, provides an example of a world history that divides the whole into three parts. Michelangelo, by such a measure, counts as apocalyptic, and there is a least a vestige of that attitude left in Vasari.

Vasari somewhat nervously skirted cyclical theories of history; such a theory would have committed him to predicting another onset of artistic decadence like that which he recognized as having begun with Constantine (272–337). Clearly he was worried by that prospect, and hoped his book would help avert what might otherwise seem inevitable. Cyclical theories worked best for those who did not think in terms of either antitheses or continual progress. Pliny, J. J Winckelmann (1717–68), and Hippolyte Taine (1828–93), like Vasari, tended to think of history as basically cyclical. Commonly such thinkers posited three stages—primitive, classical of some sort, and decadent. An analogy with the phases of individual human life underwrote the scheme.

Ever since Vasari, art historians have been struggling with the concept of historical period. Does the name “Renaissance,” for instance, designate anything? Vasari called his own period “modern.” Europeans continued to be fascinated with pagan culture for three hundred years after the “Renaissance” had ended. What does one actually know when one knows the name, or even when one knows which objects to classify under that rubric?

There is some consistency to how artists, patrons, and public behave at a certain time; they are educated similarly and experience the same social pressures, the same formative historical events. Sometimes shifts to new patterns of behavior are relatively abrupt, sometimes more gradual, but things do change: norms for materials, subjects, styles, scale, patterns of patronage, and markets do evolve. The history of art is a great saga precisely because of this process—though the opposite has also been claimed, that what the history of art offers is primarily a profound lesson in universal value. Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses on Art (1797), for instance, thought that the great achievements of the classical artists (Renaissance as well as ancient) could never be bettered, only emulated—though his boundaries were rather elastic. He showed himself backed by a bust of Michelangelo and looking as if his Titianesque notion of portraiture owed more than a little to Rembrandt (fig. 2). Erwin Panofsky even supposed that both of those claims could be true, that the history of cultures displayed both evolution (at least from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance) and universality (essentially classical form with classical content). Augustus [sic!] Welby Pugin (1812–52) opposed the classicists not on aesthetic grounds but on moral ones: his defense of the pointed Christian style derived from its functionality, both for a religion focused on resurrection and therefore on verticality, and for a climate defined by precipitation and the accompanying architectural need to shed moisture. Like the classicists, he did not see art as the expression of a historical period but as the expression of a culture, culture itself being partly a function of unchanging climate and geography. His aesthetic preferences reflected his cultural taste, indeed, his identity as an English Christian (though there is a certain irony in this Roman Catholic’s rejection of Mediterranean culture).

The spin that the new theorizing has put on this old issue is the claim (catalyzed by Freud) that not only is period an arbitrary construct, but so is aesthetic value. Our minds, according to Freudian thought and some of its descendants, have universal developmental stages, more determining than the specifics of our personal and social environments. Pre-Freudian writers tended either to praise a suprahistorical canon of art or to admire, more comprehensively, the unfolding of the human spirit across the ages. In either case, they sweated conviction about the Old Master period, the era between the medieval period and our modern. The new theorists mock this pre-Freudian dedication to beauty of whatever definition, almost as though they still believed in the identification between beauty and nobility defined by birth, so that they could not reject the one without rejecting the other. For them, we are trapped indelibly in a present defined by a set of universal vices: oppression and exploitation, marginalization, colonialism, and so on. The postmodern viewer thus tends to appear very wary, very frail, despite all the current talk of “empowerment”—and understandably enough, in this world as obsessed with mankind’s all too obvious fallibility as Enlightenment thinkers were with mankind’s perfectibility.

Freud thought that historical period was insignificant by comparison to the fundamental psychic forces of human experience. The relationship to the mother was archetypal; the development of sexuality likewise was to be understood as carrying an internal dynamic, to which issues like child care and even religion were inconsequential. When Freud wanted to interpret a work of art, he looked for help in the “rubbish heap . . . of our observations” rather than in social and historical contexts. He did not judge beauty; he did not explain creativity; instead he tried to expand our investigation of artistic intention to certain typical underlying subrational strategies. Freud led the way in making the history of art speculative, nonadulatory, and ahistorical. Post-Freud, much historical thought has been denigrated as “historicist.” Freud diagnosed typical art historians as devoting “their energies to a task of idealization, aimed at enrolling the great man among the class of their infantile models—at reviving in him, perhaps, the child’s idea of his father.” Even for the social historian T. J. Clark, more recently, the Freudian cast overpowers the historical curiosity. For him, the art historian has advanced to the rank of analyst rather than patient: he ought to be “like the analyst listening to his patient [the contemporary critics].” The artist, for his part, responds to his “public” like the patient to his unconscious: “the public, like the unconscious, is present only where it ceases; yet it determines the structure of private discourse; it is the key to what cannot be said.” It is also the key to what cannot be seen, to what the artist ignores in his visual world and heritage: “one studies blindness as much as vision.”

Admittedly, historical period is an infernally evanescent structure, at once both there and not there, its margin ever fading. It is also a heuristic that discredits its own creator, for if we study a period other than our own, how are we to avoid imposing our own intellectual conventions on the foreign material of another era? Even worse than the anthropologist whose very presence changes the society he studies, the art historian studies a place and time he cannot visit, with a mind wired by its experiences to interpret visual and verbal evidence in accordance with twenty-first-century assumptions, not all of which is she fully conscious. How can a student of a distant historical period avoid creating a monster, a hybrid version of then and now, pockmarked with bits of the in-between? Yet do we not study the past precisely in order to learn to free ourselves from the platitudes and assumptions characteristic of the present? What is the point, if such freedom is obtained only in some monstrous hybrid of past and present?

Freud tried somewhat naïvely to deny the difference between history and fiction, as a way of solving the problem of historical distance. The cultural historian Peter Burke, in addressing this issue, suggests that we regard historical fact as having some of the qualities of fiction, and vice versa. To understand people in another culture, we need to understand their “scripts,” their sense of the role they play in their society, the “deep structure” of their actions, that which is programmed for them rather than determined at their individual discretion. He suggests that we conceive of ourselves as observing commedia dell’arte being improvised by stock characters amid the distractions of the street: to understand history, we need to grasp the Zannis and the Pantelones of real sixteenth-century life. In Burke’s writing those types, significantly, are defined culturally, in contrast to Freud’s supposedly universal types.

Yet simply to erase the distinction between fact and fiction is only lily-livered resignation, rather than any satisfactory solution. The mess we make when we refuse to try to tease fiction from fact in our personal past, present, and future compels us to try to do the same in historical inquiry. We don’t have to achieve perfection to make it worth trying to sort out present realities from past ones, and our relatively reliable knowledge from our highly speculative. As with the canon, the attempt to be skeptical tends only to instantiate a new orthodoxy: those who disdain the old facts as naïvely accepted often come to treat their own hypotheses as proven. Faith in history as a record of progress tends to lead to a sense of self-congratulation.

Some historians resolve bravely never to appeal to period, to forbid themselves the word “Renaissance,” for instance—a desperate ploy comparable to trying to eliminate utterly the verb “to be” from the use of language. Others solve the problem by addressing primarily the present, and using historical evidence only as backing for an argument based in the contemporary situation. Art historians as different from one another as J. J. Winckelmann, Hippolite Taine, and T. J. Clark share the project of using history primarily for the sake of reforming the present. It may be that there is no other legitimate use, that critics are like lawyers and the past is merely a set of precedents to be appealed to as opportunity affords. Artists, as well as art historians, have been known to make such use of the past, and why not?

Still, history’s content is no mere heuristic device but an intelligible force on artists and others. Not all things are possible at all times, as the historian of style Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) memorably put it. That is what he meant by Zeitgeist—not a full-fledged determinism but the realization that, for example, even rebellion is culturally licensed rather than an innate right of man, that rebellion was an aberration in the France of Louis XIV and a norm in the France soon after of Louis XVI. Artistic rebellion, other than the most marginal, could not survive in the twelfth century; conformity was nearly as doomed to oblivion in the twentieth. Audiences, viewers, patrons, and curators have habits that are formed by experiences; experience itself changes from one period to the next, sometimes gradually, sometimes more suddenly. It is not that those audiences have no causal role in making their own experiences, but that conscious intentionality is a small part of the causal whole: this was Freud’s fundamental and judicious insight. It was also Aristotle’s, though, when he made efficient cause operate in conjunction with material, formal, and final causes. Wölfflin’s Zeitgeist we now call “culture,” i.e., that great conglomeration of knowledge, belief, opinion, monuments, ephemera, projects, infrastructure, fashion, recyclings, noise, public spaces, etc.—all the things that condition us to certain characteristic patterns of thought and forgetting, attention and distraction. Our study of history is in some part an attempt to wrestle with Zeitgeist, to change what we are likely to think about and how we are likely to think about things—but not for the sake of some preexisting polemic. The problem with Winckelmann and his ilk, with those who use history as a lever by which to change the present, is that generally they know what about the present they want to change before they make their historical study. That, it seems to me, is a lower-order use of history than one that starts out genuinely curious to find whatever can be found. History deserves a certain sort of purity from its votaries, which is not to say that what one learns won’t be useful, only that its usefulness ought to be as unpredictable as that of any pure research.

It is the anthropologists who taught us most recently that culture ought to be an inclusive concept, that there can be no clean line between silverware, a decorative art, and flatware, a part of material culture, or between the arias within Covent Garden Opera House and the whistling of workers in the market that formerly bordered it. Archeologists might have taught us that, but it was a lesson more easily learned from the other side of the disciplinary fence. Since the 1970s art historians speak of the “period eye,” a history of vision as conditioned by the changing physical and social environment. The “period eye” splits the difference between Wölfflin’s Hegelian Zeitgeist and the anthropologists’ “material culture,” being less metaphysical than the former and more conceptual than the latter.

Biography, on the other hand, can be an attempt to slither out of the shortcomings that result from thinking in terms of historical period. People grow up, have public careers and/or families, and decline into decrepitude whether they have lived in antiquity or in the eighteenth century. Biography makes the past immediately accessible: people love, get angry, have money troubles, and have strokes of luck. Works of art similarly make the past immediately accessible: you don’t have to understand the theory of kingship, let alone be a royalist, to admire the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (conversely, if you hate the grandeur because you hate a dead monarchy, you are cheating yourself). Mere looking at art offers a cheap ticket into other people’s lives; it’s virtual dress-up for the overaged. To survive, art history has to offer an alternative, or at least a complement, to that considerable pleasure. We art historians don’t want to be like a Thomas Aquinas who spoils simple piety, however grand might be the intellectual mazes we could construct if we set our minds to it.

Vasari’s scheme of braiding together biography with the three historical periods produced a kind of hybrid vigor: a history that offers both flexibility and integrity. He had a hybrid scheme of causality as well: God sent great artists like Giotto and Michelangelo, but art was reborn in Florence because the air there was good, the folk crusty and critical of one another, and life hard enough that making an effort was the typical modus operandi. According to Vasari, determinism can indeed be made compatible with free will.

The other founder figure for art history, J. J. Winckelmann, took a thoroughly different route. He barely mentioned individual artists; he barely admitted that any of Greek art was less than the ideal expression of an ideal people in an ideal climate, for whom life was festival and to whom beauty and freedom came naturally, in art as in life. His highly detailed outline of his project—he is said to have spent a year on the outline alone—is organized by types of subject matter: “The Conformation and Beauty of the Male Deities and Heroes,” “The Conformation and Beauty of the Female Deities and Heroines,” “The Expression of Beauty in Features and Actions (Hair of Satyrs or Fauns, Hair of Apollo and Bacchus, Hair of Young Persons),” “Beauty of the Extremities, Breast and Abdomen.” In fact he was a great student of languages and literature (it is claimed that he might have written his great History in French, Italian, or Latin instead of his native German). One of his rare moments of methodological self-reflection sets forth a daunting prospect: in order to study even one period of the history of art (for him there is only one period worth studying—and although he is mocked for his narrow-mindedness, many art historians share the basic attitude), you must first thoroughly acquaint yourself with all the physical, literary, and geographical evidence that can be had. Nothing less will do, for to understand the parts, you must have a whole into which they fit:

If I conceive all the statues and images of which mention has been made by the authors, and likewise every remaining fragment of them, together with the countless multitude of works of art which have been preserved, as present before me at the same time [I will be like an Olympic athlete] . . . venturing on the enterprize of elucidating the principles and causes of so many works of art. . . . Without collecting and uniting them so that a glance may embrace all, no correct opinion can be formed of them; but when the understanding and the eye assemble and set the whole together in one area, just as the choicest specimens of art stood ranged in numerous rows in the Stadium at Elis [Olympia], then the spirit finds itself in the midst of them.

It is a daunting challenge, and a warning to us that cultural and social histories are doomed to failure, perhaps an acceptable degree of failure, but failure nonetheless. One can never know the whole, and so, one can never reliably know the parts. Art history isn’t geometry, after all; certainty is not our business. Winckelmann’s doomed project of a comprehensive social and cultural history helped prepare the ground for Freud’s theorizing. That offered the prospect of an art history as confident as the old one of connoisseurs, in place of the daunting prospect of having to know everything in order to know anything. It was an attractive trade.

Neither book learning nor familiarity with works of art answers all the questions. The great and learned Winckelmann is said to have been stumped on one occasion by an artifact he could not identify. A common workman saw it and immediately recognized it as the stopper of a bottle. Like Apelles and the shoemaker (who, Pliny tells us, taught the great painter how a shoe is actually constructed), the art historian has much to learn from the casual passerby about the common things of daily life. For all the emphasis Alberti and others have put on the learned artist (and, by extension, on learned art historians), lay persons can see as well as the learned, and sometimes better. Carlo Ginzburg has argued that art historians should consider themselves diagnosticians, dealing with bits of evidence and making uncertain inference therefrom. Giovanni Morelli, the great connoisseur, was trained as a doctor, as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes. Even when they are not concerned with attribution, Ginzburg argues, art historians, and more generally men of letters, are making claims inferentially, bucking the tide of hard science and its deductive proofs. The task of art historians is not to make their discipline more scientific but to reckon with the truth that the humanities can never pass scientific tests of rigor, and then to invent more appropriate tests of rigor. Biography, on the other hand, tends to substitute sentiment for rigor.

Just as the best art is never simply autobiographical, so the best art history is not limited to the petty struggles of one person’s career. The very genre, biography, encourages exaggeration of the heroic aspect, in order to justify such attention paid to a single individual, perhaps more than was paid him during his lifetime. It is no mere coincidence that an age that read Vasari religiously, the nineteenth century, also promoted the cult of the artist more than any other, and believed in Renaissance artistic genius more fervently than had men of the Renaissance. They made in the past the precedent they needed in order to deal with present problems, in particular with a loss of religious faith. Their historical understanding was not irresponsibly distorted, but it could not be utterly pure either. Whenever our sense of historical precedent becomes very convenient for us, exactly then we need most to distrust it. Knowledge, after all, is supposed to be challenging, rather than comforting: sapere aude (dare to know), as Horace and Kant put it.

Vasari had a test of sorts for his biographies. What mattered for him, in the end, was what a person had contributed to his art—that is, whether the art of painting, or sculpture, or architecture was better off because Masaccio or Bramante or Lorenzo Monaco had lived. Vasari was a practical man: he judged not only by the direction and momentum given the history of style, but by whether the artist had been respected by his social betters and also well paid.

If the prestige of the profession is the ultimate criterion for art history when written as biography, that leaves open the question of an appropriate criterion for other modalities. Connoisseurship is the part of art history most affiliated with science, that modern and inescapable locus of value. Coincidentally, connoisseurship is most steeped in magic, in amazing revelations that cannot be scrutinized analytically. There we turn next.

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