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E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art, 16th Edition

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history

Discover what makes E. H. Gombrich's ''The Story of Art'' one of the most widely-used survey textbooks in any field. Learn about the scope of the book and the canon of art history.

The Art History Survey: A Brief Introduction

If you ever wanted quick access to just about anything you might want to know about the history of art, E. H. Gombrich's The Story of Art would be a good place to start. For 65 years, it has been the go-to art history resource, covering everything from early antiquity to modern art. First published in 1950, its 16th edition made its way onto bookshelves in 1995.

This book is recognized as being both a popular textbook and a widely-used introductory text for the beginning student. It's an international best seller. In 2006, publisher Phaidon even put out a pocket edition, which might seem unusual for a textbook, but which demonstrates its popularity and usefulness.

Book cover
gombrich story of art

The book contributed to establishing a canon for the study of Western art. A canon, in any academic discipline, refers to the list of works that set a standard for, and are most representative of, the best in their field. These are generally accepted as the ones students must become familiar with: the essential works in a discipline. For example, the canon of 19th-century French art would be incomplete without works by Manet, Courbet, Cézanne, Matisse, and Gauguin.

Approach

When Gombrich set down to write The Story of Art in 1950, he intended to provide a broad and accessible introduction to the history of art for a young audience. The book is free of the jargon you usually find in academic writing. Gombrich writes in an upbeat, jovial tone. For example, of The Banquet of Cleopatra, he writes, 'Frescoes like these must have been fun to paint and they are a pleasure to look at.'

The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giambattista Tiepolo
banquet of cleopatra

Gombrich only discusses the works reproduced in the plates in the book. This strategy is great for making comparisons and drawing connections between 19th-century painting and Renaissance sculpture, for example, but it also means that a lot is left out of his story. It tends to paint a picture of art history that is unified toward a particular narrative, unlike the fragmented and contentious history you might learn about in a college level art course.

Rather than present theories on how art might be formalized as a concept, Gombrich presents an approach to the criticism of art that allows the viewer/reader to understand a painting or sculpture based on his or her own thoughts and feelings. He explains in the introduction, 'I should like to help to open eyes, not to loosen tongues.' Throughout the book, Gombrich engages his reader with a story rather than historical details. He seeks to explain the artists' works as pictures that were painted with human hands in a particular time and place. This is in contrast to many textbooks that delve into abstract concepts or general principles.

Content

Gombrich's book is what you would call a survey, a broad overview of a subject intended for the novice. This means that he doesn't really go in depth on any particular topic. His intention is to introduce the reader to the material rather than to prove an argument or reveal a truth about the history of art. The Story of Art might be referred to as a work of art criticism as opposed to one of theory or interpretation.

While it includes chapters on prehistoric, ancient, and Eastern art, the book's clear focus is on Western art. The major aspect of the book that makes it seem dated is its concentration on white male, European art, without acknowledgement of feminism and multiculturalism. For example, he uses the word 'primitive,' which has been in steady decline since the 1970s and today is looked down upon for its connotations of racism. Also, Gombrich has been criticized for using non-Western art in the book only to reflect how it influenced the Europeans.

Gombrich tells the story of Western art from prehistoric times to the modern age in 28 chapters. These chapters cover some of the following periods in the history of art:

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