Histories of Art History


The history of art history is constantly re-evaluated by scholars. Many good general accounts and commentaries on specific periods of art historiography exist. Please see the Complete Bibliography at the DAH homepage. This summary is provided to help place the historians mentioned in the DAH in context.

Pre-Art History

Art was not among the seven liberal arts in the classical world. The Trivium (or the "three roads") consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic and the Quadrivium (the "four roads:) took the form of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, (including harmonics, or Tuning Theory) and Astronomy or Cosmology. Art was considered a technical field without much theory behind it. Even the muses, Greek demi-goddesses of inspiration, nowhere included the pictorial arts. Music, Dancing, Comedy, and three kinds of Poetry, but none was reserved for art. Visual art's slow start among the classical world delayed the development of art history as a discipline as well.

The ancient world was not without its art historians, however. Xenocrates of Athens, a sculptor (student of Lisippos) wrote a history of Greek sculpture which Pliny the Elder drew upon for his sections on art history. Though Xenocrates' work is gone, Pliny quoted it in his books 34-36 of Historia Naturalis.


Thoughout the antique and medieval eras, writing about art was largely set in the context of artistic biography. The genre persisted in fragments throughout the medieval world. The realization by Renaissance thinkers and artists that they were in a time of reawakening brought a new appreciation of history and the lineage of artists. Chief among the writers of artistic biography was the painter Giorgio Vasari. His Lives of the
Artists broke new ground and is considered by many art historiographers as the first art history in biographical form. Vasari knew many of the artists about whom he wrote and though the work is deeply polemical and full of legends accepted as fact by Vasari, his was the first attempt to create a scholarly framework into which to place art history.

Eighteenth Century

Antiquarians began to collect and publish data on medieval archives and monuments (churches principally). Writing in the twentieth century, the historiographer Samuel Cauman considered the beginning of the "monographic trend" in the formation of art history, i.e., the creation of corpora and factual data on a group of monuments for other scholars to build upon with the compiling of medieval documents by Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) and Lodovico Muratori (1672-1750). Browne Willis compiled his Survey of the Cathedral-church of Landaff (1719) and his fuller Survey of the Cathedrals of York, Durham, Carlisle, Chester, Man, Litchfield (1742). In France, Dom Bernard de Montfaucon (q.v.) published his Monumens de la monarchie française in 1729 These works were followed by the works of Andrew Coltee Ducarel (q.v.) and Horace Walpole (q.v.).

The writings of Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment authors ushered in an appreciation for systems of thought and the construction of a methodological approach to a discipline. Kant's views on art were narrow, however, Kant termed all nonclassical styles the "wrong taste."


Among other trends, the reverence for which Vasari was accorded was replaced by a realization that he fabricated and biased his art history. Father Luigi Lanzi in his Storia pittorica dell'Italia begins with a bold refutation of Vasari's claim that painting had been "altogether lost" before Cimabue. Carl Friedrich von Rumohr in his extensive archival research led him to essentially the same conclusions in Germany.

Nineteenth Century and Germany

First Professors in Art History

Johann Fiorillo became the first professor of art at a German University (Göttingen, 1813). In 1844 Gustav Waagen was named professor of "Modern Art History" (i.e., non-classical) at the University of Berlin, the first time art history was formally acknowledged as a university discipline. Jakob Burckhardt was appointed the chair of art history in Switzerland (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zurich) in 1855, and Anton Springer in Bonn (1859).

Mid-Century Furors and Controveries

An investigation in the 1830s developed as to whether ancient sculpture had been painted. The "polychromy issue" was a major architectural and archaeological concern in the 1830s and 1840s, since it overthrew the accepted notion of Greek art and architecture as pure and colorless, promoted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann. The case began with Guillaume-Abel Blouet in 1832.

The Rise of Foreign Academies in Greece and Italy

The first foreign academy in Rome was established by the French, l'Académie de France, in 1666 under Louis XIV's minister, Colbert (today at the Villa Medici). National institutions located in Athens and Rome to promote research took shape in the second half of the nineteenth century. With Italy's unification and the designation of Rome as capital city, archaeological discoveries proliferated under the city's expansion. The Prussian's established a research center in 1829 which became their (later German) Archaeological Institute (DAI) in 1871. An École Française beginning in 1873, provided French scholars a locus akin to those of artists at the Villa Medici. Austria followed in 1881 and the United States in 1894, Hungary (1894), Britain (1901), Holland (1904), and Spain in 1910. These academies published their own texts and allowed scholars of various disciplines to collaborate in different areas of classical studies, unlike the more rigidly structured universities. Classical and early-medieval art historians blossomed under these new impetus.

The Middle Ages are Discovered

Before the nineteenth century, the middle ages were viewed as a dark age whose accomplishments were waiting for the Renaissance to be redeemed. The important medieval Cluny, in Paris, for example, was largely demolished and sold for building materials in 1800. Various factors, nationalism (particularly in Germany and France) and an interest in ecclesisatic history led to a a rediscovery and appreciation of the medieval period. Seminal scholars of art who founded both archaeological and conceptual studies of the middle ages who formed the "pantheon of great [early] art historians" (Willibald Sauerländer) included Adolphe Didron, Charles Cahier, Camille Martin in France and Ferdinand Piper and Franz Xaver Kraus in Germany.

Berlin School - Rumohr, Hotho and Waagen

During the early years of art history, two trends distinctly developed. One, an empirical method, frequently focused on the study of the individual work of art. A second view was a more sweeping, theoretical approach that attempted to summarize a period of art. The so-called scientific approach connected with individual painting grew naturally enough from museum work and is most clearly reflected in the writing of the founder of the Berlin Museum, Gustav Waagen and his hire for the prints collection, the academic Heinrich Hotho. Their work is frequently termed the "Berlin School of Art History."

Although a linear view of art history ignores many important influences, a case has traditionally been made for an intellectual development following progressing from John David Passavant and the Berlin School through Otto Mündler, Giovanni Morelli and Alfred Woltmann, the work of Crowe and Cavalcaselle, though Cornelius Hofstede de Groot, Wilhelm von Bode, Bernard Berenson, Max J. Friedlaender to Hermann Voss.

America Emerges in Art History

The artist and writer John Neal, in his novel Randolph, 1823, was the first in America to write art criticism. William Dunlap was the first American to write a book on the history of art in the United States, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, 1834, and C. Edwards Lester wrote the first strick biography of American artists (1846), Dunlap's book was a biographical dictionary with commentary.

Vienna School

Viennese art history in the 19th century won emancipation from the traditional patrons of the Church and the nobility. Prince Metternich became the highest authority in art matters, including the monument conservation, state-sponsored exhibitions. As the art market developed, and a ministry of education, founded in 1849, included art schools, the educated middle class began collecting art. The great princely collections, including the the Albertina gallery of graphic art in 1822, were open to the public. The Kunsthistorisches Museum, containing collections of the Habsburg imperial family, opened on the Ringstrasse in 1891, making it possible for the public to see the royal collection as a unit. The Museum für Kunst und Industrie, founded in response to the South Kensington Museum in London (modern Victoria and Albert Museum) by Rudolf Eitelberger von Edelberg, was the first decorative arts museum on the European continent. Eitelberger also founded the first chair devoted to art history in Vienna and was first president of the nascent Kunsthistorisches Institut of the Universität in Vienna. The Insitut was responsible for the art historians forming what was known as the (first) Vienna school of art history (see below).

Burckhardt and the Predominance of the Renaissance.

Art history as a discipline examining cultural production--and not simply the development of specific media--blossomed in the work of an historian at the University of Basel, Jacob Burckhardt. Burckhardt derided the ideas of Hegel and Herder, especially their concepts of historical coherence and the biological metaphor of acme and nadir. Burckhardt's Der Cicerone used art as a key signifier of the advancement of a society. His emphasis on the Italian Renaissance spawned, both fortunately and unfortunately, a huge emphasis on the study of Italian art in Germany. The Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence was founded in 1897 as a part of this emphasis. The work of Wölfflin, (Carl) Justi, and Schmarsow held the Renaissance as the point around which art history was founded.

English Schism between Morellians vs Crowe/Cavalcasse in Italian Renaissance Studies

An abiding enmity developed in the last portion of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century between English-speaking scholars of the Italian renaissance. One group, led by Berenson and Roger Fry, espoused connoisseurship decisions of attribution, based on the method of Morelli. The other, led by R. Langton Douglas, (Arthur) Strong and in Austria Franz Wickhoff, based attribution on the model of Crowe and Cavalcaselle. Other factors were also involved, the Douglas/Strong group disapproved of Berenson's collaboration with art dealers.

The Netherlands Emerges as an Academic Center of Art History

The first academic art historians in the Netherlands is a shared title. Jan Six at the University of Amsterdam was the first professor to be named extraordinarius (1896-1916) of art history. However, Willem Vogelsang at the University in Utrecht was the first ordinarius (full professor) and Wilhelm Martin at the University in Leiden were the first extraordinarius (associate professor), both serving the same years, 1907-1946.

The Re-evaluation of the Baroque

Through much of the nineteenth century, Baroque art and particularly Baroque architecture was viewed as a decadent extravagance, disparaged when it was not ignored by art historians. Cornelius Gurlitt began the reevaluation of the Baroque and Rococo in art history beginning in 1883 with his Das barock- und rococo-Ornament Deutschlands and in his Geschichte des Barockstiles beginning in 1886. A full treatment of the period came with August Schmarsow in 1887, whose book Barock und Rokoko covered the entire spectrum of Baroque art, not simply architecture. Even after Gurlitt's publications on the Baroque, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study, Renaissance und Barock, 1888, condemned the full Baroque style. Alois Riegl began lecturing on the Baroque in 1894 and 1895, though he criticized Gurlitt's studies for avoiding historical background and for defining the term "Baroque" insufficiently.

Art Emerges as a Discipline in British Universities

Art professorships, donated by Felix Slade, were established at Cambridge and Oxford universities in 1869. Initially they were held by critics or writers on art, John Ruskin was the first chair at Oxford an focused on aesthetics. Charles Waldstein, an American educated in Germany, was hired as part of the Classical Studies Department at Cambridge University under Sydney Colvin, the first to teach principally on classical art in 1895, though Colvin had delivered regular lectures on the subject. Waldstein's inaugural Slade lecture, The Study of Art in Universities was published the following year.

Early Twentieth Century and Austria

First and Second Vienna Schools

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the University of Vienna came to play a major role in mapping the course of art-historical inquiry. Generally, they opposed the iconological traditions (such as Aby Warburg and Dutch art historians) and the emphasis of Italian Renaissance as the preeminent study of art history. Instead, scholars of the first phase, Alois Riegl and his successor Franz Wickhoff, sought to raise the status of early Christian and the so-called minor arts (such as rug design) by demonstrating competing aesthetics. The Vienna School methodology has been described as a triangle of Max Dvořák and his history-based approach, Franz Wickhoff and his stylistic approach and Alois Riegl/Julius Schlosser and their linguistic–historical methodology. Together these four make up the principal fame and direction of the Vienna school of the early 20th century (Edwin Lachnit, see Dvořák entry).

Historiography as an Interest

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the discipline was established enough to have emerging art historians address the historiography. Hans Hermann Russack dissertation on cycles in art history thinking, Der Begriff des Rhythmus bei den deutschen Kunsthistorikern des XIX. Jahrhunderts, was published as his dissertation in 1910. Beiträge zur Geschichte und Methode der Kunstgeschichte of Ernst Heidrich appeared in 1917. A study of "development" as a concept in art history was published by Rudolf Kautzsch in 1917 as Der Begriff der Entwicklung in der Kunstgeschichte. This was followed by the first volume of Deutsche Kunsthistoriker by Wilhelm Waetzoldt in 1921. A book on contemporary art historian's work by Johannes Jahn was Die Kunstwissenschaft der Gegenwert in Sebstdarstellung (1924). Julius von Schlosser (q.v.) Die Kunstliteratur (1924) and "Stilgeschichte" und "Sprachgeschichte" in der bildenden Kunst (1935).

The Society of Architectural Historians was founded in the United States in 1940 from an initial meeting of Kenneth Conant, his students and others (John Coolidge).

The New Art History Emerges

In the 1960s newer criteria to write art history was adopted by many art historians. This variety of considerations, including feminism as well as an overlay of a literary-theory model of interpretation became known as the "New Art History." Those practicing it most rigorously often hailed from other disciplines, including Norman Bryson, who named the movement, Yves Bonefoy and Anita Brookner. The New Art History's bete noire was formalism and connoisseurship. Celebrated arguments in print broke out, notably between Michael Levey of the National Gallery (London) and Brookner.

The Rise of Graduate Programs in Art History in the United States & England

Harvard's first Ph.D. in the fine arts was granted to George Edgell (q.v.) in 1913. The Institute of Fine Arts, the graduate school of art history of New York University was founded by Fiske Kimball in 1922. The Institute was located in the Paul Warburg mansion before being moved to the James B. Duke mansion.