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Gardner, Helen

    Image Credit: The ArtInstitute of Chicago Library Archive

    Full Name: Gardner, Helen

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1878

    Date Died: 1946

    Place Born: Manchester, Hillsborough, NH, USA

    Place Died: Chicago, Cook, IL, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): American (North American) and art history

    Career(s): art historians and educators


    Professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of a standard history of art textbook. Gardner was the daughter of Charles Frederick Gardner, a tailor and Martha W. Cunningham. In 1891 the family moved to Chicago. Gardner attended Hyde Park High School before the University of Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in, honors in Latin and Greek in 1901. She taught at Brooks Classical school in Chicago, serving as assistant principal (her sister was principal) between 1905 to 1910. In 1915 she returned to the University of Chicago where she was awarded a university fellowship in 1917. She studied art history achieving an A. M. in 1918. Her thesis was entitled “A Critical Chart of Florentine Painting of the Fifteenth Century.” Gardner continued to take art history courses until 1922. She never received a Ph.D. In 1919, she was appointed head of the photograph and slide collection at the Ryerson Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago. She began lecturing in 1920 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in art history. Her initial course was an art survey. In 1922 she became a full-time lecturer at the school, developing an art history curriculum. In 1926 her Art Through the Ages: An introduction to Its History and Significance appeared, which she used in her courses. This innovative survey text brought her national recognition, and lectureships at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1927. The following year she lectured at her alma mater before returning to the SAIC. Gardner published an art appreciation text, Understanding the Arts in 1932, which was directed toward art educators. She was appointed full professor and the department chair in 1934. A second, expanded edition of Art Through the Ages appeared in 1936, and including section of modern art, which had been omitted in the earlier edition. In 1944 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was forced to retire. Gardner completed the text for a third edition before she died of complications of bronchopneumonia in 1946. The third edition of Art Through the Ages appeared posthumously in 1948. Gardner planned a book on the arts of the Americas, including pre-Columbian and American-Indian arts which was never realized. Art Through the Ages became the primary text for American art history classes for the middle third of the twentieth century. It was only eclipsed in 1962 by History of Art by Horst Woldemar Janson. More than 260,000 copies were sold during her lifetime. Numerous editions and revisions were published until 1980. Gardner was a pioneer in incorporating non-western art into her survey; the first to incorporate non-Western art into a universal art survey (Errington). Later editions altered the structure of the original work, eliminating decorative and useful arts and the analysis of cultures, which had been Gardner’s forte.

    Selected Bibliography

    Art through the Ages: an Introduction to its History and Significance. New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1927 [copyright 1926]; Understanding the Arts. Chicago: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932.


    “Gardner, Helen.” American National Biography; Allen, Harold. “Helen Gardner: Quiet Rebel,” in, Stone, Lisa, and Zanzi, Jam. Sacred Spaces and Other Places: a Guide to Grottos and Sculptural Environments in the Upper Midwest. Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago Press, 1993; Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic: Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 53..


    "Gardner, Helen." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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