The Story of Art

Image of The Story of Art
Release Date: 
May 15, 2024
Phaidon Press
Reviewed by: 

The Story of Art is an excellent way to get up to speed on what the history of art is all about.” 

Don’t be intimidated by the beastly heft of Gombrich’s The Story of Art. It may clock in at an eye popping 688 pages and over four pounds, but the story is lightly written and easily digested. Plus, more than half of those pages are full of magnificent color images which means the text probably is more around 300 pages. Which is to say, very manageable for an Art History book.

There’s not much more to say about The Story of Art that hasn’t already been said. This being a “luxury” edition reprint of the 16th edition of the original 1950 publication, there have been dozens and dozens of reviews and critiques and comments about this book over its 75-year lifespan. Here it is, again, with a wonderfully tactile Mediterranean Blue linen cover (a very pretty new dress) and, like Coco Chanel in her later years, she’s still a very chic classic. 

A highly complex branch of History, Art History has been broken down in many ways. Gombrich identifies seven categories of scholarly research which can help tell the story of art from various points of view. These categories are: Connoisseurship (or attribution, the when, where, by whom of each work of art); Histories of Style (analysis of the differences in the way in which a subject is presented, ie. Egyptian, Greek, Hellenistic, Baroque, etc.); The Study of Subject Matter (from mythology to religious symbolism to allegory to landscape and beyond); Social History (how social conditions influenced particular styles, themes and motifs); Psychological Theories (how thoughts, concepts, visual and sensory perceptions, illusions, reflect in art); Taste and Collecting (the art and science of establishing a collection); and Techniques (the materials and methods used by artists over the centuries).

Conspicuously absent in the category list is the Artist’s Effect— the actual artist’s talent, preferences, and inspiration, but we’ll get to that in a minute. A Story of Art weaves each of these categories into a comprehensive chronology of the growth and development of primarily Western art from Egyptian times over 5000 years ago to roughly the 1990s. Gombrich’s main concern is to emphasize that the history of art is really the history of ideas, the history of the way art is understood, perceived, created and utilized. He illustrates these ebbs and flows over time and presents explanations for why dramatic shifts occurred.

The biggest shift, perhaps, being in the roll of an artist. In Egyptian times, an artist was expected to know a particular visual vocabulary of shapes and symbols in order to tell a story, explain instructions, or indicated important moments. In Greek times, an artist was expected to know how to achieve ideal standards of beauty and copy them repeatedly. This idea of the artist being employed for a certain purpose lasted for thousands of years.

A more modern understanding of art used heavily after the World Wars was to rely on art to form an identity of some kind, a National Identity, for instance. Slowly the idea of an artist being an individual with a need to express themselves became the incentive behind artwork and the need for a collective identity morphed into individual identity. Where there once was only one stylistic way to do something, now there are infinite ways and interpretations, all depending on the personal touch and intuition of the artist. The artist being significant and critical for an intense feeling of uniqueness in artwork is a dramatically different way of seeing art from where an artist sat 5000 years ago.

Gombrich touches on the main evolutionary catalysts that contributed to the shifts in art and artists. His history overlaps events such as the founding of the Holy Roman Empire with the development of the Norman and Gothic styles of architecture. He explains the impact the Reformation had on obliterating painting as a profession. Changes in the French Revolution killed the scheme of aristocrats dominating artistic styles. The Industrial Revolution with its pivot toward machine-made mass production once again eliminated the artist’s hands from the creative process. If one gets lost trying to follow the dates and names, there are some handy timelines mapping out the art with the history side by side.

In the end, though, there is no end. It’s a story that is still being written. People still continue to create, and we continue to call those people artists. The conversations about art keep rolling along. Gombrich had no doubt that more chapters would need to be written over the next decades as our current time frame will, somehow, contribute as well to the story of art, thus becoming the next layer of art history. (What’s another 50 pages when it’s already pushing 700!) Until then, The Story of Art is an excellent way to get up to speed on what the history of art is all about.