At Large  January 26, 2023  Charlie Pogacar

6 Art Historians Who Shaped Our Understanding of Art

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So much of what we know about art comes from art historians, but how much do we know about the art historians themselves? The art historian can play a number of roles, from critic to biographer, to patron, historian. Their work often contributes to deciding an artist’s, or particular work of art’s value. It stands to reason, then, that knowing a bit more about the art historian would lend some perspective to their tastes and biases. 

Think of this as an introduction to some of the greatest art historians, whom we owe a great deal of gratitude for our modern understanding of the wide world of art.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder held many different job descriptions during the Early Roman Empire. Born around 23 A.D., Pliny the Elder’s lived just fifty-five years, during which he was an author, naturalist, and military commander. 

Perhaps what Pliny the Elder is best known for is his work Natural History, which is considered the spiritual father of the modern encyclopedia. Of the thirty-seven volumes that were composed, a single edition was dedicated to the art history of the Greeks and Romans. Pliny’s work is especially significant in that it is the earliest known surviving work that describes the art and techniques of his time. It remains an important source for present-day art historians and archeologists, as it describes many works we still value today, like the marble statue Laocoön and his Sons, now at the Vatican Museums.

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Giorgio Vasari Self-Portrait

Giorgio Vasari

No list of great art historians would be complete without the godfather of modern art history himself, Giorgio Vasari. First published in 1550, Lives of the Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is widely considered the first modern book of art history. 

Lives covered painters like Da Vinci and many other artists of the time period. The work covers anything from their techniques to biographical information on the artists themselves. The compendium is credited with the first appearance of the word “Renaissance” in print, and it also coined the term “Gothic” art. 

The Mona Lisa owes its name to the writings of Vasari, who wrote of the piece, “Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.” 

Vasari’s legacy hardly ends with Lives, as he was a talented artist and architect himself.

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John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, 1853–54.

John Ruskin 

John Ruskin was considered the most prominent art critic in Victorian England. Particularly noted for his Modern Painters, published in 1843, the defense of J.M.W. Turner’s work was also interpreted as a spirited exploration of the different forms of the era. 

Ruskin was regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of the Victorian Era, and his affection for art is a boon to every art scholar that followed. Much of Ruskin’s work can be boiled down to his idea that the artist’s role is “truth to nature,” or depicting the natural world honestly. 

Kenneth Clark

Inspired greatly by Ruskin, Kenneth Clark’s greatest career achievement was the television show Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, produced by the BBC. A thirteen-episode miniseries, the program highlighted the history of art from the Dark Ages to the present day. 

Civilisation, which aired in 1969, was a show conceived to help acclimate viewers to color television. Developed by documentarian David Attenborough, who believed Clark to be the perfect vessel to help promote a love of art within England, the show was an instant hit, bringing art history to the masses.

The product of a wealthy upbringing, Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery of England in 1934. He shaped the museum’s policy around making the gallery accessible to “everyone,” though his definition of everyone may have been different than that of today.

Lucy Lippard 

The work of Lucy Lippard—spanning seven decades and over twenty books—places emphasis both on feminist art and the dematerialization of art, an idea key to understanding the conceptual art movement. 

Big on the New York art scene, Lippard got her start in an administrative role at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1958, fresh off her education at Smith College. Considered an activist, Lippard helped create the Art Workers’ Coalition, a group credited with helping give artists more power in dictating the way their exhibitions were displayed at MoMA.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston © The Estate of Alice Neel

Linda Nochlin and Daisy

Alice Neel, Linda Nochlin and Daisy, 1973. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Linda Nochlin

Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is a seminal moment not just for female artists, but for feminism in general. 

In a case like hers, sometimes it’s best to let the writing do the talking—here is an excerpt from the groundbreaking essay: 

“In the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may—and does—prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones. In revealing the failure of much academic art history, and a great deal of history in general, to take account of the unacknowledged value system, the very presence of an intruding subject in historical investigation, the feminist critique at the same time lays bare its conceptual smugness, its meta-historical naïveté.”

In recent years, as curators and artist have pushed to include more people of color in museums and the art historical canon, Nochlin’s assessment of historical biases in art history has remained a crucial piece of scholarship.

About the Author

Charlie Pogacar

Charlie Pogacar is the Custom Content Associate Editor at Journalistic, Inc. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Abby, and boxer pup, Frankie.

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