Art History Book Reviews :
The Story of Art , by E. H. Gombrich

Ernst H. Gombrich

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Ernst H. Gombrich , The Story of Art

          Imagine an art history book written in 1950 that improves with various editions. I'm looking at (and loving) the 13th edition (1978), which had been brought up to 506 pages and 398 illustrations, of which 100 were in color. Four million copies were sold. It was translated into sixteen languages. Little was added to the next two reprints. The 16th edition (1995) was enhanced to 688 pages and 440 illustrations, 376 of which are in color. Photographs were retaken, and some images technically enhanced, to improve their clarity.

          A general word about quality: Phaidon Press Ltd. of Oxford is a book publisher like Rolls Royce is a car factory.

          About Ernst Gombrich --- An Oxford and Cambridge professor, a Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a Wrightsman Lecturer at the Institute of Fine Art in New York, and the recipient of a long list of decorations and honorary degrees.

          In his addresses and writing, Gombrich became famous for his "plain language" style, "... even at the risk of sounding casual or unprofessional." [quoting from the preface]. "Difficulties of thought, on the other hand, I have not avoided, and so I hope that no reader will attribute my decision to get along with a minimum of the art historian's conventional terms to any desire on my part of 'talking down'.... For is it not rather those who misuse 'scientific' language, not to enlighten but to impress the reader, who are 'talking down' to us -- from the clouds?"

          Using plain English, then, how does the writer ensure that one's enthusiasm for the subject will be contageous? This is done "... not so much by rapturous descriptions, but by providing ... pointers as to the artists' probable intentions."

          Gombrich had a rule that he wouldn't write about works he couldn't show with illustrations. He said he didn't want his book to "degenerate into lists of names." A result of his rule is the maintenance of a high emotional impact on the reader.

          His second self-imposed rule was to "limit myself to real works of art", that is, to "cut out anything that might merely be interesting as a specimen of taste or fashion." In view of the fact that every inclusion by an author implies a reduction in the space available for something else, "the heart-breaking task of elimination", he liked to call it, I believe Professor Gombrich made his choices very wisely.

          His third rule was to avoid selecting his "personal favorites." To avoid having his book take the form of an "anthology of beautiful things", he selected works based on principles outside of himself. One of his criteria for selecting works was the availability of means "to help the readers look at them with fresh eyes."

          Paintings are emphasized much more than scupture and architecture, although the latter are to some degree included in each chapter, consistent with the objective of making optimum use of the printed medium.

          In features that Gombrich called his "tailpieces", the various chapters also contain photographs of works selected because they illustrate something about the social periods, or something in particular about each of the artist's lives.

          Read more reviews and synopses on the linked page.

          Available in both paperback and hardcover, the contents identical except for the fact that paperbacks are cheaper.

          Common misspelling: Ernest H. Gombrich

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Table of Contents

Table of contents, The Story of Art , by E. H. Gombrich ,
Based on the 13th edition (but note that the enhanced 16th edition is now shipped)

Introduction : On art and artists

Chapter titles ...
  1. Strange beginnings : prehistoric and primitive peoples; ancient Americas
  2. Art for eternity : Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete
  3. The great awakening : Greece, seventh to fifth century B.C.
  4. The realm of beauty : Greece and the Greek world, fourth century B.C. to first century B.C.
  5. World conquerors : Romans, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians, first to fourth century A.D.
  6. A parting of ways : Rome and Byzantium, fifth to thirteenth century
  7. Looking eastward : Islam, China, second to thirteenth century
  8. Western art in the melting pot : Europe, sixth to eleventh century
  9. The Church militant : the twelfth century
  10. The Church triumphant : the thirteenth century
  11. Courtiers and burghers : the fourteenth century
  12. The conquest of reality : the early fifteenth century
  13. Tradition and innovation : the later fifteenth century in Italy
  14. Tradition and innovation : the fifteenth century in the North
  15. Harmony attained : Tuscany and Rome, early sixteenth century
  16. Light and colour : Venice and northern Italy in the early sixteenth century
  17. The New learning spreads : Germany and the Netherlands in the early sixteenth century
  18. A crisis of art : Europe, later sixteenth century
  19. Vision and visions : Catholic Europe, first half of the seventeenth century
  20. The mirror of nature : Holland in the seventeenth century
  21. Power and glory : Italy, later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
  22. Power and glory : France, Germany, and Austria, late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
  23. The age of reason : England and France, eighteenth century
  24. The break in tradition : England, America and france, late eighteenth and early nineteenth century
  25. Permanent revolution : the nineteenth century
  26. In search of new standards : the late nineteenth century
  27. Experimental art : the first half of the 20th century
The changing scene : a postscript
Chronological charts
A note on art books
Index and glossary
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