Michael Scott's Reviews > The Story of Art

The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich
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Aug 15, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: art, design, historical, my-favs, non-fiction, teaching, thought
Read from August 05 to 15, 2012 — I own a copy , read count: 1

I bought The Story of Art while about to leave Brugge, after a long week-end that was supremely friendly and quite artsy. I started reading this book as soon as I sat down in the train and was enchanted by it until the last page.

Gombrich's The Story of Art is a masterful story of the main works and styles of art, from 30,000 BC until the 20th century. (The 16th edition includes material from up to around the late 1980s, in terms of art critique, and early 1970s, in terms of artworks.) The book is written from a Western (British) perspective but with enough mentions about Asian and African artworks to make the story global. The types of art covered here are chiefly architecture, picture, and sculpture.

There are many things that I liked about this book, from its crisp analysis of artworks to the excellent rhetoric, the latter always in favor of art. The story covers mostly cave painting, ancient art, Greek and Hellenistic art, Roman and Byzantine art, Romanesque and Gothic art, Renaissance and Mannerism, Baroque and Rococo, Romanticism, and Modernism and Post-Modernism. Each style is illustrated with a selection of artworks, many of which are well-known to art beginners such as myself, all of which are discussed not only in terms of craft by also with regard to impact to the age and future art. The first artwork is usually an example of architecture, which is analyzed as a framing reference for smaller artifacts. Artworks from different ages and styles, but depicting similar topics, are compared tetually; I found very useful the detailed comparison references (e.g., "examples of miniatures as page 211, figure 140, and page 274, figure 177"). There are numerous references to the actual quality of an artwork, which should create a very different impression from the in-book illustration; the book includes often details of the presented works, so that the reader is more easily able to understand its main characteristics.

The book concludes with an analysis of art's future. I liked very much the warning that, in the 20th(-21st?) century, a real danger to art is the expectation of non-conformism---Gombrich mentions the "tradition of the new" of Harold Rosenberg. The book concludes with a number of additions to the 1950's first edition, and a set of useful editorial tools: an index of terms and works of art, a section of commented related work, a graphical representation of the periods and works of art covered in the main text.

Among the main attractions of this book is it's deep yet understandable text. For example, I felt I could really understand the point raised by Gombrich in this paragraph:

"[...] the modern artist wants to create things. [...] He wants to feel that he has made something which had no existence before. Not just a copy of a real object, however skillful, not just a piece of decoration, however clever, but something more relevant and lasting than either, something that he feels to be more real than the shoddy objects of our humdrum existence."



Among the things I would have liked to see improved in the book, perhaps the main element is the lack of discussion about other forms of art, from literary to performing art, from movies to computer gaming. Another rather negative point is the minimal coverage of Asian and African art, with only scant information and only some late inclusion the 20th century discovery of Greek, Chinese (Terra-Cotta Soldiers), and other artworks. I would have also been happy to see Gombrich's work continued, so that this 16th edition can take a more balanced look at Modernist and Post-Modernist art.

One of the elements that turned out to be mostly negative was the detail with which the Modern and Post-Modern periods are covered. In the words of the author:

"The reader may well wonder whether these disparate examples add up to the continuation of the story of art, or whether what was once a mighty river has meanwhile broken up into many branches and rivulets. We cannot tell, but we may take comfort from the very multiplicity of efforts."

Perhaps the memory of the by-stander, that is, the tendency to observe in more detail current rather than old events, motivates this over-description of material in these sections.


Overall, a wonderful read for any art lover.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Ruth (last edited Jun 06, 2011 11:40AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ruth Well written. Especially good for those who haven't read much art history.


Rafaela Sa mori tu. Fix cand am trimis-o acasa.
It's a really good book thou, I agree with Ruth there.


Michael Scott Next time :-)


Michael Scott Thanks, Ruth, it was a wonderful read.


Michael Scott Thank you for your kind words, Thu.


Michael Scott Not sure how to remove spam. Anyone has a clue?


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