The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich


The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich. New York: Phaidon Press, 1995. 688 pp. $39.95 (paperback).

In his introduction to The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich speaks of a trap that some people fall into after studying art history:

When they see a work of art they do not stay to look at it, but rather search their memory for the appropriate label. They may have heard that Rembrandt was famous for his chiaroscuro—which is the Italian technical term for light and shade—so they nod wisely when they see a Rembrandt, mumble “wonderful chiaroscuro,” and wander on to the next picture. (p. 37)

Gombrich aims to steer readers clear of this trap.

I should like to help to open eyes, not to loosen tongues. To talk cleverly about art is not very difficult, because the words critics use have been employed in so many different contexts that they have lost all precision. But to look at a picture with fresh eyes and to venture on a voyage of discovery into it is a far more difficult but also a much more rewarding task. (p. 37)

In the chapters that follow, Gombrich takes us on a voyage into much more than a single picture. He takes us on a journey through the history of art. And the rewards are plenty.

By the history of art, Gombrich means “the history of buildings, of picture-making, and of statue-making” (p. 37). He includes all such things as part of this history, without respect to where they took place or at what time, but he focuses on the history of art in the West.

This selectivity makes his book unconventional in today’s egalitarian and multicultural tide. Gombrich does not go out of his way to include women artists, for fear of being labeled “sexist.” Nor does he include artwork from every nation on the planet for fear of being labeled “Eurocentric.” And, of course, The Story of Art has been criticized accordingly.

Gombrich does include some art from countries outside Europe (and America). He just does so to the extent it is warranted, which means a lot less than a historian today might do so. Within a discussion of primitive art, for example, Gombrich includes a simply designed wooden pole from Tahiti and a ritual mask from Papua New Guinea, as well as a fantastically realistic bronze head from ancient Nigeria and an intricate wood carving made by the Maoris of New Zealand. He does not include these items to check off “art from non-European countries”; rather he includes them because . . .

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