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A History of Art (1962)

de H. W. Janson

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2,517234,212 (4.18)14
This classic book uses an exceptional art program, featuring impeccable accurate five-color illustrations, to introduce readers to the vast world of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and the minor arts. With its effectively written, balanced, and interesting narrative, this book presents art as a succession of styles--from Prehistory through the 20th century--and enlarges the readers' capacity to appreciate works of art individually. Written more than 40 years ago, this text has been constantly reworked to respond to the needs of this ever-changing field. A reference work suitable for those employed in all art media, including painters, sculptors, photographers, and architects.… (més)

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If you were to read a single work on the history of Western Art, H.W. Janson’s History of Art would be an excellent choice. While because of space constraints he can rarely devote more than one or two paragraphs to an artist, he succeeds in portraying the significance of each work or artist in the context of his time as well as past and future. He not only makes connections between different epochs of art but also notes intriguing links between individual works, which may be separated by many centuries. In addition, he interprets works in light of changes in society and ideas.

The discussion of Pieter Bruegel the Elder provides an illuminating example of the breadth of Janson’s approach. Janson brings out the geographical context in which Bruegel spent his career in Antwerp and Brussels, emphasizing the influences from his travels in the South of Italy. He harkens back to impacts on Bruegel from artists in the past: the work of Hieronymus Bosch and the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry; but also noting the differences (such as, with respect to the influence of the latter on The Return of the Hunters and other paintings, “nature [for Bruegel] is more than a setting for human activities but is rather the main subject of the picture”). He points out the possible impact of Bruegel’s religious convictions and political sympathies on his work, noting that he was patronized by the Habsburg Court but apparently never worked for the Church. Examining Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding, Janson not only analyzes the painting style but remarks that Bruegel endows such a commonplace ceremony with the solemnity of a biblical event. In one of his last pictures, the Blind Leading the Blind, “Bruegel’s large and forceful image gives new urgency to the theme” from the Bible where Christ says of the Pharisees: “And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Janson suggests that Bruegel may have thought this theme “applied to the controversies then raging over details of religious ritual.”

This “textbook” is easy and straightforward to read; no extraneous words or rhetorical flourishes are included that could distract or confuse the reader. It is best read in small bites to avoid being overwhelmed by the material. Despite the compressed nature of the text and the need every two or three paragraphs to move on to a new artist or subject, Janson’s deft transitions avoid awkward breaks in the narrative. Each chapter begins with an introduction concerning the relevant period (such as Greek Art, the Renaissance, etc.) and the introduction to the book sets out Janson’s approach to art history.

I read the first edition (eleventh printing in May 1967). It precedes the trend of modern textbooks, which in their effort to keep a reader’s interest and compete with digital products are full of special boxes and other effects to emphasize or go into further detail on particular topics. I much prefer the traditional approach in which the reader’s task is kept as simple as possible: read the text and look at the illustrations and as needed refer to the index. There is no jumping around from text to box and back to text which has the effect of disturbing the natural flow of the writing and raising the risk of redundancy. I accept that the book may miss out on more recent interpretations or discoveries but that is fine with me as a non-specialist. (I have not looked at the approach in more recent editions so I have no comment on whether they improve upon or detract from the user-friendly approach in the first edition).

Of course, the book has some faults in its own right, including some relating to the time it was written. As has been noted elsewhere, no female artists are included. (I understand recent editions revised by a team of writers have addressed this.) There are a few odd typos. While some attention is given to Eastern artistic traditions, this does not purport to being anything more than a history of western art (despite the breadth of the title). Other books will have to be referenced for other traditions. An article in the New York Review of Books identified one interesting short coming which no doubt reflects Janson’s own greater knowledge of Western art: in the chapter on Islamic Art, Janson describes the artistic qualities of a Persian illustrated manuscript, noting the subject as “two warriors fighting in the landscape” (fig. 311, page 194). In the October 7, 1982 issue of the New York Review, Michael Levey points out that this identification misses the main point. It is true that the miniature shows “a warrior bending in conquering pose over another whose helmet is partly lifted to reveal long, flowing hair.” However, “this illustration is from a manuscript of the story of Prince Humay and depicts the moment he discovers that his opponent is no other than his beloved, the Chinese Princess Humayun.” Here is a link to the NYRB article. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1982/10/07/the-very-rich-hours-of-the-shah/ ( )
  drsabs | Nov 2, 2020 |
Janson's is the standard art history for a reason. ( )
  johnthelibrarian | Aug 11, 2020 |
I read the whole thing, cover to cover. It took a long time because I really could only read it in small increments, as it is rather dry. I do not think that is any fault of the author, however. Architecture can only be so interesting. I found this textbook to be helpful in firmly establishing the order of traditions and artists through time in my mind. I always knew where the Renaissance painters stood, but famous names like Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso were fuzzy in terms of time in my mind, and this book really helped with that. I also love books that span all the centuries, because I think when you read them you really get a sense of trends and changes overtime. Also, especially in the case of art, how ideas were recycled and borrowed over time. The authors were helpful in pointing out—even in the art from the 1900’s—how they mirrored traditions that were visited earlier.
The only thing I didn’t like, and that could be since I’m such a novice to art, was when they would point out how an artist and his art (or architecture, especially) were so radically different from someone else, when they really looked pretty similar to me. I think that they may have been stretching that a little bit.
I will be keeping this book; it seems such a useful reference material! ( )
  renardkitsune | Jun 4, 2020 |
I read this book in college when I took an Art History class - probably the best class I ever took. We read the entire book and I saw many of the paintings when I went to Europe after graduation, and at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. I will always remember "The Garden of Earthy Delights" by Hieronymus_Bosch, 1500, lol. I still have the book, 41 years later!! ( )
  sandra.k.heinzman | Apr 2, 2015 |
I read this book in college when I took an Art History class - probably the best class I ever took. We read the entire book and I saw many of the paintings when I went to Europe after graduation, and at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. I will always remember "The Garden of Earthy Delights" by Hieronymus_Bosch, 1500, lol. I still have the book, 41 years later!! ( )
  sandra.k.heinzman | Apr 2, 2015 |
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H. W. Jansonautor primaritotes les edicionscalculat
Janson, Anthony F.autor principalalgunes edicionsconfirmat
Janson, Dora Janeautor secundarialgunes edicionsconfirmat
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[INTRODUCTION] "Why is this supposed to be art?"
[Preface and Acknowledgments] The title of this book has a dual meaning: it refers both to the events that make the hisry of art, and to the scholarly discipline that deals with these events.
When did man start creating works of art?
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This classic book uses an exceptional art program, featuring impeccable accurate five-color illustrations, to introduce readers to the vast world of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, and the minor arts. With its effectively written, balanced, and interesting narrative, this book presents art as a succession of styles--from Prehistory through the 20th century--and enlarges the readers' capacity to appreciate works of art individually. Written more than 40 years ago, this text has been constantly reworked to respond to the needs of this ever-changing field. A reference work suitable for those employed in all art media, including painters, sculptors, photographers, and architects.

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