In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Historiography of European Art

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Antiquity
  • The Middle Ages
  • Contemporary Historiography

Art History Historiography of European Art
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0001


The visual arts and architecture have been discussed in Europe since classical Antiquity. While several earlier Greek authors are known to have written on these subjects, the first surviving literature on art dates from the late 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. Some Romans, notably Pliny the Elder, mention the history of arts and crafts, and thus begin the tradition of writing on the history of art. In mentioning previous texts, Pliny also initiates what is here called the historiography of art—the discussion of art’s history. Consideration of the visual arts remained sporadic and scattered until the 15th century, and only a sparse historiography can be reconstructed for periods prior to the Renaissance. In the 15th century the first treatises on painting appeared. They contain some rudimentary historical comments. Writing on art took a fundamental step in the 16th century, when it assumed the form of the compilation of biographies, first by Giorgio Vasari. This paradigm was employed throughout Europe in the following centuries. By the 18th century a self-proclaimed history of art that treated stylistic change in relation to history had come into existence, distinguishing itself from antiquarianism, although Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s claim to have founded a completely new history of art is contested. In the 19th century art history was institutionalized and flourished as an academic discipline, especially in the German-speaking world. Notable scholars developed new ideas there and in Italy, France, and Britain as well. Important traditions of scholarship, such as the cultural and formal history of art, originated and grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the earlier 20th century self-consciousness grew about the history of the discipline; the first explicit studies on art historiography appeared. Scholars associated with the Warburg Library in Hamburg and the Warburg Institute in London and with the Vienna School of Art History have in particular garnered a large literature. More recently researchers have tackled the general question of the fate of German art history in the mid-20th century as it was affected by Nazism. But art history in central and northern Europe and in France and Italy has also captured some attention. As the historiography of art gained broad interest in the later 20th century, a “new historiography” also arose that presents a revisionist critique of art history, including previous historiography. British and American scholars have increasingly participated in discussions of historiography and have been especially involved in these newer tendencies. Trends that have raised further questions about the validity of previous methods and approaches have also begun to accumulate their own historiography.

General Overviews

This section considers studies of historiography. Primary sources are treated in a separate article on the literature of art. Thus it is only with the development of art history as an independent discipline that the first general surveys of the historiography of art appeared. The earliest general overviews emerged with the growth of scholarship on art history in the early 20th century.

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