In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art Theory in Europe to 1800

  • Introduction
  • General Surveys
  • Secondary-Source Anthologies
  • Medium-Specific Surveys and Anthologies

Art History Art Theory in Europe to 1800
Robert Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0009


Understood in the most broadly inclusive sense, the term “art theory” indicates any serious thought about the nature of art: such thought might be expressed in the form of a philosophical treatise, a book of technical advice intended for the use of artists, or isolated ideas expressed in diaries, letters, and offhand verbal remarks. A work of art might itself be a theoretical statement, an effort—either conscious or unconscious—to reveal or demonstrate the nature of art in general: indeed, one could argue that all works of art are necessarily also works of art theory, in that all works imply some notion of what art is. The traditional distinction between “aesthetics,” the formal philosophical study of art, “art criticism,” the journalistic or belletristic treatment of a work or body of work, and “art theory” proper is hard to maintain in the face of the variety of approaches one encounters, especially in the contemporary world, and since these approaches cross-pollinate, a strict division between them is in any case counterproductive to an understanding of the issues involved. The classification of art forms and media also presents a challenge: the very notion of the “visual” arts—the most common conceptual tool for specifying what we usually mean when we use the word “art”—is a relatively recent historical construct. Most theory about the visual arts has been devoted to the “representational” or “figural” arts of painting and sculpture, yet architecture has also produced a rich theoretical literature that, while distinguished by many specific concerns, has also had an influence on thought about art in general. The same might be said of photography and film. Theories of poetry, rhetoric, drama, and music have had an essential influence on thought about art since ancient times, while in recent decades, theoretical discourse in disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, psychology, the study of gender, and information technology has had a significant impact. The literature of these diverse fields obviously cannot be surveyed here, yet it cannot be entirely ignored. The word “theory” came to be used in a more promiscuous way in the 1980s and 1990s to characterize art-historical scholarship that drew upon the conceptual vocabulary of fields such as phenomenology, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, and this usage is still widespread. In some cases, art-historical writing has served as a medium through which theoretical ideas are recycled back into contemporary philosophy, criticism, and even artistic practice, and it thus seems advisable to include some examples of such work here. Some of the most insightful writing about theory is found in historical studies that are not specifically devoted to theory, but since space is limited, only a few such examples can be cited. In what follows an effort has been made to give priority to primary sources, as well as to provide references to original-language versions of those sources. An increasing number of sources are becoming available on the Internet, sometimes in complete, sometimes in abridged form; sometimes on sites that are open to everyone, sometimes on sites accessible only to subscribers. A few such citations are included here, but since the situation is changing so rapidly, no effort has been made to be comprehensive.

General Surveys

General surveys of Western art theory range widely in their scope, depth, and emphasis. Schlosser 1979, a great work of scholarship, deserves a certain pride of place as one of the earliest overviews of writing about art, although it begins not with Antiquity but with the Middle Ages and carries the account forward only to the end of the 18th century. Tatarkiewicz 1970 offers a comprehensive history of “aesthetics”—that is, philosophical ideas about beauty and art—from Antiquity to the early 18th century. Pochat 1986, whose theme is less exclusively aesthetics, but also art theory, begins with Antiquity and follows developments to the mid-19th century, while Barasch 2000, which also begins in Antiquity, carries its survey into the early 20th century. Freeland 2001 is more up-to-date but is intended for the casual reader, while Carroll 1999 is addressed to one with a greater interest in philosophy. Shiner 2001 and Williams 2009 both seek to present concise surveys that extend from Antiquity to the present: while their contents overlap, they vary considerably in their emphases.

  • Barasch, Moshe. Theories of Art. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

    A learned and clearly presented account, in three volumes, of art theory in Europe from Antiquity to the beginning of the 20th century. From Plato to Winckelmann was first published in 1985 and Modern Theories of Art in 1990 (New York: New York University Press).

  • Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203197233

    A lucid introductory survey of the central issues in the philosophy of art as seen from within the tradition of Anglo-American “analytic” philosophy.

  • Freeland, Carol. But Is It Art? An Introduction to Art Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Entertainingly written introduction addressed to readers bewildered by contemporary art.

  • Pochat, Götz. Geschichte der Ästhetik und Kunsttheorie von der Antike bis zum 19. Jahrhundert. Cologne: Dumont, 1986.

    An ambitious account, though extending only up to the middle of the 19th century. Crammed with information and featuring amusingly incomprehensible charts of the relations between abstract ideas.

  • Schlosser, Julius von. La letteratura artistica. 3d ed. With additions by Otto Kurz; translated by Filippo Rossi. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1979.

    Orig. ed., Die Kunstliteratur, 1924. A magisterial survey of the history of European writing about art, including art theory, from the early Middle Ages to the end of the 18th century; dated but still useful, especially for its annotated bibliography of primary sources.

  • Shiner, Larry. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226753416.001.0001

    An engagingly written history of the idea of art from ancient Greece to 20th-century modernism, organized thematically but in a way that allows for a roughly chronological development, selectively presenting the most important thinkers and developments and positioning them in their historical settings.

  • Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. History of Aesthetics. 3 vols. Translated by J. Harrell. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1970.

    An older (orig. ed. 1962) but rich and clearly organized survey of aesthetics from Antiquity to the early 18th century—to the moment, that is, when the term “aesthetics” was invented to denote what was felt to be a new and modern approach to the issues of beauty and art.

  • Williams, Robert. Art Theory: An Historical Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    A survey of Western art theory from Antiquity to the present that positions the development of thought about art in relation to artistic practice as well as to intellectual and cultural history. Previously published in 2004 (Malden: Blackwell.)

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