With his splendidly written and beautifully produced book Francis Haskell has broken entirely new ground. There are libraries full of books on the history and method of historiography dealing with the development of historical criticism, the use of charters and documents, and (more recently) with the statistical evaluation of personal records, but none of them is much concerned with the use of visual evidence by historians. Not that the reader should expect or fear to encounter lengthy disquisitions on method. Instead, the author adopts the good old approach that goes back, at least, to Aristotle of first confronting any fresh problem by reviewing the contributions of his predecessors. True, while Aristotle generally devoted a few perfunctory sections to such retrospection, Haskell has filled no fewer than 495 learned pages, rich in vivid anecdotes and half-forgotten incidents.

That, all the same, he had to be selective in this pioneering effort should go without saying; selective not only in the figures he chose to deal with, but also in the problems posed by visual evidence in the wider sense. In this respect the book clearly divides into distinct parts. The first four chapters deal with what the author calls “the discovery of the image.” Here he is mainly concerned with the factual information that, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, numismatists, antiquaries, and archaeologists tried to extract from the monuments of the past about portrait likeness, rituals, and what was called realia, the form of weapons or apparel and other equipment. The ninety-two excellent illustrations enlivening this section help to introduce the reader to an important but rather neglected episode in the history of historiography.

At this point however the author breaks off his account of the extraction of information from visual evidence, though his preface reveals that he is fully aware of leaving it incomplete. Indeed to fill this gap would need a companion volume of at least the same size, taking the history of archaeological investigations up to the present day. It would have to pay tribute, for example, to the Protestant theologian Ferdinand Piper, whose oddly named Einleitung in die Monumentale Theologie (Gotha, 1867) has still not been superseded as a guide to Christian archaeology.1 Neither could it omit such spectacular uses of visual evidence as the discovery some sixty years ago by a French cavalry officer Lefebvre des Noëttes that the methods used by the ancients for harnessing their horses deprived the animals of their strength by cutting off their windpipes, and that it was only in the Carolingian period that we find illustrations showing the reform that multiplied what we still call “horsepower.”2

However, it was certainly not this kind of incidental information that Ruskin had in mind when he wrote in 1884 that

Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.

Even after more than a century this claim is still frequently advanced in academic life and we must be grateful to Haskell for having devoted the second and longer part of his book to the debates it engendered in the past.

Here, as in the first section, Haskell presents us with a gallery of unforgettable portraits. We make the personal acquaintance of Andrea de Jorio, the explorer of Neapolitan gesture language, that learned antiquarian the Comte de Caylus who was so shabbily treated by Winckelmann and Lessing, William Roscoe, the biographer of Lorenzo de Medici, Alexandre Lenoir, the creator of the Musée des Monuments Français, Michelet, the great historian of France, “Champfleury,” the student of folk art, and Huizinga, the famous cultural historian, to mention only a few. Given such a fascinating cast of characters, one would have no right to complain that not all participants in this debate are given their due.

The one question that is somewhat left open is that of the transition between the first and second part of the book. How did the history of art, which in earlier periods consisted mainly of the biographies of artists, become transformed into the history of styles willing to offer a key to the past? The author was certainly aware of this lacuna: indeed he decided to begin this second story in medias res. Opening his chapter on “The Arts as an Index of Society,” he writes correctly that “by the 1840s it had become almost conventional to assert that the arts of a country could give a more reliable impression of its true character than those more usual yardsticks…which had hitherto been made use of by historians,” and he adds, equally correctly, that it is “very difficult to follow the exact processes of thought that lead to this conviction.” The seventeen pages that follow introduce the reader to three of the crucial figures in this process, Winckelmann, Herder, and Hegel, but in comparison with some of the portraits mentioned above they do not fully come to life.


One can appreciate the author’s lack of sympathy for this German tradition but it is still doubtful whether we can ignore such figures as that of the Hegelian Carl Schnaase, whose multivolumed Geschichte der Bildenden Künste (Leipzig, 1842 et seq.) provided the first model of a marriage between cultural history and art history. And should the vital chapter entitled “The Deceptive Evidence of Art” not have referred to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Birth of Tragedy (1872) took issue with Winckelmann’s influential interpretation of the ancient world by suggesting that the visual arts of the Greeks told us only of the Apollonian aspect of their soul, while music and drama revealed its Dionysiac side—an interpretation that rejected the monolithic nature of the spirit of the age, and that also influenced Aby Warburg?

This may be the point at which it seems in order for me to insert what in legal parlance is called a “declaration of interest,” for it so happens that I was personally involved in this issue and—strangely enough—on both sides of the battle line. In 1947 the great Romanist and medievalist Ernst Robert Curtius published an advance extract of his book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages in which he attacked the very claims about visual evidence with which Haskell is concerned.3 Texts, he reminds his readers, are either intelligible to us, or not. They contain difficult passages which can only be unriddled by philologists. The student of art has an easier life:

He works with images—and lantern slides. There is nothing here that is unintelligible. To understand Pindar’s poems we have to rack our brains. That doesn’t apply to the Parthenon frieze. The same contrast obtains between Dante and the cathedrals etc. The scientific study of images is effortless compared with the study of books. Our students know that very well. If it is possible to grasp the “essence of gothic” from cathedrals, you no longer have to read Dante. Quite on the contrary! The history of literature (and that awkward discipline, philology) must learn from the history of art.

The author of this broadside had been a friend and admirer of the Warburg Institute for many years, and its director, Fritz Saxl, was disturbed by its implications. It had been his hope to make Warburg’s method of interpreting the cultural significance of images palatable to British historians by stressing precisely that images no less than charters could offer valuable historical evidence. Accordingly he instructed me, who was working at the time on Warburg’s papers, to expostulate with Curtius and to defend the study of images. Frankly, I was not very happy about this task since I largely agreed with Curtius. I have described elsewhere4 that the easy option which Curtius derided had in fact appealed to me while I was still at school, but that I had been convinced of its fallacies in my university years. All I could do was to write a letter (which has meanwhile been published)5 conceding the points made by the great scholar but reminding him of the fact that even works of art (such as the Parthenon frieze) can only be understood in any sense of the term by “racking our brains,” by exploring, for instance, the ritual of the Panatheneian procession.

I did not know at the time that Curtius’s championship of philology against the study of art was not the first of its kind. We catch a glimpse of a similar debate in Goethe’s “Annals” for 1805.6 intending to devote a literary memorial to Winckelmann, Goethe and his Weimar friends had invited a contribution from the most famous classical philologist of his time, Professor Friedrich August Wolf. He found the great scholar somewhat unresponsive to these concerns, for it turned out that Wolf only regarded written testimonials of the past as worthy of attention. Goethe and his friends, so we read, had chosen a different path. Their passionate love of the visual arts had created in them the conviction that art too should be viewed historically, an approach which Wolf stubbornly rejected. “We were unable to make him admit that our documents were equally valid as were his but we derived the advantage from this conflict that all the arguments pro and con were ventilated, so that everybody profitted.”

How one would wish to have been present at these debates! It appears that what Goethe and his friends argued was most of all that it was possible to arrange images in a historical sequence and here, surely, they were right. It cannot be denied that the history of image-making provides in this respect an easy access to historical change as such. It is less laborious to compare a Madonna by Giotto with one painted by Simone Martini than to compare a sonnet written by Dante with one by Petrarch. No wonder art collectors and museums had begun even in Goethe’s time to arrange their treasures historically and to give the visitor a vicarious experience of the passage of time.


What Haskell may have overlooked is precisely that the study of the visual arts has more affinity with history than, say, the study of diplomacy. Many cultures have erected memorials and monuments to tell future ages of specific events or to secure that these events were seen in certain ways. In many cases these monuments, in their turn, proclaimed to later periods their old age by the very way they were fashioned. To be sure the language of inscriptions, indeed their letter forms, may also indicate the passage of time to initiates, but in certain ages the art and skill of image-making changed so rapidly that their very transformations aroused the curiosity of later generations.

Thus one of the central notions of historiography, the idea of progress, became intimately associated with the images of the past. Pliny in the ancient world and Vasari in the Renaissance offered the paradigm of a technological history which assigned specific inventions and innovations for the making of images to particular masters, and also speculated on the causes of the decline of skill. Haskell has a most interesting chapter on “The Issue of Quality” and the interpretations of declining craftsmanship but he is less informative on another issue that became a vital ingredient in his story: the history of image-making provided a model not only for the progress of skill but also for its abuse for immoral ends. Like so many critical topics this model was no doubt taken over from the ancient writers on rhetoric, notably from Plato, who condemned the misuse of oratorical skills as a sign of depravity. Maybe it was this concern more than any other that gave rise to the idea that the health of art was an index to the health of society. Thus Shaftesbury, Rousseau, and finally Winckelmann transformed the criticism of art into a species of moral prophecy.

Perhaps it would not be possible to account for this change without focusing on a shift in the cultural role of art of which Winckelmann’s message is itself only a symptom. M.H. Abrams, to whom we owe so many insights into the origins of the Romantic movement, has drawn attention to the novel approach in the eighteenth century to what he calls “art as such.”7 Earlier periods would speak of painting, sculpture, or the other arts as skills to be admired and treasured, but the idea that exposure to the works of the past would be an improving experience arose only in the wake of the Grand Tour and of the idealistic travelers who looked for guidance to philosophers such as Shaftesbury. In the opinion of these prophets the very power of images to impress the mind increases their ability not only to inspire but also to seduce and corrupt. It was in this sense that the arts came to be interpreted as an “index of society.” A sensuous art could only be the symptom of a corrupt society, all the more guilty the more that sensuality also infected religious imagery. Here, perhaps, is one of the elements of the revolution that was to place art right in the center of historical awareness. It is hard to say what share Rousseau’s denunciations of society had in this development and what share had the blasphemies of the French Revolution against established religion. In any case there was an easy transition from the “noble simplicity” exalted by Winckelmann to the “pious simplicity,” the ideal that the early Romantics such as Wilhelm Wackenroder and the Nazarenes saw embodied in the arts of the early Renaissance, before sensuality had corrupted even the soul of the divine Raphael.

Of course it would be absurd to accuse Francis Haskell of having ignored the importance of religious art in his story. After all he earned his first laurels in demolishing the myth of “Jesuit art,” which attributed to that order the intention of using all the theatrical tricks of the Baroque to achieve their political aims, and he returns to this issue in his chapter on Hippolyte Taine. But even Taine, who prided himself in his scientific objectivity, could not avoid interpreting the art of the past in moral terms. Basically it was always this moral interpretation that divided the minds of the critics in the nineteenth century. The same developments which could be celebrated as triumphs of progress could also be condemned as symptoms of decline. It was in particular in the evaluation of the Renaissance that these divergences came to the fore. What Chateaubriand, Pugin, and Ruskin denounced as a departure from the purity of medieval art was acclaimed as progress by Lenoir, Hegel, Michelet, Taine, Burckhardt, and Warburg. Not that any of the latter would have wanted to renounce the historians’ right to diagnose certain stylistic trends as decadent but their standards varied with their general bias.

What secured the survival of Hegel’s philosophy among the interpreters of art may well have been its capacity to reconcile these opposites through the device of the dialectic. Without the decline of certain modes of art there could have been no general progress, because mankind had advanced by discarding the obsolete. Haskell does not concern himself with the theory of the avant-garde in the battles about contemporary art, but he deals with one bizarre consequence of this metaphysical view of progress, the interpretation of art as prophecy that follows from the belief that the artist will anticipate the movements of history.8 Whether all of Haskell’s examples can easily be so classified is a different matter. It is surely not irrational to discover by hindsight that certain tendencies in past ages manifested themselves later in such dramatic events as the Reformation, the French Revolution, or the Great War. Naturally such fulfillments could and did also strengthen the irrational belief in the predetermined course of history which Karl Popper has dubbed “historicism.”9 Even so the faith in progress never quite ousted the belief in decadence and decline—indeed our century has witnessed the support of the belief in decadence by the secret police both in Nazi Germany and in the Communist East.

Haskell rightly refrains from commenting on these excesses. But maybe even his last chapter might have profited from a greater awareness of these perennial questions. His book culminates in a memorable chapter on “Huizinga and the ‘Flemish Renaissance’,” in which the dilemmas of the great Dutch cultural historian are presented as a final example of the problems posed by all interpretation of the art of the past.

From the time of Vasari (if not earlier) the “invention of oil painting” attributed to Jan van Eyck had been regarded as an important contribution to the progress of art—on a par with the invention of linear perspective. No wonder that art historians north of the Alps liked to celebrate this achievement as equal to that of the Italian Renaissance. Haskell demonstrates the importance this evalution acquired among nationalists at the time of the Great Exhibition of Flemish painting in 1902 in Bruges.

Over a period of three and a half months, beginning in the middle of June 1902, some thirty-five thousand visitors walked through the immense entrance hall and vestibule of the Palais Provincial and up the monumental staircase, all of which had been decorated with mediaeval tapestries lent by the Rothschilds, the Somzées and other private and public owners. The small, badly lit room that faced them on the first floor was devoted to the Van Eycks, their predecessors and their immediate successors; and the two gaunt nudes lent from Brussels were thus among the first works to strike the crowds. The impact was overwhelming and set the tone for much later discussion on Flemish art. They had, it was claimed by one critic, been painted “with a sincerity, indeed a brutality, which astounds even the most modern of our own realists.” Facing them, in the place of honour was the Virgin and Child in the Presence of Saints Donation and George and Canon G. van der Paele: it was the “grave, withdrawn” features of the prior, unsurpassable even by Dürer, that made the greatest impact in this richly coloured masterpiece, and one critic felt inspired to write that it was “the most realist picture that can be conceived, not, of course, through its choice of subject, but through its conception of art, which is the essential point. Courbet ‘who had never seen angels’ is no more rigorous a realist than Jan Van Eyck who painted them.” [See illustration on page 60.]

What makes the episode so decisive for Haskell’s general theme, however, are the doubts about this interpretation which Huizinga began to harbor. Huizinga’s most famous work, which rivals in power and richness Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, bears the title The Waning of the Middle Ages and indeed his analysis is devoted to symptoms of decadence in the culture of the period. But was there not a contradiction, Huizinga asked, between this diagnosis and the general view of its art? It was this view that led the historian to question the symptomatic character of artistic manifestations and to offer an alternative interpretation that stressed not “realism” but the decadent pleasures of pomp and artifice in the painting of van Eyck.

Haskell is right in pointing to the paradigmatic importance of this evaluation, but need we stop there? Need we accept the biological concept of decadence which Huizinga uses? The technical progress achieved by the van Eycks in the rendering of the visible world is undeniable. Need it conflict with forms of society which proved unable to stand up to other technological developments, just as the norms of chivalry succumbed to the development of gunpowder?

No wonder that by the time Huizinga wrote, art historians had tried to struggle free from the compulsion of labeling any change of style as either progressive or decadent. Around the turn of the century, Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl in Vienna, in a development that lies outside Haskell’s book, advocated the purely descriptive, valuefree account of stylistic changes. By denying that various periods could be called more or less successful in the rendering of natural appearances, they rendered meaningless the traditional notions of progress and decline. But this liberation was achieved at a high price. What may be called the technological view of art, according to which the skill of imitating nature was acquired slowly (and possibly also abused) may be a little crude, but it makes some rational sense. However, if we are no longer allowed to speak in terms of means and ends, all images embody the intention of their creators and we must find another explanation of stylistic change.

If the rendering of nature changes in the course of history, who knows if nature was not seen differently at different periods? And could not this difference have been owing to the transformations mankind had undergone in the course of its evolution? Clearly thus, in attempting to become more scientific, art history had surrendered all objective standards. Largely inspired by developments in contemporary art it fell back on the Hegelian dogma that changes of style manifest not a change in skill but a change in will, expressing a different “world view” or collective spirit. What secured the spectacular success of this approach, which was taken by such influential writers as William Worringer, is the fact that “expression” is a characteristic shared by all visual configurations. No wonder, it suddenly looked as if a master key had been found to the essence of all ages: surrender to the expressive value of any image and it will lead you to the inner-most core of mankind’s past. This of course was the very promise that had aroused the anger of a real scholar such as Ernst Robert Curtius.

It is merciful that Haskell has spared us the analysis of this kind of pseudo-history. Even so one might regret that he left on one side the new access to the art of the past that so favored the spread of this heresy: the vogue of art books and the skill with which photographers would approximate the art of the past to the taste of our century. It was André Malraux who became intoxicated with this capacity of what he called the “Museum without Walls” to turn the past into myth.10 Though Haskell might have some sympathy with this conclusion he would never endorse such a blanket verdict. For is it all a myth? Does it not rather depend on the type of question we ask, and on the type of answers we seek? Art does not reflect the spirit of the age, for the notion is much too vague to be of any use. But why should not artists have shared the values and aspirations of their culture and society? Their sense of decorum, or their cult of anti-decorum, their heroic ideals or their love of refinement? Maybe the historian of art cannot tell the historian much he could not also have gathered from other sources, but surely the historian can still assist the historian of art in interpreting the art of the past in the light of textual evidence. If anybody has demonstrated this possibility it is Francis Haskell.

This Issue

October 21, 1993