Most lovers of Western visual arts have their favorite basic overview text. Since these texts tend to contain approximately 1000 pages, and represent a great investment of time, it’s a good idea to discover why someone is recommending a particular study. You should know if their criteria matches yours. The following are my reasons for recommending Janson’s History of Art.
The structure of the book: If an author is going to cover an overwhelming breadth of historical material, they need to present their work in an organized fashion. Janson’s is a well-organized and indexed chronology from the Paleolithic to the Present. The book is divided into parts, based on time periods. These time periods are labeled with familiar headings (Ancient, Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc.). Chapters within these periods represent the major art movements and styles. Sections within the chapters show different expressions of the movements. There are copious colored photos of art works which represent each of the movements presented. We know that this is nothing like seeing the real thing, but it’s still a cornucopia for the eyes and an important feature in any book on the visual arts. Janson’s structure permits a multitude of individualized approaches to the subject. One may read the book from beginning to end and get the story of Western art’s evolution. One may pinpoint a particular time period or movement as with any reference book. It’s hard to get lost.
Importantly, the publisher has continued to update the text since its first appearance. H.W. Janson came out with his book in 1962. He died in 1982, but Prentice Hall has continued to produce updated editions using a team of authors. A 9th edition was just released in January of 2013. The book has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into fifteen languages.
Equally important, Janson was an exceptionally lucid writer. The authors have done little to alter his approach over the years, and have attempted to remain within the style of the original. Even though I initially bought my copy as a reference book, I ended up reading it cover to cover because of the approachable, engaging presentation.
There are notable shortcomings to discuss. Unfortunately, these are some of the same flaws that plague most reference texts on Western art. First, there is little discussion of non-Western influences on Western art. Though no text can ignore the effect of African masks on the development of Cubism, this coverage is more the exception than the rule. Second, how do you include minorities and women in the story of art when they have been historically excluded? Those individuals who decided what was great art, who purchased great art, and who were accepted within art circles had been, with few exceptions, white men. So the economic, philosophical and stylistic influences on the evolution of Western art, were also primarily produced by white men. The historical record of what works survived and who influenced the story is also skewed towards white male artists. Later chapters in Janson, focusing on the modern period, are more inclusive since the art world became more inclusive. However, the biases regarding influence cannot be ignored. The only way I see to rectify this imbalance would be for the readers themselves to seek out writings which discuss the more obscure women and minorities who did exist on the periphery of the exclusionary art world of an earlier time. But the sad truth is that their influence was minor and their part in an overview will be minor.
A note on the purchase of a copy: it’s a hell of an investment regardless of the reader’s means. Online purchased new copies average $140.00. But used copies contain almost all of the important information. Late Renaissance Mannerism has not changed with the passage of time between 1962 and 2013. Used copies start at $20.00. Also, because this is one of the most popular texts, any reasonably large library system will have it.
I hope that this recommendation has helped those seeking an overview of Western art. As stated at the outset, see if my priorities jive with yours.
Janson, Horst Woldemar. Janson’s History of Art. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2013.
For an introductory book on the history of art, see: