The New York Times has an article today, “Revising Art History’s Big Book: Who’s In and Who Comes Out?” The big book, of course, is Janson’s History of Art by H.W. Janson, first published in 1962. “But in recent years it has lost its perch as the best-selling art survey and has been criticized for becoming a scholarly chestnut,” the Times writes. “So its publisher recruited six scholars from around the country and told them to rewrite as much as they wanted, to cast a critical eye on every reproduction, chapter heading and sacred cow.”
Needless to say, there is no more Janson involved with the new, seventh edition of Janson’s History of Art. H.W. himself died in 1982, and his son Anthony, who took over the duties thereafter, retired several years ago. The new editor is Sarah Touborg, who told the Times that one-quarter of the contents had been changed: “To have done less than that would have been tough, given our vision of renovating Janson,” she said. “And doing more than that would have risked losing our very loyal base of customers.”
Interviewed for the article, art professor Stephen Eisenman, a self-described “longtime critic of Janson” (yes, that was a harumph you heard issuing out of deepest darkest Alberta), said that the book “would probably never regain the dominance it once had, simply because the whole idea of a book like it, or other supposedly all-inclusive surveys like a Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, first published in 1926, had become outdated.” Erm, just a home school mother layman here, but the twelfth edition of Helen Gardner’s own comprehensive classic (nearly 1,200 pages) came out two years ago, newly revised and with a copy of the ArtStudy 2.0 CD-ROM. Hardly the dusty, crumbling 80-year-old tome it’s made out to be.
It is difficult to keep up-to-date with reference books, when writers keep writing, performing artists keep performing, and artists keep drawing, painting, sculpting and even discovering new forms of art. But I tend to think that “supposedly all-inclusive surveys” of art history (or world history, but that’s another subject…) are a good thing, and I’m living, walking proof that you can’t have enough on your bookshelves at home, especially if you happen to be a home schooler (and especially if your local library’s selection is a bit skimpy). My current art history favorite, living by the bedside, is The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, 16th edition (yes, I’m working on something to put up here in the not too distant future).
Some of other nifty one-volume art history surveys for children for your consideration, especially useful if your family, like ours, likes to fold art history and appreciation into chronological history studies:
Janson’s History of Art by H.W. Janson, revised by Anthony F. Janson, 6th edition (2004); the classic college survey text, but the illustrations and color plates are suitable for all ages
History of Art for Young People by H.W. Janson, revised by Anthony F. Janson, 5th edition
The Story of Painting: From Cave Painting to Modern Times by H.W. Janson and Dora Jane Janson (discarded by the Edmonton Public Library system; their loss is our gain…); includes such useful chapters headings such as: How Painting Began; The Middle Ages; Explorers and Discoverers; The Age of Genius; The Triumph of Light; Toward Revolution; The Age of Machines; and Painting in Our Own Century
The Beginner’s Guide to Art edited by Brigitte Govignon; also arranged chronologically. A very nice introduction for children.
The History of Art: From Ancient to Modern Times by Claudio Merlo, and published by Peter Bedrick Books (we’ve enjoyed, and found very useful many of the Bedrick art books I’ve found at Bookcloseouts; one thing the kids really appreciate about this book, and others from Bedrick’s “Masters of Art” series, is how they depict the artworks being created)
Usborne Introduction to Art/Internet-linked by Rosie Dickins and Mari Griffith (a purchase from our friendly neighborhood Usborne rep); chapters include Ancient and medieval art; The Renaissance; Baroque and Rococo; Revolution; The modern world; and Behind the Scenes
Oxford First Book of Art by Gillian Wolfe (found remaindered at Cole’s Books)
Pantheon Story of Art for Young People by Ariane Ruskin Batterberry (published in 1975; out of print but worth tracking down, according to a good friend whose advice on art history I always take)
Pantheon Story of American Art for Young People by Ariane Ruskin Batterberry (ditto)
Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting by Sister Wendy Beckett; the latest Dorling Kindersley edition is “revised and expanded”, which means lots of gorgeous color plates interspersed with Sister Wendy’s lively writing style. Sister Wendy’s books are often found at Bookcloseouts…
Sister Wendy’s American Collection by Sister Wendy Beckett; a lovely selection of American artwork, not limited to paintings (there is sculpture, furniture, and Paul Revere’s magnificent Sons of Liberty silver bowl in here). But unfortunately the book is arranged by collection and not chronologically, which I find makes it rather less useful than it could be for our daily use. On the other hand, it becomes very useful if you find you’re going to be making a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Updated January 2009 to add: The Book of Art for Young People by Agnes Ethel Conway and Sir Martin Conway, first published in 1909 and last reprinted in 1935; now available in a newly reprinted edition from BiblioLife and also as an audiobook from LibriVox and, of course, at Gutenberg.
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Any other favorites I’ve missed or skipped? (Sister Wendy books added 3/8 — many thanks to my private art consultant and also to my daughter for the reminders)