From Albers to Zuccarelli, Art-History Texts Don't Always Include the Most Deserving Names

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A HISTORY OF WESTERN ART By Laurie Schneider Adams Harry N. Abram, 512 pp., $55. ART PAST/ART PRESENT By David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff Harry N. Abrams 606 pp., $49.50. THE ART BOOK: AN A-Z OF ARTISTS Phaidon 512 pp., $35. ENCYCLOPEDISTS have their musts and their maybes. When the subject is art history, Rembrandt is a must. But Hercules Seghers, for instance, is a maybe. To leave out Rembrandt would be ridiculous. To leave out Seghers seems to be a matter of preference. Three of the most recent art books of this encyclopedic ilk (each of which claims some kind of fresh variation on the genre) omit Seghers. They have this omission in common with Janson's "History of Art" Third Edition, of 1986. The fifth revised edition of Janson is due out in January (I have not seen the fourth), and I wonder who will be in and who will be out.

I suppose a sign of acceptance into the canon of art history is when an artist becomes an encyclopedic must. But with Seghers, even though he is a 17th-century artist and not one of your modern fly-by-nights, it seems that the difference between must and maybe is the difference between the taste of the 1970s and the '90s. He is included in three encyclopedias I own published in the '70s and in two published in the '50s.

But in these new books, "A History of Western Art" by Laurie Schneider Adams; "Art Past/Art Present, Second Edition, by David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff; and "The Art Book" (which doesn't seem to have an author), Seghers is nowhere to be found.

Read the fine print

The difficulty is that fat compendious books like these give the impression of telling it all. They do not. If you read the smaller print, you sometimes find they do not claim to be quite so comprehensive as they appear.

"A History of Western Art," for example, offers "unlike other surveys" a concentration "on a smaller number of artworks, but explores them in satisfying depth." Thus it talks about Mark Rothko but ignores Barnett Newman.

"Art Past/Art Present" offers "a great continuum of human creativity and expression from all the world's cultures." Thus it mentions Casper David Friedrich but leaves out William Blake. Neither book mentions Italy's supreme 20th-century artist, Giorgio Morandi.

And "The Art Book," although it is a more conventional list of artists (including Morandi), is unconventional in devoting a full-page color plate of one work by each, with room only for a minuscule text.

Although the tome is massive, it has been confined to only 500 artists. Since it stretches from the Middle Ages to today, it has had to be highly selective. Thus, although it includes Rothko, Newman, Friedrich, and Blake, it forgets Samuel Palmer, Philipp Otto Runge, John Sell Cotman, and Giovanni di Paolo. The exclusion of such artists cannot be simply justified on the basis of minor importance. Often the reasons seem to be as vague as some tenuous sense of a current consensus. Nobody would claim that Seghers is of the same stature as Rembrandt. But the point is that "stature" is not what art history is all about. In the great continuum swims smaller fish who, to put it ecologically, are vital parts of the food chain. Yet, almost inevitably, the encyclopedist has to net the marketable species. Also, to leave out some "lesser" (but still unique) figures is to foster the idea that only "great" artists matter. …