Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview
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13

ART HISTORY ON THE ACADEMIC FRINGE

Taine's philosophy of art

Mary G. Morton

Among Parisian intellectuals in the 1860s and 1870s, Hippolyte Taine had a reputation as a dynamic and sometimes controversial writer. He was prolific and polymathic, producing works of history and literary history, philosophy and psychology, criticism and journalism. In 1865, fresh from the publication of his well-received Histoire de la littérature anglaise, he initiated a series of lectures at the École des Beaux-Arts on the history of art which over the following five years were published in brief synopses under the title Philosophie de l'art. Through his lectures, Taine developed a systematic sociological approach to art history unprecedented in its breadth and rigor. Objectivity, empirical observation and careful documentation were positivist values that, according to Taine, could advance the study of history and culture to the level of progress and modernity attained by the natural sciences. By 1913 Philosophie de l'art was in its fourteenth edition, and had been translated into English, German, Danish, and Russian.

Taine's contextual approach to art history, extrapolated from his work on literature, was enormously influential. His name became associated with a method of interpreting art that would in the later twentieth century be labeled “social art history.” The connections he drew between artistic production and its environment were compelling to several generations of artists and critics (including, notably, Emile Zola, who claimed Taine as his theoretical master). Taine's method of art history was not born within a formal “institution” of art history. As recent scholarship has elaborated, the discipline of art history was founded later in the century, and then in Germany and Austria. 1

In addition to outlining the origins and nature of Taine's art historical method, this chapter describes the way in which Taine's method developed outside an art historical institution. That Taine operated largely on the margins of academia, establishing his profession as an independent journalist prior to attaining his position at the École des Beaux-Arts, distinguishes his non-specialized, un-disciplined art history from the German models with which the current field of art history is more familiar.

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