Surveying the Field: Artists Make Art History

By Hales, Peter Bacon | Art Journal, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Surveying the Field: Artists Make Art History


Hales, Peter Bacon, Art Journal


From Jan Vermeer to Mark Tansey, artists have produced a rich and varied countersurvey, vexing art historians with their monopoly-busting challenges, while providing new texts to interject into the historical narrative. I have selected twelve of these art histories, offering suggestions as to their reading.

PETER BACON HALES, author of numerous articles, essays, and books (most recently, with photographer Bob Thall, The Perfect City [John Hopkins, 1994]), is completing a cultural history of the Manhattan Project.

FIG. 1 Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, ca. 1666-70, oil on canvas, 52x44 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Vermeer begins a long tradition of claims that History needs the painter as much as the painter needs History. Clio, historian's muse, ingratiates herself for posterity's sake.

FIG. 2 Jan Breughel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, Sight and Smell, 1617-18, oil on canvas, 25-1/2x43 inches. Prado, Madrid. An offering to the Spanish regents of the South Netherlands, this may well be the earliest of a genre: a painting that celebrates the collecting and exhibiting of art--the first art historical survey by an artist.

FIG. 3 William van Haecht, The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Gheest, 1628, oil on canvas. Antwerp, Rubenshuis. Art displayed with the tools of scientific and geographical study (globe, astrolabe); arts lovers who are men of intellect, curiosity, and financial means; art objects by revered elders and living master artists of the time (Rubens is but one, serving as historian-critic): all these elements combine to propose an elaborate argument for the elevation of the visual arts into the most hallowed spheres of intellectual and commercial exchange.

FIG. 4 David Tenier the Younger, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Picture Gallery, 1651, oil on canvas, 27-1/2x33-3/4 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. What collector does not dream of directing the flow of art history, an observant and obligated artist at his side to record the marvelous outcome?

FIG. 5 Antoine Watteau, Gersaint's Shop Sign, 1721, oil on canvas, 64x121 inches. Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin. Watteau made this painting to hang outside the shop of his dealer--and it did, for about two weeks. A vernacular advertisement and Watteau's last great work, it is perhaps the earliest and most masterful of a tradition of art history surveys that culminate in the artist himself. …

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