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
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
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
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. …