On Michael Baxandall's Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy
Manca, Joseph, Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art
Michael Baxandall's Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (1972) has been widely hailed as a major contribution to the field of Renaissance studies. (1) Baxandall did not invent the central methodological approach used in Painting and Experience, but he applied it in a sustained way, and emboldened others to find the aetiology of style in patterns of particular, non-artistic aspects of quotidian behavior. Now is an opportune moment to reassess the method expounded in Painting and Experience, as enough time has passed to allow us to judge its approach in art-historical perspective. Moreover, recent studies touching on Baxandall's work have paid scant attention to the faults of Painting and Experience, and a counterbalance to this neglect is desirable. I wish to offer here not an assessment of the book's impact on the field, nor a study of Baxandall's other works: I want to focus attention on Painting and Experience and see whether its arguments, in addition to being thought-provoking and at times novel, are also plausible.
The first reviews of Painting and Experience, like later critical reception, were generally favorable. John White called the study successful, and found few slips in the book. Giles Robertson stated of this "excellent and refreshing little book" that it would be "hard to think of a more valuable book to put into the hands of students of Renaissance painting to sharpen their observation, widen their outlook and stimulate their curiosity." (2) Another reviewer stated that the book "sharpens our awareness" of artists' intentions, and that Baxandall handled the early texts with "skill and tact to throw fresh light upon the interests of the fifteenth century." (3) David Cast considered the book to be "concise" and "tightly written," and found it to present "new and important material." Even an otherwise negative reviewer, Ulrich Middeldorf, called the book intelligent, persuasive, interesting, and lucidly argued. Still, Middeldorf noted that the book failed in its intentions ("Can one really write a 'social history of style'?"), and argued that Baxandall set himself the impossible task of explaining artistic style through daily experience. James Ackerman was also quite critical, but was more intent on pointing out particular flaws of Painting and Experience rather than challenging the overall assumptions behind the method. (4) Despite such negative criticism, the overall response from reviewers was laudatory, a sentiment reinforced by the several reprintings of the book and its widespread use in college course work.
As for longer review articles, a study by Jean-Remy Mantion dealt rather broadly with some of the ideas behind Painting and Experience, although it was not intended to challenge Baxandall's individual assumptions as much as to call into question the relationship of words and images. (5) More recently, some articles in the journal Art History--published also in the volume About Michael Baxandall (ed. Adrian Rifkin)--set out to review the art historian's oeuvre, but offer little criticism of Painting and Experience. In her essay, Michael Ann Holly avoided mentioning any difficulties of the book, noting its transparency and its clarifying nature: "There are no dark unknowables lurking here, only manifest pictorial codes derived from vernacular conventions ... Perhaps that is what makes the text so accessible." (6) Holly saw Painting and Experience as a cheerful study that stands apart from the shadows of Baxandall's more brooding works. (7) Allan Langdale's essay was largely concerned with assessing the place of Painting and Experience in the history of art history, seeing how it stood closer to Marxist analysis than critics such as T. J. Clark acknowledged. Langdale noted that Baxandall avoided a Marxist tendency to see experience (including art) as dictated by class and power structures, although he pointed out the usefulness of Baxandall's approach for anyone, Marxist or otherwise, with a socially inflected art-historical method. …