From Albers to Zuccarelli, Art-History Texts Don't Always Include the Most Deserving Names
Christopher Andreae, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …