art historical texts

essential readings

Some of the Classic tomes which shaped the development of Western Art History and personal writings of its leading artists, from its roots to modernity, as available online.

On Painting

by Alberti Leon Baptista
Alberti’s classic treatise first appeared 1435-36, through which he describes the Brunelleschi’s theories of linear perspective and his theories of history painting as the noblest genre of painting. Online text provided by Notebook, a site maintained for personal convenience to develop a context for understanding the visual arts.
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Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptures & Architects

by Giorgio Vasari (Translator: Gaston du C. de Vere)
Considered a foundational text for artist biographies and Western art history, Vasari’s Lives (or Vite) traces the achievements of Italian painting-focused primarily on Florence and Rome and remains an important source of information on the evolution of Italian painting. It was twice published in two editions in 1550 & 1568 with substantial differences between them.

For access to all volumes:
Click here to access Volume 1 (1550 edition):

Early Netherlandish Painting

Max J. Friedländer’s essential 14 volumes on Early Netherlandish Paintings, published by between 1967 and 1973, digitized for research purposed under the auspices and with the aid of the Governments of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands within the framework of their Cultural Agreements. Available in English, French and Netherlandish.

Click here for the English editions:

The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a view of fixing the fluctuating ideas of taste

A treatise on the facets of beauty, written by the 18th-century artist, satirist and art writer William Hogarth, first published in 1753. Seen as a continuation of Hogarth's continued rejection of popular connoisseurship through which the artist describes his theories of visual beauty and grace through six key principles: fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy, and quantity which some see as a equate with later ideas of the sublime.

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A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Beautiful and the Sublime

Edmund Burke’s 1757 exploration of aesthetics and the first complete philosophical exposition for separating artistic notions of beautiful and the sublime into their own respective rational categories. It attracted the attention of prominent thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant.

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Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks

One of Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s most influential texts exploring the age of antiquity, Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks: with instructions for the connoisseur, and an essay on grace in works of art (1765), earning him the title of the “first modern art historian,” and providing more kindling to ignite the resurgence of Classical antiquity in the 18th century.

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Seven Discourses on Art

The Project Gutenberg eBook, Seven Discourses on Art, by Joshua Reynolds, Edited by Henry Morley. Transcriptions of the lectures give by Sir Joshua Reynolds, leading painter and founding president of the Royal Academy of Arts, to the students and faculty beginning with the academy’s founding in 1768.
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The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun

Madame Lebrun brought out her Memoirs at the suggestion of her friend, the Princess Dolgoruki, in 1835. The authoress was born in 1756, at Paris, where she died in 1842. She was the daughter of Louis Vigée, an obscure portrait painter. Her baptismal name was Marie Louise Elisabeth. In 1776 Mademoiselle Vigée was married to Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, a notable picture dealer and critic, known also to his contemporaries as an inveterate gambler. Vigée Lebrun would become among the most sought after portrait painters in the late 18th century in Europe.
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Life and Letters of John Constable, R.A.

John Constable was an intellectual who pursued the accuracy of his veristic landscape paintings with a scientific curiosity, literally! From his studies of clouds to, how, in the artist’s words: “The sky is the source of light in Nature and it governs everything.”
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Journal of Eugene Delacroix

The journal of 19th-century Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix’s provides unparalled insight into the minds of one of history’s great painters. In it the artist delves into his art, life and the events of his time, as well as his thoughts on the paintings and sculptures of Rubens, Michelangelo, Constable, and others: old and new literature and the music of Mozart, Rossini and Chopin.

Pre-Raphaelites by John Ruskin

Art critic John Ruskin’s pamphlet Pre-Raphaelitism, published in 1851 three years after the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood had formed, defends the group against the hostile abuse rained on them by other contemporary critics. 
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James Whistler’s “10 o’clock”

Delivered at Public lecture, Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, 20 February 1885.
Ladies and Gentlemen! – It is with great hesitation and much misgiving that I appear before you, in the character of – The Preacher – If timidity be at all allied to the virtue modesty, and can find favor in your eyes, I pray you, for the sake of that virtue, accord me your utmost indulgence –

Read the legendary speech by Mr. Whistler here.
Learn more about the Whistler-Ruskin Trial here.

Charles Baudelaire

The French poet who also produced notable works as an essayist and art critic, Baudelaire’s writing helped define the idea of modernity and the artist’s role in shaping it.  
Fleurs du mal:
Painter of Modern Life:

Coming next: the era of Art Manifestos… Check back soon!