A Little History of Art – 50 Years in 50 Books

A Little History of Art is a thrilling journey through centuries of art, from the first artworks ever made to art’s central role in culture today. Published in 2022, as part of Yale’s Little Histories series, Charlotte Mullins brings art to life through the stories of those who created it and, importantly, reframes who is included in the narrative to create a more diverse and exciting landscape of art.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Charlotte Mullins discusses the process of compiling a diverse and inclusive history of art, often challenging the existing canon in the process, whilst maintaining the sense of Art’s everlasting power to appeal to our emotions.

Article by Charlotte Mullins

Imagine that you are asked to write a book. It is to tell the story of art, from the first marks on the walls of ancient caves to twenty-first century biennials. It is to encompass sculpture and painting, drawing and printmaking, photography, film and installation. It will feature male, female and non-binary artists, professional and self-taught, who worked in isolation, ran successful workshops or were patronised by queens. These artists will hail from around the world and their work will span 50,000 years.

A Little History of Art is such a book. It is part of Yale’s ‘Little Histories’ series, which grew out of Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, first published in 1935. This slim volume was written as a lively antidote to dull history books for children. The series maintains Gombrich’s fresh and accessible style and is aimed at everyone from teenagers to nonagenarians. It follows Gombrich’s chronological format to offer a clear route through history and ensure no-one is lost along the way.

What A Little History of Art needed to do as well was take into consideration Gombrich’s hugely successful The Story of Art. This title, first published in 1950, was authoritative in tone and presented a singular narrative for art’s journey through time. To achieve this Gombrich – like his predecessors – streamlined art’s story, largely ignoring non-Western art and famously excluding all women artists in the original publication. This book has subsequently sold over 8 million copies worldwide and is still prominently displayed in museum bookshops. It carries a sticker stating it is the world’s best-selling art book, yet it still excludes the entire history of women’s art (although there’s no sticker telling you that). The only non-Western art to be included is compartmentalized, suggesting it is somehow ‘other’ from the central story of Western classical figuration with its epicentre in Italy. A rethink was long overdue.

For decades art historians have been publishing evidence proving that the story of art has never been so singular or neat or exclusive. Women artists worked throughout history for the leading patrons of the time: kings, queens, sultans and emperors. Sofonisba Anguissola worked for King Philip II of Spain in the sixteenth century; Guan Daosheng was part of the Mongol Court of Kublai Khan in the 1290s. These artists were celebrated in their day – in the seventeenth century Elisabetta Sirani was buried with the same civic honours as Bologna’s leading male painter Guido Reni, despite dying at the age of twenty-seven. By this time she had run her father’s workshop for eleven years, her own art academy for women for four years, and painted exceptional works of art.

‘Portia wounding her thigh’. Elisabetta Sirani. 1664. via Wikimedia Commons

Artists have rarely been limited by geographical boundaries either. They exist as part of international networks, sourcing raw materials from distant mines while experimenting with new approaches seen in the art of other cultures. When artists travelled or met those from other continents they were quick to absorb new methods of working, as seen in the fifteenth-century court of Sultan Mehmet II in Constantinople or in the State of Benin in West Africa. Artists made art in societies that left no written record, such as the Nok of the Niger Valley. Their distinctive figurative sculptures are the most telling record of a culture that ended nearly 2,000 years ago and reveal a visual network that spanned the African continent. Such networks should be at the heart of any retelling of art’s story because they show how ideas permeated. Artists through time have always looked at and collected each other’s work, travelled to attract patrons or worked with agents to secure desirable materials (Europeans obtained lapiz lazuli from Afghanistan and ivory and gold from Mozambique; African artists acquired copper and brass from Portuguese merchants). At times these networks spanned continents and were not limited by gender, age, class or ethnicity.

‘The Migration Series Panel no.1’. Jabob Lawrence. 1940-1. via The Phillips Collection; © 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Artists of colour have long been excluded from general histories too, despite their work being well-received when it was made and being of historical significance. One such artist is Jacob Lawrence. His powerful ‘Migration’ series was painted in 1940–41 in response to the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans from the southern states to northern American cities in search of work. This series deserves to be as well-known as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). The postwar Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning similarly was not made in a white male vacuum – African-American artists including Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden were painting exciting abstracts at this time, as were women artists such as Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. These artists are now finally being honoured with museum retrospectives and their stories appear in A Little History of Art.

Untitled. Lee Krasner. 1964. via Moma © 2023 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It is exciting to see all these new additions, these new stories of art, but this doesn’t mean our past favourites have to be excluded. Sometimes a fresh perspective can open up their work in interesting ways and offer new readings. J. M. W. Turner is a good example of this. When I was a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London I would spend hours at the National Gallery looking at Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, studying its fusion of industrial might and abstract atmospheres of smoke, light and air. For A Little History of Art however I chose to focus on Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On). This shows him engaging with a different contemporary issue, that of slavery and abolition, as the accompanying extract shows.

‘The Slave Ship’. J. M. W. Turner. 1840. via Museum of Fine Arts Boston

A Little History of Art is the size of a paperback and is necessarily only an introduction to the many stories of art on offer. But I hope it highlights the ongoing power of art to move us, to speak beyond words, to talk to our emotions directly, to have an impact.

Read an extract from A Little History of Art below:

About the Author:

Charlotte Mullins is an art critic, writer and broadcaster. Currently art critic at Country Life, she was formerly editor of Art ReviewV&A Magazine and Art Quarterly. She has published over a dozen books on visual art.

About the book:

A Little History of Art
Charlotte Mullins brings art to life through the stories of those who created it and, importantly, reframes who is included in the narrative to create a more diverse and exciting landscape of art. She shows how art can help us see the world differently and understand our place in it, how it helps us express ourselves, fuels our creativity and contributes to our overall wellbeing and positive mental health. This extraordinary journey through 100,000 years celebrates art’s crucial place in understanding our collective culture and history.

Find out more

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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