The Story of Art

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Cover of the first edition, 1950

The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich, is a survey of the history of art from ancient times to the modern era.[1]

First published in 1950 by Phaidon, the book is widely regarded both as a seminal work of criticism and as one of the most accessible introductions to the visual arts. It was originally intended for younger readers.[2] Over eight million copies have been sold, and it has been translated into more than 30 languages.[3] As of 2022, The Story of Art is in its 16th edition.[3]


Art historian Ernst Gombrich had experience with book production before The Story of Art. He collaborated with Ernst Kris on an unpublished book on the history of caricature and published his first book on the history of the world for children in 1936.[4] That same year, Gombrich relocated to London from Vienna for a job synthesizing the late Aby Warburg’s notes for publication at the Warburg Institute.[5] However, with the rise of the Second World War, Gombrich was sent to work as a broadcast translator at a BBC listening post in Evesham.[5] There, he met Béla Horovitz, founder of Phaidon Press, who was lacking materials to publish due to the war and was in search of new material.[5] Gombrich, having already written a few chapters of an art history book for children while in Vienna, offered the work and was given an advance for the work that became The Story of Art, first published by Phaidon in 1950.[5]


The book is divided into a preface, introduction, and 27 chapters that each deal with art within a defined time period and geographical context. A 28th chapter summarizes the latest developments in visual arts.

The chapters in the 15th edition are listed as follows:

  1. "Strange beginnings: Prehistoric and primitive peoples; Ancient America"
  2. "Art for eternity: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete"
  3. "The great awakening: Greece, seventh to fifth century BC"
  4. "The realm of beauty: Greece and the Greek world, fourth century BC to first century AD"
  5. "World conquerors: Romans, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, first to fourth century AD"
  6. "A parting of ways: Rome and Byzantium, fifth to thirteenth century"
  7. "Looking eastwards: Islam, China, second to thirteenth century"
  8. "Western art in the melting pot: Europe, sixth to eleventh century"
  9. "The Church militant: The twelfth century"
  10. "The Church triumphant: The thirteenth century"
  11. "Courtiers and burghers: The fourteenth century"
  12. "The conquest of reality: The early fifteenth century"
  13. "Tradition and innovation: The later fifteenth century in Italy"
  14. "Tradition and innovation: The fifteenth century in the North"
  15. "Harmony attained: Tuscany and Rome, early sixteenth century"
  16. "Light and colour: Venice and northern Italy, early sixteenth century"
  17. "The new learning spreads: Germany and the Netherlands, early sixteenth century"
  18. "A crisis of art: Europe, later sixteenth century"
  19. "Vision and visions: Catholic Europe, first half of the seventeenth century"
  20. "The mirror of nature: Holland, seventeenth century"
  21. "Power and glory: Italy, later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries"
  22. "Power and glory: France, Germany and Austria, late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries"
  23. "The age of reason: England and France, eighteenth century"
  24. "The break in tradition: England, America, and France, late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries"
  25. "Permanent revolution: The nineteenth century"
  26. "In search of new standards: The late nineteenth century"
  27. "Experimental art: The first half of the twentieth century"
  28. "A story without end: The triumph of Modernism / An altered mood / The changing past"[6]

Each chapter discusses a selection of works from the defined period, and all of the works discussed are accompanied by illustrations. More than half of the book's pages are devoted to color photographs of paintings, drawings, architecture and sculptures. In the preface, Gombrich explains that it has been his intention not to mention any work of art that he could not also include as an illustration.


The Story of Art is often described as a work that provides an accessible introduction to the subject of art history.[4][7][8][5] Art historian T.S.R. Boase, in The Times Literary Supplement, observed that Gombrich “writes conversationally and intimately."[7] Gombrich himself notes in the preface of the book that he intends to use “plain language” and to minimize “the art historian’s conventional terms."[9]


First published by Phaidon Press in 1950 and in its 16th edition as of 2022, The Story of Art has been a global bestseller with more than 8 million copies sold and translated into more than 30 languages.[3] It is included in Time magazine’s list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time.[10] The first two sentences of the book have become famous: ″There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.″[2] Gombrich later elaborated on this statement by saying that he defines "art" based on its Latin root, meaning "skill," and that there is "no disembodied skill."[11]

Upon its release, The Story of Art was noted for its pedagogical potential[8][12] despite Gombrich’s intentions of producing a pleasure read for teenagers.[12] Artist and art history professor H. W. Janson, reviewing the book for College Art Journal, remarked it was “undoubtedly destined for a most successful career in the classroom.”[8] He praised the book for its accessible language and selections free from Gombrich's own preferences, measuring the book against scholarly standards.[8] In his discussion of the book in The Burlington Magazine, artist and writer Wilfrid Blunt noted that The Story of Art reads like a lecture.[12] Though he believed the lecture-like tone would lead masters to prefer the book rather than students, he declared that The Story of Art “fully deserve[s] a place in any educational library."[12]

Criticism has also emerged since the book’s release. One stream of criticism addresses Gombrich’s treatment of contemporary art.[5][13][14] In a 1989 review for Art Journal of the book’s 14th edition, art history professor Bradford R. Collins criticized the work for its lack of depth in its discussion of contemporary art.[13] Collins indicated that Gombrich’s commentary on 20th century art was brief and often dismissive.[13] Elly Miller, daughter of Béla Horovitz, revealed in an interview that Gombrich had not originally intended to include an additional chapter on contemporary art and that “he really didn’t come to terms with what he called modern art.”[5] Art curator Karen Wilkin made similar comments for The Hudson Review, remarking about The Story of Art that “[Gombrich] was never really at ease with anything but illusionistic painting and sculpture."[14]

Gombrich’s omission of international and female artists has also raised criticism,[15][16][17] with none having been included in the first The Story of Art and just one included in the 16th edition.[15] With the intention of offsetting the emphasis on white, male, and Western works in the globally influential book, curator and art historian Katy Hessel responded to the lack of diverse representation by creating a book of works by a range of international female artists titled The Story of Art Without Men, to be published in 2023.[15]


  1. ^ E. H. Gombrich (2006), The Story of Art, London: Phaidon Press, 978-0-7148-324-70
  2. ^ a b Gombrich, E. H. (1984). The Story of Art (14th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 4. ISBN 0-13-850066-5.
  3. ^ a b c "The Story of Art | Art | Store | Phaidon". Retrieved 2022-11-30.
  4. ^ a b Hope, Charles. "Obituary: Sir Ernst Gombrich: [FOREIGN Edition]." The Independent, Nov 6, 2001, pp. 6. ProQuest.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Peaker, Carol (July 29, 2000). "The story of The Story of Art: Fifty years ago this fall, the world's best-selling art book was born: [National Edition]". National Post.
  6. ^ Gombrich, E. H. (Ernst Hans) (1990). The Story of Art (15th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-849894-6. OCLC 21295847.
  7. ^ a b Boase, Thomas Sherrer Ross, and T. Boase. "The History of Art." The Times Literary Supplement, no. 2504, 27 Jan. 1950, p. 51. The Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive.
  8. ^ a b c d Janson, H. W. (1950). "Review of The Story of Art". College Art Journal. 9 (4): 429–430. doi:10.2307/773706. ISSN 1543-6322.
  9. ^ Gombrich, E. H. (1950). The Story of Art (3rd ed.). London: Phaidon Press.
  10. ^ Lacayo, Richard (2011-08-18). "Is The Story of Art one of the All-TIME 100 Best Nonfiction Books? TIME thinks so. Check it out". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2020-06-12.
  11. ^ Carrier, David (Summer 1996). "Gombrich and Danto on Defining Art". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 54 (3): 279. JSTOR 431629.
  12. ^ a b c d Blunt, Wilfrid (1950). Gombrich, E. H.; Upjohn, Everard M.; Wingert, Paul S.; Mahler, Jane Gaston (eds.). "Art History and the Public Schools". The Burlington Magazine. 92 (565): 117–118. ISSN 0007-6287.
  13. ^ a b c Collins, Bradford R. (1989). "History of Art/ The Story of Art (Book Review)". Art Journal. 48 (1): 90. doi:10.2307/776926.
  14. ^ a b Wilkin, Karen (Spring 2003). "A preference for the primitive: Gombrich's legacy". The Hudson Review. 56 (1): 217–222, 224 – via ProQuest.
  15. ^ a b c Bidisha, Mamata (September 11, 2022). "The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel review – putting women back in the picture". The Observer.
  16. ^ Mullins, Charlotte (April 26, 2022). "The lesser-known histories of art: Until now, the story of art has been represented as a single narrative, mostly featuring white males. But there is a whole other side". The Irish Times.
  17. ^ "Review | Female artists have been overlooked and ignored. This book wants to correct that". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2022-11-28.

External links[edit]

The Story of Art on Internet Archive