Art History: Critical Review Of Permanent Revolution

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Reading Art History. Permanent Revolution

This chapter, “Permanent Revolution” by Gombrich is about the change from the Traditional to the Modern era.

Gombrich has written a chapter that expresses the nineteenth-century revolution of art, aimed at younger readers. The text itself indicates the level of the reader at which Gombrich is aiming through Gombrich’s use of knowledge, the detail of description and making it easier to understand and engage what happened in the Art History of the nineteenth century.

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Firstly, Gombrich has created a dynamic story for the reader, he simplifies it by creating characters that the reader to relate. This portrays Gombrich’s intention to aim it at younger readers. Gombrich has described the movement with the critics and society fighting against the artists, which makes the information seem more exciting, manageable, easier to engage and understand with. Thus, showing the level of the reader that Gombrich has directed this to.

This is similar to Vasari’s description of Cimabue and Giotto, as Gombrich mainly uses primary sources from quotes of people in the nineteenth century, such as reports and the artist’s diaries. This quality helps the reader create a story-like feature to the chapter. Finally, Gombrich has considered the techniques of the artists, and the transformation throughout the era, this linking to the change of the artist’s motive to their morality rather than satisfying the audience’s needs.

Gombrich successfully uses the role of the artists as a structure to portray the transformation and explore the era where the world broke the tradition; focusing on the Impressionists. The artists and their new artistic viewpoints portray the wave of revolution of Art. Gombrich mentions certain artists to show the movement from Traditional Art to Impressionism Art. Similar to Vasari, Gombrich has also used three artists who he admired to portray the process of art and the final destination; Monet, Degas and Renoir.

The biographies in Gombrich’s chapter play an important role and help Gombrich with setting out his discussion in a chronology order, as well as cumulating a story. Thus allowing various of views and giving the chapter a timeline; this is also seen in Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists book. However, the role of biographies do have a weakness. Biographies do not have credibility and could be bias. In addition to only having a single point of view and not explaining enough context during the period.

Additionally, Gombrich’s view of the progress of art it that it is continuously moving forwards and developing. Gombrich again uses a progress to explain the nineteenth-century transformation like Giorgio Vasari, in the thirteenth century, by having three main stages. From the first period, the kick start of the Renaissance, the second period; the transition and finally the third period; perfection.

Gombrich likewise claims the revolution of the nineteenth century also has three stages. Firstly, Gombrich stated ‘that colour was much more important than draughtsmanship and imagination than knowledge’[footnoteRef:1] which Delacroix believed in and preferred the Venetians and Rubens over the Academy subjects. Secondly, challenging ‘the conventions governing subject-matter’ which Courbet gave a name to this movement; his ‘realism’ marked a revolution in art[footnoteRef:2]. Finally, the third stage of the revolution was started by Manet, who uncovered the representation of men or objects in a less artificial way[footnoteRef:3]. [1: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution: the Nineteenth Century’, from The Story of Art, London: Phaidon, 1963, p.401. ] [2: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.403. ] [3: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.405. ]

Gombrich describes Manet’s stage of the process as the first works of the modern area and Manet was a great influence on artists which carry on the modern era of painting stage of rough painting and lack of idealism on figures. For example, the Japanese artists, Rodin and Whistler. This cyclical explanation of progress shows how the change of art grows and becomes more refined and perfected during the nineteenth century.

Gombrich handles periodization similarly to Martin’s theory on the Baroque period, where the period is divided into phrases; from Early, High and Late. Gombrich has likewise use this in his chapter and split the artists and their work into phrases. The transformation of artists and style of art was the most dramatic events in this period that happened in Paris[footnoteRef:4]. The characteristics of this period were open composition, brush strokes and an accurate depicted of light and movement. [4: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.399. ]

Initially, the artists were thrown into an unlimited field of choice[footnoteRef:5] they could paint anything they wanted. Previously artists had to stick to the style other they would be ‘in danger of starvation’[footnoteRef:6], therefore this shows the changes from one period to another. Also among artists, it became a recognized pastime to “shock the bourgeois” leaving them baffled and confused. The artists became a race – dressing loose corduroy and velvet clothing, growing out their hair and beards and wearing broad-brimmed hats[footnoteRef:7]. It became the first time where artists could express their individuality. Thus showing the change of the period to another period. [5: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.397. ] [6: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.397.] [7: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.397.]

This resulted to the groundbreaking turn in Art History with the relationship between Art and Society. Gombrich relates this change from the Romanticism period to Impressionism with the context happening in the Western countries. The social context in the Western countries broke the traditions and Art was affected by the rise of factories and workshops. This changed the way artists lived and worked and allowed the artists to break their shackles and explore and express their inner genius and individuality. This social context displays that this relationship is key to all art history because the artworks were produced is regarded as playing an important role in determining their form and meaning. Overall the relationship is so important between Art and Society as the social history of art is the most dominant form of art history to this day.

Gender discrimination is unmistakably portrayed in this chapter, Gombrich interestingly chooses a specific quote from ‘a humorous weekly’ and quotes them ‘…Five or six lunatics, among them a woman’[footnoteRef:8]. This indicates Gombrich’s complete disinterest in female artists. One could claim, that Gombrich is following Nochlin’s argument and the classic ideological attitude towards women in Art History and disregarding the women artists. This quote portrays the period and Gombrich himself as it is discussing a period from 100 years later before he wrote The Story of Art and still not addressing the problem of why there were no great female artists. Gombrich does not ‘handle the question of gender difference” he just simply decides to ignore the question. [8: E.H. Gombrich, ‘Permanent Revolution’, 1963, p.411. ]

However, Gombrich is writing this chapter related to the period, and during the nineteenth-century women were restricted from many Art institutions. Even if they were allowed to join, they were restricted even more as they had no access of nude meaning they had limited education to the human body, as well as limited encouragement. This made it impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, success, and same footing as men, no matter what potency of their so-called talent or genius. Possibly Gombrich does not mention female artists in his chapter as it was still rare during this period.

Overall social institutions have prevented the possibility of ‘great’ women artists, and aside from that they were underappreciated or not acknowledged. It was impossible to become great artists due to these factors.

Gombrich’s weaknesses are portrayed throughout this chapter, firstly, he simplifies this period a little excessively (perhaps for the younger reader do not confused). However, he ignores other art forms and areas in the period; for instance he priorities the Impressionists over the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Realism, and female artists of the period.

In addition, Gombrich does not acknowledge other historians’ views, apart from Vasari mainly. This result makes his discussion very one-sided and overall bias which is a major weakness in this chapter. Furthermore, Gombrich’s ignorance towards female artists creates a downfall in his argument, and when he had the opportunity, he failed to mention the female Impressionist name. Thus, showing his lack of value judgement and unbiased opinion and this is a key weakness in this chapter.

On the other hand, Gombrich does have some strengths in his chapter. Firstly, the readers can connect to his chapter as he makes the information easier to understand. As well as, the use of primary sources; such as quotes of people and diary entries during the era. Therefore, helping the reader to understand the chapter. Unlike Vasari’s weakness, Gombrich knows the future of the period, and

knows how the modern era continued. Thus portraying Gombrich’s strengths in this chapter. Finally, Gombrich’s strength in this chapter was the emphasis on the Impressionists could be a chance of presenting the amateur reader to be able to follow the chapter and his book The Story of Art.

Overall Gombrich’s weaknesses and lack of acknowledgment make his material appear ill-informed and one-sided.

In conclusion, Gombrich has written a chapter about the revolution between Art and Society during the nineteenth century. Predominantly based on the role of the artists and their battle through society’s opinion and rejection. The chapter gives the reader a good overall knowledge of the period as well as a detailed description of the process and the final destination. Gombrich starts the movement with Delacroix, then moving to Corbet and finally Manet and his friends, ending the period with Monet, Degas and Renoir.


  1. Gombrich E.H, ‘Permanent Revolution: the Nineteenth Century, from The Story of Art, London: Phaidon, 1963, 395-424.
  2. Martin, John Rupert, Baroque. London: Allen Lane, 1977, introduction and extract from chapter 1, 11-34.
  3. Nochlin, Linda, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, in Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power: And Other Essays. London: Thames & Hudson, 1989: 145-78.
  4. Pointon, Marcia. “Portrait Painting as a Business Enterprise in London in the 1780s”, Art History 7: 2 (1984): 187-205.
  5. Vasari, Giorgio, the life of Cimabue and part of the life of Giotto, from the Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori et scultori italiani, Florence, 1568, trans. By J. C. Bondanella and P. Bondanella as The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.


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