This is one of the most engrossing and stimulating art history texts to come along for years, especially for those who are tired of the sea of artist monographs and dull Festschrifts which have long dogged this rich and fertile field. The art history discipline has long laboured under an inferiority complex, a crisis of identity as to its true position in the academic world: is it a mechanism for mere connoisseurship to feed the already obese commercial art world - those dealers, auction houses and museum curators who thrive upon catalogue raisonnes, exhibition lists, provenances and collectors? Or is it an academic discipline, a science in which theorems are proven with examples? No one seems to have the final answer.
Instead we have a plethora of printed attempts to define the tools and the methods of the art historian, of which this is one of the best examples. In some 16 essays by American and British art historians, we are asked to ponder a "radical reconsideration of the origins of modern painting and sculpture in Europe and North America". We must not be put off by the term radical: here, in well-considered prose coupled with a wealth of intriguing and well-chosen illustrations (in colour and black and white), is the road that 19th-century art history seems to be following.
The authors call into question the quaint idea that the scholar is society's unbiased memory and suggest that social art historians like Albert Boime, with their card catalogue approach, do a disservice to the discipline - for not every mediocre artist needs to be recorded to make a point. Instead they promise that "although based upon empirical research, this book thus rejects the interest-free claims of empiricism in favour of an approach that recognises and highlights the ideological limits between present and past".
Under the guise of the "new art history" they address issues of class and gender, reception and spectatorship, racism and that very topical subject Eurocentrism, on the grounds that "if our texts raise contemporary political questions . . . they will have succeeded in more closely approaching a 19th-century art in which there emerged a new historical and critical consciousness of society and culture."
The focus is largely upon the warhorses of modern art, mostly from France and America, since these, according to the authors, are "a body of formally advanced and politically alienated works". The issues raised by these paintings remain contentious and unresolved.
Moreover, the 19th century was rich in visual influences - photography, machines, mass production and industrial landscape - and artists were for the first time confronting the emergence of techniques for mass reproduction and distribution of their works. The Victorian print and publishing worlds grew fat upon this and nurtured the princely careers of many an artist millionaire.
There was also the vexing problem, discussed by the authors, of the politics of public exhibitions and museum displays.
The book begins with neoclassicism where we can revel in period eroticism (there is a fascinating analysis of Girordet's The Sleep of Endymion, that masterpiece of titillation), then jumps to political issues in Delacroix and Goya, naturalism in Constable and Turner, gender studies in obscure women artists' works, the negro and native American contributions long overlooked in American art of the period, and concludes with post-impressionism and Cezanne. It is assisted by a useful chronology of historical and visual events and picture lists.
Rodney Engen is the author of books on 19th-century art and a consultant to Christie's.
Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History
Author - Stephen Eisenman, Thomas Crow, Bian Lukacher, Linda Nochlin and Frances Pohl
ISBN - 0 500 23675 5
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 376pp