ART history is, in its essentials, the history of man, for no one can write the story of art in more than a superficial way without following out the relation of each school to the ideas of its period and its people. But it is even more than that: it is the history of the development of man as revealed by his art. Élie Faure, in the present history, pursues this idea with a fidelity and an understanding that it has never received till now. Indeed, one may almost say that such a work as this could not have been written earlier, for it has been only gradually that we have come to understand the relation of art to the character and surroundings of the races it represents. Various works on isolated artists and schools have dealt with their subject from this standpoint, but there existed no survey of the world's art as a whole until the four volumes of this series were written.
The professional, whether critic, teacher, or artist, will find in these pages the fullest application of the modern theory of history (for the governing idea here is one that goes beyond the limits of art history), while the layman will follow the epic of man's development in company with a passionate lover of beauty who has the gift of communicating his enthusiasm. It is a fallacy to believe that a book for the general reader should dilute the ideas of works addressed to specialists. The contrary is true: to meet the needs of persons of diverse interests, more intensity of idea is required, more breadth of scope, than is demanded of a treatise for specialists, whose concern with their subject will cause them to overlook dryness and diffuseness if a valuable theory is established or new facts are arrived at.
For a comparison of the older and the newer views of art history, the reader can scarcely be referred to anything clearer than M. Faure's own discussion in the preface to the new edition of this work. His brief reference there to the synoptic tables at the back of each volume may be supplemented by the assurances received from various close students of the special schools and epochs, who agree in vouching for the thoroughness with which this most objective compilation of names and dates has been made. A reference chart is thus constantly before the reader, serving him as a road map does a traveler. The text of most art histories does little more than amplify such tables. The characteristic which distinguishes Élie Faure's History of Art is that it shows the mass of facts functionally—as the living brain and heart of mankind.
The loyalty with which, in the preface mentioned, M. Faure defends the work of the archaeologist is due in part to his appreciation of the material that the searchers for detail have placed at his disposal, but doubtless in part also to the fact that he himself knows the labor of obtaining the first-hand information on which the history and interpretation of art are built. At no one place, however (and one need not fear to lay too much stress on this point), does he fall into the error of imagining that an assembling of facts is history. Even when writing of arts like the Egyptian and the Greek, as to which his study on the historic sites has given him a special authority, even when treating of the Gothic period, as to which his knowledge is so profound as to make Mr. Havelock Ellis apply the word "unsurpassable" to the chapters of this history on Gothic art—his modern understanding of his task causes him to refer constantly to the philosophy, social life, and ideals of the people under examination, and not to their art alone. He goes farther, and by a series of dramatic confrontations makes us realize the differences among the arts and their debt to one another. Thus, in the pages on the Gothic he has before his eyes the color of Mohammedan art which was of such importance to western Europe when its returning crusaders brought back to the glassmakers of the cathedrals their memories of the Orient. Yet M. Faure's main guide in this part of his study is the life of the mediaeval commune; he shows its relation to the appearance or nonappearance of great cathedrals in the French cities and its use as a basis for an explanation of the difference between English and French Gothic. We are thus relieved in very large measure from the tyranny of taste and of arbitrary assertion that plays so large a part in most art writing.
In the present volume, again, the rise and decline of Greek art are not treated as matters that have been permanently decided by experts; neither does the author justify his statements in terms of aesthetics to be followed only by those persons who have had a special experience in the arts. The sources of Greek art are studied with a view of allowing anyone interested in the subject to see the reason for the "focus" that would be produced when the elements of the light were fused, the golden period is considered with relation to the ideas of philosophy and liberty which had so great an effect on the arts, and as Greece turns to the Dusk of Mankind (with which variant of Wagner's word "Gotterdammerung" M. Faure entitles his chapter on the decline), we are again shown, in the ideas at work in the race, the reasons for the new phases of its art—and not simply told that one statue is later or worse than another, or involved in technical intricacies from which we only escape with the classic "de gustibus.''
A feature of the history, which, the English reader will recognize with the four volumes before him, is the scope of the work. It is one of the proofs of its right to represent the modern idea of art. Beginning with the accessions to our knowledge a century ago, when important Greek works came to northern Europe, we have for a hundred years been extending the boundaries of the art considered classic. The masterpieces of Japan, China, and India have been reaching us only since the middle of the nineteenth century. The last of the exotic arts to affect Europeans has been that of the African sculptors. No other history approaches that of M. Faure in its full and clear study of the contribution of these more lately recognized arts to the widening of our horizon and to the changes in our understanding which they have caused.
It is not alone that the art of the last half century is different from that of earlier times because it is built on a wider base, but that to-day we see the whole of the past with new eyes. As our thought evolves there will unquestionably be further changes in our estimate of the past, but the summary resulting from the present work may confidently be expected to hold its rank as an important one in the history of the subject. For we have here the ideas of a period of intense research and criticism, and a point in that period when our thought has attained at least a temporary tranquility through its grasp of the new elements at its command and through an outlook on art that represents the creative men of the epoch.
It is to be doubted whether later critics will differ, to a radical degree, from the judgment of the Renaissance to which M. Faure points in his volume on that period, for the great critical activity of the last half century has been specially occupied with the Renaissance, and M. Faure knows well the results of this study. Perhaps it will be around the volume on Modern Art that later discussion will mainly center, for here the currents of interpretation sometimes issue from conflicting sources. M. Faure's analysis, however, must have a permanent interest, for it is based on too deep an understanding of the political and social structure of the European countries ever to be entirely superseded. It is the philosophy of a man whose role in the drama of his time is enriched by the great breadth of his activities and who has drawn on them all in his writing on art—the central interest of his career.
Élie Faure is a physician, and the scientist's knowledge and point of view is to be traced in his History of Art as well as in his masterly essay on Lamarck. He is one of the founders of the L’université Populaire and one of its lecturers. The thought on social questions which informs those books by M. Faure that treat of economic and racial evolution, of ethics and of war, recurs when he writes of art, or rather he looks on all of these things as inextricably mingled.
As we reach his pages on the later nineteenth century and the twentieth (for the last volume carries us to the art produced since the war), we find the author giving not only the original judgments that characterize his history from its beginning, but transmitting to us the ideas of the artists themselves, for as a result of his personal acquaintance with many of the chief workers of his time, he is enabled to speak not only of them but for them.
And yet the tone of these pages is but little different from that of the remainder of the work; the arts of the past have been so alive for the writer that his words seem to come most often from one who had seen the work produced. While searching untiringly for the facts of history and presenting their essentials in the order and relationship that the most modern scholarship has made available, the idea behind the whole work must (as M. Faure himself explains in the preface to the new edition before cited) be tinged with the personality of the writer and by the character of his time. "The historian who calls himself a scientist simply utters a piece of folly." In these matters judgment is inevitable, for to write the history of art one must make one's decisions as to what it is. The writing of it is in itself a work of art—as the style of Élie Faure is there to prove. Only one who feels the emotions of art can tell others which are the great works and make clear the collective poem formed by their history. It is precisely because Élie Faure is adding something to that poem that he has the right to tell us of its meaning.