Michael Baxandall: 74, Influential Art Historian, Dies

Historians in the News

Michael Baxandall, whose analysis of the social forces shaping works of art and the way they were seen helped pave the way for the influential movement known as the new art history, died on Aug. 12 in London. He was 74.

The cause was pneumonia associated with Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Kathrin Baxandall.

Mr. Baxandall’s second book, “Painting and Experience in 15th-Century Italy,” published in 1972, announced a program in its first sentence. “A 15th-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship,” he wrote.

He proceeded to lay bare not only the patron-client transactions that influenced the making of an artwork, but also something he called “the period eye”: the act of perception determined by social circumstances. In a famous example, he showed how Italians knew how to appraise the volume of a barrel by sight, and how artists played to this carefully cultivated skill.

This approach signaled an abrupt departure in art criticism comparable to the shift toward social history among British historians.

“He provided the tools we needed to take works of art out of the frame and off the pedestal to see how they really worked,” said Thomas Crow, a professor of modern art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. “He made it possible to see, through the art, how societies organized themselves and, conversely, how individuals perceived their own experiences and inner lives.”

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