Art Philosophy

William Zou


A Book Review on “Lectures on Art- the Philosophy of Art in Italy, Netherlands and Greece” by H. Taine

The Renaissance was a dramatic forward motion in European culture that reached its climax during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It marked the end of the medieval ages and the beginning of modern culture. Starting in Florence, Italy, it gradually spread to encompass all of Europe, bringing advancements to the arts, sciences, and politics.

Among the most influential was  Italian art. The major representatives were da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, and Correggio.

The French historian and critic Hippolyte Taine’s “Lectures on Art- the Philosophy of Art inItaly,NetherlandsandGreece” gives a concise account of his perspective of the Renaissance. According to Taine, the appearance of masterpieces was not a matter of mere occurrence but a tendency of the entire nation.

“Race, milieu et moment” is Taine’s scientific approach towards art and literature. Translating into “nation, environment, and time,” these three factors can offer an explanation on why the Renaissance began inItaly and why it produced the art that it did.

Taine’s “Lectures on Art” states that for a nation to produce great artwork the people must first be cultivated.  The people of Italy were able progress ahead of the rest of Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Even a peasant, Taine states, would be able to advance opinions, discuss politics, and appreciate art and literature. Classical art and literature were as revered back then as rock or pop is today. The support of the public gave the artists inspiration to create. For instance, Pope Leo the tenth gave five hundred ducats to a poet whose verse had delighted him.

The rest of Europe, however, were undergoing difficult times. England for instance, was entering the War of the Two Roses; in Germany, the Hussite Wars were breaking out; and France had been devastated by wars with England. All things considered, it is no wonder that the Renaissance spiraled out fromItaly.

Looking at a timeline, one can see that the Renaissance borders the medieval ages and modern culture: between barbarism and civilization. Mankind has not yet completely abandoned its “bellicose instincts.” This is an age where people focused as much, if not more, on the physical body than mental ability. From here, Taine draws the conclusion that the artists’ interests in drawing the human body of perfection is of no coincidence. 

Taine also summarizes the nature of the Italian art:

“The imagination of the Italian is classic (Greek and Latin)… It disdains or neglects landscape…It comprehends man better than nature; it better comprehends man in society than the barbarian… and the entire work conveys the idea of a corporeal world like that of ancient Olympus, that is to say, heroic or divine….”

This can be further seen from Michelangelo’s declaration that “these must be abandoned to the pleasure and profit of minor talents, and that the true object of art is the human figure”.

Taine’s account of art has been influential. Although there may be certain limitations to his analysis, it still can be taken into consideration. The approach of “race, milieu et moment” has its own merits.