H. W. Janson – History of Art


History of Art

The famous art historian we know as H. W. Janson was born as Horst Waldemar Janson in Russia on October 4, 1913. Prior to his long career as a teacher and scholar, Janson studied at the University of Munich and in the art history program at the University of Hamburg where he was a student of Erwin Panofsky.

In 1935, Janson’s teacher, Panofsky, convinced Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to sponsor Janson as an immigrant. He went to the United States and completed a PhD at Harvard University in 1942 (his dissertation was on Michelozzo). He also taught at the Worcester Art Museum (1936–38) and the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History (1938–41) while pursuing his degree. Janson taught at Washington University in St. Louis from 1941 until 1949, when he joined the faculty of New York University, where he developed the undergraduate arts department and taught at the graduate Institute of Fine Arts. He was recognized with an honorary degree in 1981.

The greatest gift Janson gave us is his book History of Art, which has sold more than two million copies in fifteen languages. First published in 1962, the book has since become the standard by which current art history textbooks are measured. Many consider it to be the introduction to the art of the Western world.

Besides History of Art, Janson also wrote about Renaissance art and nineteenth-century sculpture, and authored two prize-winning books, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1952) and Sculpture of Donatello (1957). In his later years he was concerned with East–West dialogue in the arts.

Over his career, Janson consulted on the Time–Life Library of Art; was president of the College Art Association, editor of the Art Bulletin, and founding member and President of the Renaissance Society of America. He also wrote books on art for young people, some in collaboration with his wife. He died on a train between Zurich and Milan in 1982 at the age of 68.

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by Rosalie H. Contino, PhD