The Use of Style in Art History

‘Nothing is more natural in art history than to draw parallels between periods of culture and periods of style.’

This article will critically assess the uses and limitations of the concept of style for the practice of art history. As the quotation above suggests, style is often used to describe consistency of qualities in periods or people. In his 1968 essay Style, Gombrich states style is any distinctive and recognisable way in which artifacts are made or performed. He provides detailed accounts of the generalised use of the word ‘style’ before introducing the reader to its use in evaluating art. Gombrich argues that the introduction of ‘illusionistic devices’ such as foreshortening or perspective provide the modern historian with identifiable changes upon which she can hang the term ‘style’. This relationship of qualities, form and motifs is supported by Schapiro who describes style as having ‘constant form – and sometimes the constant elements, qualities and expression of an individual or group’. Wölfflin regarded the style of any individual to be different to the style of periods, while Wollheim made distinctions between general style, within which he located universal style, and individual style. This essay will examine the debates and disputes around the term style. It will then describe some of approaches and arguments of Willibald Sauerländer and Jaś Elsner. Lastly, it will contrast two paintings by Rothko, assessing the differing styles of each, and ask how cultural change influences style. 

Style is best described as having coherence within temporal boundaries, a day, a year, a life, or a lifetime of movements or schools. Monads, diads, triads or tetrads, arrange style into phases, where the triadic system of describing moments as early, middle and late is most common. This practice immediately presents problems: consider artists whose practice was over relatively short periods, for example Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) or Egon Schiele (1890-1918) – neither lived to develop late styles. Additionally, Elkins mentions Constable as an example of an artist who, despite a long life, didn’t develop an identifiable late style. Picasso is an example of an artist who fluctuated between styles over his lifetime, with no identifiable order to pin early, middle, or late to. His styles are so dissimilar, they are incapable of coexisting. 

Alpers argues that style is a false construction by style art historians. Value is attributed to art objects by assigning stylistic identity. This identity may be the only understanding of historical objects where there is no other historical record, resulting in a subjective understanding of historical moments. Moreover, Alpers asserts, the attribution of identity is often the practice of connoisseurs, shaping the history of art with ordering by period. Style art history, reliant on time ordering, neglects the importance of individual makers agency or authorship. Alpers criticises Wölfflin when he argues the ‘stylistic equivalence of a gothic shoe and a Gothic cathedral.’ Alpers agrees with Riegl claiming art must be a mediation between the maker and the world. For Riegl, the production of art is dependent on a particular artist or community of artists. To disregard agency, art history becomes empirical, and ideological rather than theoretical. 

A contrasting opinion is found with Gombrich  who finds it natural to associate style  categories with intention and agency. The artist may choose to link her art with a specific style, determining the style catagories that her work falls in to. For Walton, the artist’s intention is one of a number of elements relevant to style categorisation, while Goodman, like Alpers, rejects the notion of intention as part of any criteria for ascribing style categorisation.

Elsner states that despite these and other problems, style art history has been ‘impossible to lay to rest’. Although many critics and historians prefer to study art as a system of signs, rather than style, ‘style remains indispensable for the act of interpretation.’ Elsner argues that stylistic analysis helps to ‘sort out the stuff’ believing the style enables further analysis: ‘dates, places, artists, and hence patrons, contexts, influences, the mental constructs of a culture’ However he concedes that histories are constructed around the questions that are asked and consequential hypotheses. Elsner’s ‘stylistic reflex’, can never be pure or true, but is an inevitability linked to idealism. He argues that that style art history ignores an object’s life, reception, its ‘messy history’, favouring the romanicised point of an object’s creation. 

In From Stilus to Style, Sauerländer claims the ancient use of style was bound to tradition disrupted by the ‘aesthetic earthquakes’ of the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in him becoming skeptical ‘of the traditional methods pretending to open the doors to truth.’ Like Alpers, Sauerlander acknowledges that style art history involves ‘some kind of ideology’, where style is constructed as an aesthetic mirror that enables texts of the past to become accessible to art historians. Style therefore becomes a system of rules, like language, evaluating and constructing categories, where style became normative. Gombrich agrees arguing that we put our trust in the value of the norm. Sauerlander observes that some of these categories held more esteem than others in ancient rhetoric and that style established norms, but also forced exclusions. Sauerlander goes on to discuss the use of style in nineteenth century art history, claiming style becomes the ‘heritage and property of an enlightened and liberal public.’ It has the effect of helping to understand a broader range of visual material. In the nineteenth century, formalism opposed the contextual analysis of art. Sauerlander called this ‘style for styles sake’ and became the main motivation for change and development in art. Style became less about prescriptive norms, and more about the ‘description of relative peculiarities.’ Finally it changed to become the main instrument of art history towards the beginning of the twentieth century. For Sauerlander, style is a process and the generator of historical change. The tool that encourages the consumption of art as examples of stylistic norms, where art that does not correspond to aesthetic ‘domestication and sterilization’,  in a strange case of contradiction, are actually highlighted and celebrated. As Alpers observed, this ‘mode has provided, in effect, a normative center for much of the discussion of art and its nature.’

Sauerlander believes style is generally connected with ideas about form, which is the configuration of pictorial elements: what the viewer sees and will include colour, line, balance, texture etc. The Abstract Expressionists, under the watchful eye of Clement Greenberg were characterised by their formalist approach, which included firstly action painting such as the work of Pollock and De Kooning, and secondly, colour field painting, including the work of Newman and Mark Rothko. 

Rothko was born in 1903 and came to America from Russia in 1913. Like many of the Abstract Expressionists who were largely born between 1903 and 1913, Rothko was a child of the First World War.  They came of age in America during the boom of the early 1920s and the bust of the 1930s.  

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway (New York, 1938)

Rothko’s 1938 painting, Entrance to Subway is a figurative work that explores his interest in city life. Schapiro argues that style is not arbitrary, but instead ‘has risen from the experience of investigation’. Although Shapiro believes style to be the relationship between form elements, he stresses that this must be combined with an understanding of the broader socio-economic culture. Resulting from the great depression, Rothko shared a sense of isolation with many Americans, aided by the background noise of WW1, the rhetoric that would soon lead to the start of WW2, and the fighting in the Pacific. This work shows people as undefined objects rather than subjects. There was a sense of chaos and disjunction that provoked modernism across all art forms: ‘fragmentation replaced unity; doubt and multiple perspectives replaced certainty’.

In his early career Rothko could not break with the convention of ‘room space’. Like the ‘Old Masters illusion of space and depth’ Rothko populates the back plane with figures, drawing the viewer’s eye to his use of perspective. Wolfflin’s second pair of principles helps describe the plane and recession. Although Rothko uses planes parallel to the pictures edge, he also employs diagonals to recede into the picture space. On the left is a set of stairs with a dark daubed figure. Two people move down stairs giving the image an unseen level. They do not emerge from the subterranean, but, in my view, seem to sink in to an American nihilism; open form showing the isolation continues outside the picture space. Rothko creates a scene implicitly acknowledging the medium of painting; flatness of the surface; the shape of the support , but with one exception – the paint itself. The columns are in contrasting colours, the floor in greys, like the figures and the wall, with tones layered in green and blue-green seem to have their own illumination. The layering of paint may be the ‘apprehension of the world as a shifting semblance’. At points it is applied quickly, with single, dry smears detailing the ceiling and railings, like streams of consciousness found in TS Eliot or James Joyce. Wolfflin states that the painterly is bound up with certain ideas of beauty. Entrance to Subway holds us not because it is beautiful, but because, to use Wolfflin’s words, its ‘style was conceived as the direct expression of temperament’ of its time, and of its people. Nonetheless, it took Rothko almost ten more years to completely reject realism and move to total abstraction. 

Abstract Expressionism was first named as a movement in 1946. The artists involved in the movement had known little other than large-scale cataclysm. ‘America shared the loss of certainty’ with oversees allies during and after the Second world war. A sense of the failures of old forms of representation led to an increasing amount of experimentation, manifest in abstraction, and particularly the work of impressionists like Cezanne, where technique triumphed over content. Greenberg writes that it is  ‘difficult to assume anything’ which for Greenberg includes religion, authority, tradition and style, all of which are thrown into question. Science too shook the ideas of truth and knowledge, first with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, then with Heisenberg, who in 1927 discovered the Uncertainty Principle of how the world was organised, holding that observation affected truth where there was no objective point from which truth could be ascertained. As ideas about reality were becoming unstable, art responded. The meaning of the work relied not in its content, but how the image was made as artists created non-objective works concerned primarily with the articulation of the surface. Set against this backdrop, Rothko, moved away from representation making his first colour field paintings in 1947.

Shapiro argues ‘discovering works of another time influences concepts through discovery of aesthetic of variants unknown in our own art’. For Greenberg, ‘Manet’s became the first modernist pictures’ by drawing attention to the flat surface of the canvas, and leaving no doubt that the viewer was looking at paint rather than mimesis.  Greenberg notes that Cezanne ‘sacrificed verisimilitude’ helping him fit the subject to confines of the rectangular canvas. 

Mark Rothko, No,14 1960 (San Francisco, 1960)

From his first multiform works from 1945 until his death in 1970, Rothko subscribes to Greenberg’s assertion that modern art should stress the ineluctable flatness of the surface. Rothko’s work No14 1960 lays two slabs of luminous colour on brown. The orange rectangular shape on top of a blue area, about half as tall, separated by a near imperceptible dark brown line. That line is not, as defined by Wolfflin, linear. Instead by applying his first of 5 principles, No14 is, like Entrance to Subway painterly, flickering, the forms are luminous and are bound together by layers of brushstrokes. The clarity is relative and the picture seems unintentional, where the colour and light have a life of their own. Unlike Entrance to Subway, No14 is self-contained. The work of the Abstract Expressionists, particularly the drip paintings of Pollock are known for their open form: the paint continues off the canvas edge. And although Rothko takes the paint to the edge of the canvas in No14 1960, Wolfflin’s description of closed form helps to describe the near symmetry, stability and balance of the work as a ‘finite whole’. 

For Shapiro, style includes technique, subject and material that are characteristic of certain groups of artists, but he continues, ‘these features are not so peculiar to the art of a period as the formal and qualitative ones’. For Greenberg, at least until later in the 1970’s, flatness is unique and exclusive to modern painting, because flatness was the only quality painting shared with no other art. As an intellectual whose values and career were formed in the heat of Old Left Marxist debates of the 1930s and 1940s, Greenberg pairs an analysis of European abstraction with a structural analysis of capitalism, focusing on cultural production. As workers became increasingly alienated from their labour, Greenberg saw in abstraction a reflection of the capitalist process itself, highlighting the connection between art and the society in which he lived.  

Greenberg’s view is that the ‘old masters created the vivid illusion of three-dimensional space’. Like Rothko’s Entrance to Subway, that space is narrative driven, replicating life. According to Greenberg, as society develops under capitalism, the picture plane begins to flatten with the image being recessive, and moves out to the picture plane itself. In abstraction, Greenberg sees the immediacy of the modern and its removal of sentimentality. Greenberg positions himself as the critic of cultural breakdown and separates culture into avant-garde and kitsch, defining kitsch as a product of the industrial revolution. 

Avant-garde culture was everything that was separated from production and sale: art for arts sake. Rothko’s No.14 was part of his avant-garde celebrating uniqueness, where in contrast, Entrance to Subway is representative or illustrative, and does not ‘attain the uniqueness of pictorial art’. No. 14 reduces itself to the essence of the medium, avoiding reference to any experience not given through the medium. For Greenberg, formalism, the flattened picture frame is the new style where America breaks free of European art and New York replaces Paris as the cultural art centre. Modern art must therefore not rely on any perception other than the experience of the medium alone ‘where art is to achieve purity by acting solely in terms of their separate and irreducible selves.’ By locating Rothko as an example of modern painting therefore represents for Greenberg an artist who shifts self-criticism, and therefore painting in a completely new direction. However Greenberg the Marxist gradually turns himself into a conservative critic as he argues that art becomes important only in opposition to the trappings of bourgeois society as the avant-garde emigrates from the markets of capitalism. No.14, represents a distillation of a critical approach based on aesthetic beliefs codified in the 1940s and 50s’ which at least in part, can be attributed paradoxically to Greenberg’s critical discourse.

In conclusion, this essay has shown a variety of uses of the term ‘style’. It has analysed two contrasting works by Rothko demonstrating the influence Greenberg had on Rothko’s understanding of ‘style’, and has highlighted the problems with evaluating a work with style alone. Specifically it has been shown that socio-economic and cultural influences cannot be ignored when evaluating the concept of style for the practice of art history.

Word count: 2711


Svetlana Alpers, ‘Style is What You Make It: The Visual Arts Once Again’, (1979), <; [accessed on 20 January 2019]

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Heinrich Wolfflin, ‘Principles of Art History’ (1915), in Eric Fernie, Art History and its Methods: A Critical Anthology, (London: Phaidon, 2003), pp.127-151. 


Mark Rothko: Entrance to Subway, oil on canvas, 0.86×1.17 m, 1938 (Kate Rothko Prizel Collection); © 2007 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: Art Resource, NY

Mark Rothko: No. 14 1960, oil on canvas, 290.83×268.29 cm, 1960 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: SFMOMA, San Francisco

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