Helen Gardner (1878–1946), influential art historian and SAIC professor, authored art history's seminal textbook.
Helen Gardner (1878–1946), art historian and SAIC professor, authored the seminal art history textbook Art Through the Ages (1926), which is still widely used today. Art Through the Ages was the first book to cover the entire range of art history from a global perspective, widening the aperture of study outward from Western Europe.
Born in New Hampshire, Gardner moved to Chicago when she was 13, where she attended Hyde Park High School and first began studying Latin and Greek. She went on to study Classics at the University of Chicago, where she graduated in 1901 and began teaching at the Brooks Classical School—a small, all-girl private school where her sister was the principal.
Gardner traveled extensively, which led her back to the University of Chicago at age 37 to study art and Italian. She received her degree and a graduate fellowship 1917, and two years later she was named head of the Department of Photographs and Lantern Slides of the Ryerson Library of the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon after, she began lecturing at SAIC, where she taught from 1920–42.
In 1932 she published her second book, Understanding the Arts, as a guide for educators. She influenced many artists and educators, including another acclaimed art historian and SAIC professor, Kathleen Blackshear.
“Helen Gardner has almost become more of an institution than she was a person. Her Art Through the Ages, now in its 15th edition, has sold millions of copies and played a crucial role in creating the modern canon of art history. But she was a person, a Chicagoan, and in her more than 25 years of teaching at SAIC, Gardner was a crucial part of its transition from an art academy to an academy of art, where the means of production of art were no longer its sole purview, but came to include its history, meaning, and broader cultural implications. Gardner was among the first to harness several thousand years of human visual productivity into a continuous authorial narrative, one particularly designed for teaching that material in a college course, and produced what is among one of the few things that work about as well in 2015 as it did in 1935.”
—James Yood, SAIC Adjunct Professor, Art History, Theory, and Criticism; New Arts Journalism
“It is impossible that anyone who listened to her in a classroom could ever forget that small, dynamic woman, her enthusiasms, her animation when she rediscovered with each class her great favorites—Egypt, the Greeks, the Gothic cathedrals, Rembrandt, the Renaissance masters. She used the galleries well in her teaching. Her use of the Museum's collections made her book, Art Through the Ages, alive in ways that I am sure other students in other places could not share. Her lectures, even her pauses before some particularly compelling image on the screen, were eloquent and informative. She loved the historical sweep of her subject, but what is more important, she loved the things she talked about—art itself and the people who made it. Tested against other art historians I have listened to from time to time in the course of my later years, she grows in importance from this circumstance particularly. She had the gift of imparting her pleasure in the arts to others, along with considerable information.”
—Norman L. Rice, SAIC Dean, 1938–43
"I never met anyone who was as sensitive to art as Helen Gardner. She just had an uncanny ability, it seemed, to give you the essentials of every period so that you could compare one civilization with another and really see what made them the same, not only different, but what made art the core of human expression.”
—Andrene Kauffman, SAIC Professor of Painting and Drawing, 1927–67