Philosopher of perception and art; used Gestalt psychology for his art-historical studies. Arnheim was the son of Georg Arnheim (1867-1944), a piano factory owner, and Betty Gutherz (Arnheim) (1879-1966). He was raised in Berlin, attending the Herdergymnasium (Abitur 1923). His parents intended him to assume the family business, but beginning in 1923 Arnheim, studied art and music history, philosophy and psychology at the University of Berlin with Gestalt-based scholars Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967) and Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). His Ph.D. dissertation was supervised by the eminent theorist Max Wertheimer (1880-1943) in 1928. Arnheim became friends and was greatly influenced by the private art historian Kurt Badt; his sister, Helen "Leni" Arnheim (1906-1973) married Badt. Arnheim pursued his interests in the arts through the editorship of Die Weltbuhne, a leftist magazine of politics and culture, publishing articles on film, art and architecture. This led him to develop his theories of the primacy of perception in art appreciation, linking it with the heretofore separated function of mental cognition. His investigations included music and film (he was one of the first to publish a book on the artistic aspects of the silent film in 1932). Arnheim married Annette Siecke (1920-2000), sixteen years his junior. While interviewing the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) on the radio, she prophetically warned him, "As long as the Jews are film critics, I'll never have a success." Hitler's rise in Germany meant the Arnheims had to flee Jewish persecution, initially to Rome. He spent five years as associate editor for a League of Nations cultural publication. During that time, 1937, the couple gave sanctuary to a young art historian also fleeing persecution in Germany, Paul Laport. Laport, recently divorced, and Arnheim's wife began an affair which resulted in a child by Laport. Arnheim divorced his wife and she later married Laport. After Mussolini allied himself with Hitler, Arnheim again fled. He traveled to England working as a translator for the BBC. In 1940 he immigrated to the United States. He lectured at the New School for Social Research (influencing, among others, the first American Africanist Roy Sieber) and then Columbia University, working as a researcher involved with the habits of radio listeners. Arnheim was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for the 1942-1943 year. He began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1943, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1946. Arnheim married a second time to Mary Frame (1918-1999), a librarian, in 1953. He published his best known work, Art and Visual Perception, a theory of graphic understanding, in 1954. In 1962, Arnheim wrote a work of true art history, Picasso's Guernica: The Genesis of a Painting. In it, he traces the elements of the famous Picasso work and how they combine to create the meaning generally accepted today. Arnheim was appointed to Harvard University, Carpenter Center of Visual Arts, in 1968. He retired from Harvard in 1974, emeritus professor of the psychology of art. He continued as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan retiring a second time in 1984. At age 102 he contracted pneumonia at his Ann Arbor retirement community and died.
Methodologically, Arnheim was fascinated by the perceptual structures in appreciating art. His investigations in the preliminary sketches for Picasso's Guernica, among other works, helped establish a revised view of art interpretation for many art historians. His pioneering notion of "Visual thinking," the idea that vision itself is the primary modality for thought, is the driving force behind his books. His views on art harken to the empiricist philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704), who asserted that knowledge of the world is an objective sensory experience. Arnheim's view was criticized by, among others, the literary philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) (who ironically died the day before Arnheim).
- Rudolf Arnheim papers, 1919-1998, Archives of American Art. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/rudolf-arnheim-papers-8318, AAA.arnhrudo.