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Baxandall, Michael

    Image Credit: The British Academy

    Full Name: Baxandall, Michael

    Other Names:

    • Michael David Kighley Baxandall

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1933

    Date Died: 2008

    Place Born: Cardiff, Wales, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): art theory, Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, Postmodern, Renaissance, and social history


    Scholar of Italian Renaissance art who employed postmodernist and social-history methods. Baxandall’s parents were the museum director David Kighley Baxandall and Isobel Thomas (Baxandall). He attended Manchester Grammar School, Manchester, England, and then Downing College, Cambridge University where he received an A. M. At Cambridge, the literary critic William Empson (1906-1984) and literary scholar Frank Raymond Leavis (1895-1978) helped him form a lingual approach to culture. He continued study at the University in Pavia and Munich. Baxandall was a Fellow at the Warburg Institute between 1959 and 1961, studying along with Michael Podro under E. H. Gombrich. In 1961 he joined the Victoria and Albert Museum’s department of Architecture and Sculpture, then under the direction of John Pope-Hennessy. The following year Terence Hodgkinson returned to the department from an assistant director position at the museum, and Baxandall and Hodgkinson worked together. He married Katharina Simon in 1963. In 1965 Baxandall left the V&A to be a lecturer at the Warburg Institute of the University of London. His pamphlet, German Wood Statuettes 1500-1800, dates from this period. The result of his Warburg years research appeared as his first book Giotto and the Orators, 1971, an examination of how language shapes a response to art. In 1972 he published a book which established his reputation as one of the emerging art historians of the “new art history,” Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. He was advanced to a Reader position at the Warburg in 1973. Baxandall was Slade professor of Art at Oxford University for the 1974-1975 year. His 1979 article “The Language of Art History,” in the New Literary History criticized theoretical pontification within the discipline. In 1980, he published The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, a topic suggested to him by Hodgkinson. He was named Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition of the Warburg the following year. Baxandall was appointed A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University in 1982, which he held until 1988. His methodological book, Patterns of Intention: on the Historical Explanation of Pictures was published to acclaim in 1985. In 1987 he became Professor of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. He retired from Berkeley, emeritus, in 1996, as the onset of Parkinson’s disease set in. A later-life interest in the eighteenth century led to a collaborative book with Svetlana Alpers, Tiepolo and Pictorial Intelligence, 1994. In 1999, Blackwell publishers issued a series of essays by other art historians on Baxandall’s methodology, About Michael Baxandall. His Warburg-era students include Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, and Michael Ann Holly Paintings and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972), was one of the first books to examine Italian Renaissance art as social history, and the first to address an undergraduate audience. Baxandall argued for a “visual anthropology,” i.e., a way to look at art through the experiences of the viewers of the period. The book immediately became a staple of university course curricula and Baxandall issued a second edition in 1988. Michael Ann Holly, his student, characterized his work as “fundamentally a postmodernist point of view.” He is considered one of the founders of what came to be known as “visual literacy studies” some twenty-five years later.

    Selected Bibliography

    German Wood Statuettes 1500-1800. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1967; Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, 1350-1450. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971; Paintings and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972; The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980; Patterns of Intention: on the Historical Explanation of Pictures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985; Shadows and Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995; and Alpers, Svetlana. Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. Shadows and Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.


    Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 118; [transcript] Michael Baxandall. Interviews with Art Historians, 1991-2002. Getty Research Institute, Malibu, CA; Who’s Who 2004: an Annual Biographical Dictionary. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, p. 136; [regarding methodologies:] Rifkin, Adrian. About Michael Baxandall. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999, specifically, Holly, Michael Ann. “Patterns in the Shadows: Attention in/to the Writings of Michael Baxandall.” pp. 5-15 and Potts, Alex. “Michael Baxandall and the Shadows in Plato’s Cave.” pp. 69-83; [obituaries:] Potts, Alex. “Michael Baxandall.” Burlington Magazine 151 (January 2008): 32-33;


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Baxandall, Michael." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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