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Benesch, Otto

    Image Credit: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

    Full Name: Benesch, Otto

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1896

    Date Died: 1964

    Place Born: Ebenfurth, Niederösterreich, Austria

    Place Died: Vienna, Vienna state, Austria

    Home Country/ies: Austria

    Subject Area(s): Dutch (culture or style) and painting (visual works)


    Rembrandt scholar and director of the Albertina 1947-61. Benesch’s father was the art collector Heinrich Benesch. Among the elder Benesch’s friends was the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele. A double portrait of father and son, painted by Schiele in 1913, is owned by the Wolfgang-Gurlitt-Museum in Linz, Austria. The younger Benesch studied art history at the University of Vienna and a semester in Stockholm under Johnny Roosval. Around 1919 he assisted Frederick Antal in organizing the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Benesch wrote his dissertation in Vienna under Max Dvořák in 1921 on the subject of Rembrandt’s drawings. Between 1919-23 he was a volunteer assistant at the picture gallery (Gemäldegalerie) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, under director of Gustav Glück. In 1923 he was appointed assistant curator at the Graphische Sammlung Albertina. There he met Eva Steiner, an administrative clerk, and married her in 1934. In 1935 he wrote the twelve-page (!) entry on Rembrandt for the Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler (Thieme-Becker). With the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938, the Benesches fled (Eva, although protestant, was of Jewish extraction). Traveling by way of Switzerland, Benesch moved to France and then, in 1939, was a guest lecturer in the Netherlands. The academic year 1939-40 he spent in England, where he was briefly interned on the Isle of Man at the outbreak of World War II. At the invitation of Walter W. S. Cook, Benesch lectured at New York University, and in 1941 at Harvard University with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship supplied by Wilhelm Reinhold Walter Koehler. During the war he and Eva worked for the American Defense, Harvard Group, identifying art monuments in Austria and Czechoslovakia. In 1945 he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It was in 1945 that he first published his The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The book owes much to Dvořák, especially the expansion of the Dvořákian concept of Mannerism to northern artists such as Bruegel (Posner). In 1946 he was called back to Vienna, where he assumed the Director of the Albertina in 1947, a position he held until 1962. He was named Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Vienna in 1948. His years as director focused on acquisitions that broadened the scope of the Albertina’s collections. Between 1954-57 Benesch published the first complete catalog of Rembrandt drawings, based on much original research. Benesch’s area of scholarship was graphic arts and particularly Rembrandt. His publications reflect his wide interests, covering gothic art, conservation of monuments, art theory and musicology (he was an organist and keyboard musician). Methodologically, Benesch was not wedded to theory, such as fellow Vienna-school historians Otto Pächt, Dagobert Frey and Hans Sedlmayr. Instead, he employed the Geistesgeschichte approach of documentary/intellectual history akin to the work of his mentor Dvořák. He and Hans Tietze were among Dvořák’s most important pupils.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation] Rembrandts zeichnerische Entwicklung bis 1633. Vienna: Universität Wien, 1921; “Rijn, Rembrandt Harmensz van.” [sic] Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1907-50, vol. 29, pp. 259-271; Artistic and Intellectual Trends from Rubens to Daumier as Shown in Book Illustration. Cambridge, MA: Department of Printing and Graphic Arts, Harvard College Library, 1943; “Zu Dürers Rosenkranzfest.” Belvedere (Vienna) 9 no. 3 (1930): 81-5; The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe: Its Relation to the Contemporary Spiritual and Intellectual Movements. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945. Revised ed., London: Phaidon, 1965; Otto Benesch: Collected Writings. Edited by Eva Benesch. 4 vols. London: Phaidon, 1970-73 [Individual volumes may appear under their own title]; A Catalogue of Rembrandt’s Selected Drawings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947; Edvard Munch. Garden City, NY: Doubleday , 1960; [collected essays] From an Art Historian’s Workshop Lucerne: Gilhofer & Ranschburg, 1979; Die Historia Friderici et Maximiliani. Berlin: Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft, 1957; Der Maler Albrecht Altdorfer. Vienna: A. Schroll, 1943, [written1938]; Rembrandt: Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Skira,1957; [Rembrandt] Drawings: A Critical and Chronological Catalogue. 6 vols. London: Phaidon Press, 1954-1957; Egon Schiele als Zeichner. Vienna: Osterreichischen Staatsdruckerei, 1951.


    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. 154 mentioned; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 48 mentioned, 97; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. 2nd. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007, pp. 23-25; Lachnit, Edwin. “Otto Benesch.” Dictionary of Art; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, pp. 32-39; Posner, Donald. “Introduction.” Friedlaender, Walter. Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965, pp. xi-x; [obituaries] De Tolnay, Charles. “Otto Benesch.” The Burlington Magazine 107 (April 1965): 206 ff.; “Dr. Otto Benesch, 64.” New York Times November 28, 1964, p. 21.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Benesch, Otto." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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