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Brookner, Anita

    Image Credit: Art Forum

    Full Name: Brookner, Anita

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 16 July 1936

    Date Died: 10 March 2016

    Place Born: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Place Died: Chelsea, Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): eighteenth century (dates CE), French (culture or style), nineteenth century (dates CE), and painting (visual works)

    Institution(s): Courtauld Institute


    Historian of 18th and 19th century French painting. Brookner was born to Newson Bruckner, a Polish immigrant, and Maude Schiska (Bruckner), a British singer whose grandfather was originally from Warsaw, Poland.  Fearful of the German-sounding last name, her mother changed their family name to Brookner as World War II began. Although secular Jews, the Brookners took in Jewish refugees fleeing the Germans during the 1930s and World War II.  Brookner attended a private school, the James Allen’s Girls’ School. She received her B.A. from King’s College, University of London.  Brookner entered the Courtauld Institute of Art where she obtained both her MA and Ph.D, the latter an expansion of the former on the painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze. In 1950 she was awarded a scholarship from the French government to the École du Louvre where she principally lived while writing her dissertation, supervised by Anthony Blunt, the Courtald’s director.  She supported herself though numerous book- and exhibition reviews and translating both Italian and French books into English.

    She began her teaching career as a lecturer on French art and culture at the University of Reading between 1959 and 1964. Returning to the Courtauld as a lecturer, which she never left.  Brookner later became the first woman to be named to the Slade Professorship at Cambridge University teaching the academic year of 1967-1968. During that time she published a highly critical assessment on Michael Levey recent book as a letter in the Burlington Magazine (1967).  In it, Brookner outlined the divergent methodologies between Levey’s conservative formalism and what in some senses could be called the New Art History. The following year she issued the first of her monographic examinations of French painters, with Watteau. A group of essays, first delivered as her Slade school address, appeared as The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art and Criticism, published in 1971.  Greuze: the Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-century Phenomenon followed in 1972, particularly well received by scholars.  Brookner was raised to the rank of Reader (professor) at the Courtauld in 1977.  A final work on a French painter, Jacques-Louis David, was published by her in 1980.

    Brookner’s writing abandoned art history for the moment in favor of novel writing.  Her 1981 A Start in Life, vaguely chartered the issues in her life. Her 1984 Hotel du Lac received the Booker Prize for that year.  Though she continued to teach at the Courtauld, she devoted herself to novels over the next twenty years.  She learned, only from a book on Blunt’s spy activity published in 1987, that she had been used as a courier by Blunt, although by that time under British government control (Wright).  She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1990.  Her final book of art history was launched in 2000, Romanticism and its Discontents, some essays from her Genius of the Future studies and additional critics.  Her last novel was published in 2009, Strangers: a Novel.  She died in London at age 87.

    Anita Brookner presented a maverick’s view of art history while remaining in its mainstream.  Early on she lamented, “the increasing stylelessness of writings on art history.”  She frequently argued for art historians to avoid using art history to explain history, but rather to use history to explain art history.  She deplored writing with a bias for some periods and antipathy for others, as her letter to Levey pointed out.

    Selected Bibliography

    • translated, Crespelle, Jean Pau. The Fauves.  Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1962;
    • J.A. Dominique Ingres. Paulton, Nr, Bristol, England:: Purnell, 1965;”From Anita Brookner to Michael Levey–an Open Letter.” Burlington Magazine 109 (May 1967): 308-310; Watteau. London: Hamlyn, 1968 [8 pages];
    • The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art and Criticism (1971)
    • Greuze: the Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-century Phenomenon. London: Elek, 1972;
    • Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980;
    • and Mullins, Edwin. Great Paintings.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981
    • Romanticism and its Discontents. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  2000;novels
    • A Start in Life.  London: Cape, 1981 [American edition] Debut. New York: Linden Press, 1981;
    • Hotel du Lac. London: Cape, 1984;
    • Strangers: a Novel. London: Fig Tree, 2009[and others}


    • [obituary:] Ward-Jackson, Philip.  “Anita Brookner (1928-2016).”  Burlington Magazine 158, no. 1359 (June 2016): 460-461;
    • Wright, Peter and Greengrass, Paul. Spycatcher: the Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer.  New York, NY: Dell, 1988, p. 264;
    • Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998;
    • Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander.  Understanding Anita Brookner.  Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2002
    • Valman, Nadia. Jewish Women Writers in Britain. Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 2014.


    Contributors: LaNitra Michele Walker and Lee Sorensen


    LaNitra Michele Walker and Lee Sorensen. "Brookner, Anita." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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