Scholar of fin-de-siècle Germanic art and music; Southern Methodist University professor of art history. Alessandra Comini was born in Winona, Minnesota to Eleanor Frances (“Megan”) Laird (Comini), a writer, and Raiberto Comini, a hotel-and- business owner in Geneva, Ibiza (island) and London, in 1934.
Her parents lived in Italy but before her birth, returned to Minnesota so that their child would be born with American citizenship. They moved to Barcelona, but the Spanish civil war forced them to Comini’s grandparents in Milan. By 1937, the Comini family returned to the United States, first Winona and then to Dallas where her father set up a portrait photography studio. During World War II, Comini, who still spoke with an accent and suffered from strabismus, endured prejudice because of her Axis-country origin. Comini was introduced to the arts early with art lessons by landscape artist Ed Bearden and at15, a filing job at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. She graduated from the Ursuline Academy, run by the Ursuline order of nuns.
Comini entered Barnard College, her interest primarily music. The art historian Marion Lawerence introduced her to art history. A summer in Italy (to study the language) resulted in an enthusiasm for art, especially medieval and Renaissance.
Back at Barnard College she enrolled in Italian renaissance classes with Julius Held with whose family she became close. She studied German with her mother at Southern Methodist University where her mother eventually taught German and Italian, later establishing the Italian department there. Comini took an intensive senior art history seminar at Barnard taught by Lawerence, graduating with an A.B., in 1956. Held encouraged her to study at the University of Vienna. In Vienna she studied under Karl Maria Swoboda and Fritz Novotny . Her advisor at Vienna was Gerhard Schmidt, for whom she photographed medieval manuscripts at the Abbey of St. Florian, finding free time to help Hungarian refugees from that country’s revolt. Comini left the University of Vienna in 1957 without a degree for New York and San Francisco. The peripatetic Comini travelled to Mexico learning Spanish and viewing works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe. After a few months she returned to New York, taking a job at Columbia/Princeton Electronic Music Center for Russian composer Vladimir Ussachevsky. Ever restless and now interested in the folk music of Scandivania, she travelled throughout Scandinavia and Denmark, continuing to Paris, London, and Prague. In 1962, applied for a teaching position at San Francisco State College, and when turned down,elected to get an art history degree at University of California Berkeley.
The Viennese Expression exhibition, organized by Herschel Chipp focused her interest on the Austrian artists Egon Schiele. She wrote an MA thesis on Schiele University of California, Berkeley, granted in 1962. Later she cited professors Jean Bony and Walter Horn as influences. She accompanied a class of students led by Held and Harry Bober (of New York University). Walter Hofmann, who was director of Vienna’s Museum of the 20th Century. Comini discovered contemporary Austrian artist, Friedrich Hundertwasser, who was living in Italy at the time. Some of his work was later put into Comini’s 1978 book, The Fantastic Art of Vienna.
Comini continued her research on Schiele contacting relatives and friends, among whom, art historian Otto Benesch who had been painted by Schiele. She assiduously visited his homes and haunts, including the prison cell he was incarcerated in. Comini entered Columbia University graduate school in 1964, hearing lectures by Theodore Reff, George Collins, and Meyer Schapiro. As her Schiele profile grew, other specialists, Otto Nirenstein-Kallir, Thomas Messer, contacted her. While still a graduate student she was a guest professor at Berkeley University in 1967. Comini received her Ph.D., “with distinction” in 1969 from Columbia writing her dissertation under Reff, on the topic of Egon Schiele's portraiture.
Comini shared an office with art historian Edith Porada. Her students included Horst Uhr, Barbara Buenger, Charles Meyer, Aliso Hilton, and Janet Kennedy. In 1972, Comini was the first woman to be awarded Princeton University’s Charles John Gwinn and Alfred Hodder Memorial Fellowship. She guest lectured at Yale University on Expressionism in 1973. She presented an early women’s history paper in 1980, “Art History, Revisionism, and Some Holy Cows.”
Comini accepted a professorship of art history at Southern University in 1974. There she met fellow art historian Eleanor Tufts and two became life partners. The same year Comini was awarded the College Art Association's Charles Rufus Morey Book Award. Comini’s research interest expanded to Picasso Caspar David Friedrich. Her 1974 book, Egon Schiele’s Portraits appeared. In 1990, Comini contributed to Norma Broude’s book, World Impressionism. Tufts died of ovarian cancer in 1992.
In 1994 she authored another catalog and traveling exhibition on Egon Schiele. Comini received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus for Art in 1995. In 1996 she was named Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at European Humanities Research Centre, Oxford University. The same year she received the Distinguished Teaching Prize of the Meadows School of the Arts. Her autobiography, In Passionate Pursuit was published in 2004. Beginning in 2014, Comini wrote art history murder mystery books, including Killing for Klimt, The Schiele Slaughters, and The Munich Murders. Two scholarships have since been created in her name by former students for undergraduate and graduate research. In 2014, Comini curated the Neue Galerie Museum (New York) on Egon Schiele’s Portraits (2014-2015).
Comini described herself as a revisionist art historian. She applied social-historical criteria to the popular Klimt and Schiele, artists whose histories had been largely aesthetically focused. She characterized her work as concentrating on "neglected geographical areas such as Scandinavia; women artists past and present; modern myth-making and the manipulation of imagery."
- Schiele in Prison. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1973;
- Egon Schiele’s Portraits. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974;
- The Fantastic Art of Vienna. New York City: Knopf, 1978;
- The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1987;
- “Nordic Luminism and the Scandinavian Recasting of Impressionism” in World Impressionism: The International Movement, 1860 - 1920. Norma Broude. New York City: Harry N. Abrams, 1990;
- Nudes: Egon Schiele. New York City: Rizzoli, 1995;
- Gustav Klimt. New York City: Braziller, 2001;
- In Passionate Pursuit. New York: George Braziller, 2004;
- “Alessandra Comini.” National Book Foundation. Accessed January, 2020. https://www.nationalbook.org/people/alessandra-comini/;
- “Alessandra Comini.” People Pill. Accessed December, 2019.https://peoplepill.com/people/alessandra-comini/;
- “Art Historian Alessandra Comini Retires From SMU.” Art Daily. Accessed January, 2020. https://artdaily.cc/news/12176/Art-Historian-Alessandra-Comini-Retires-From-SMU#.XjD6PBd7lE5;
- Comini, Alessandra. “Introduction.” Alessandra Comini. Accessed December, 2019. https://www.alessandracomini.com/;
- “Dallas Museum of Art Exhibits Rosa Bonheur Ewe Gift.” UT Dallas. January 18, 2019. Accessed December, 2019. https://ah.atec.io/2019/01/18/dallas-museum-of-art-exhibits-rosa-bonheur-ewe-gift/;
- “SMU Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita Alessandra Comini Updates.” UT Dallas. May 10, 2018. Accessed December, 2019. https://ah.atec.io/2018/05/10/smu-distinguished-professor-of-art-history-emerita-alessandra-comini-updates-3/;
- Alessandra Comini Diaries and Letters, Barnard Archives and Special Collections. https://archives.barnard.edu/sites/default/files/bc20.41_alessandracominidiariesletters_findingaid.pdf, BC20.41.