Skip to content

Frankfort, Henri

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Frankfort, Henri

    Other Names:

    • Henri Frankfort

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1897

    Date Died: 1954

    Place Born: Amsterdam, North Holland, Netherlands

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: Netherlands

    Subject Area(s): Antique, the, antiquities (object genre), and Preclassic


    Professor of the History of Pre-Classical Antiquity at the University of London, 1949-1954. Frankfort was the eldest son of a Jewish mercantile family. Expected to inherit and run the family business, he was educated at the Hogere Burger School, a commercial high school, instead of the humanities-centered Barlaeus Gymnasium. Friends at the Barlaeus Gymnasium recognized his brilliance, however, and convinced his father to allow him to pursue a university career instead. Frankfurt studied initially Greek at the University of Amsterdam. There he met another ancientist student, Henriette “Jettie” Groenewegen, a year old than he. During World War I, he served in the Dutch army, 1914-18. After the war, Frankfort and Groenewegen became engaged in 1920. In 1921 Groenewegen was granted an M. A. in philosophy and Frankfort one in Netherlands Language and Literature, which included history. Frankfort and Groenewegen traveled to London before their marriage so that he could study with the Egyptian archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Frankfort was offered a position as Assistant in the British Museum’s Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in 1922, but it was rescinded when he declined to abandon his Dutch citizenship. In 1922 he made his first trip to the Near East as a member of Petrie’s expedition at Qau el-Kebir. Frankfort returned to London in 1923, married Groenewegen and completed his second M.A. the final day of that year. The two lived in Athens for the 1924-1925 academic year at the British School of Archaeology where he wrote his doctoral dissertation, published as his second book At age twenty-eight (1925) he was made director of excavations for the Egypt Exploration Society at Tell el-Amarna, Abydos, and Armant. Among his assistants was Thomas Whittemore, later archaeologist for Hagia Sophia. At Tell el-Amarna he exhumed the artifacts of the famous Ahkenaten. At Armant he exhumed the spectacular sacred bulls statuary. He received his Ph.D. from Leiden University. The success of these operations attracted the attention of James Breasted (1865-1935), who, in 1929 invited him to direct the Iraq excavations for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, supported by John D. Rockefeller. These digs produced the foundational understanding of Mesopotamian cultures in relation to those of the Indus Valley. The four sites excavated included the Diyala River Basin as well as the Assyrian city of Khorsabad. Frankfort was a gifted organizer whose success in these excavations was as much a part of his ability to delegate as it was to interpret. In 1932 Frankfort was appointed to the chair of Research Professor of Oriental Archaeology at Chicago, but did not reside in the United States until 1937, owing to an Extraordinarius professorship he held at the University of Amsterdam those same years. During the same period (1932 onward) he also taught at the newly transplanted Warburg Institute (under the University of London after 1944) with Fritz Saxl. The Frankforts lived in Hampstead (London), the center of the British avant-garde. There they knew artists such as Barbara Hepworth and her husband, the artist Ben Nicholson. The effects of the Depression finally ended the Iraq Expedition in 1937. In 1938 the couple moved to a house overlooking the sea in Kimmeridge near Corfe Castle, Dorset. In 1939 Frankfort moved to Chicago full time as a professor at the University of Chicago. A series of speculative talks, suggested by his wife, was delivered as part of a public course in the Division of the Humanities of the University of Chicago on ancient human’s worldview. The lectures, given by the archaeologists John Albert Wilson (1899-1976), Thorkild Jacobsen (1904-1993) and William A. Irwin (1884-1967), resulted in the book Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East. Frankfort and his wife supplied the introduction, “Myth and Reality,” and a conclusion. American teaching meant diversity in lecturing. Frankfort once took a class to the Art Institute of Chicago for a Picasso exhibition in order to compare aspects of modern art with ancient. Frankfort was never comfortable with America, however, and in 1949 he returned to London to head the Warburg Institute, assuming the title Professor of Pre-Classical History of the University of London and heading the Warburg Institute, left vacant with the death of Saxl the year before. In 1952 he made his final trip to the east as a Guggenheim Fellow. At the Warburg, Frankfort met and fell in love with a younger and attractive Spanish scholar, Warburg’s photoarchivist, Enriqueta Harris. He divorced Henriette the same year and married Harris. Frankfort had completed the text for the volume on ancient non-classical art for the prestigious Pelican History of Art series when he died unexpectedly at home. The volume appeared posthumously. After his death he was succeeded at the Warburg Institute by Gertrud Bing. Frankfort’s excavations at Mesopotamia for the University of Chicago, 1929-1937 were some of the most important excavations of the era, adding significantly to the understanding of that era. His work at Diyala produced a stratified architectural sequence, which allowed the team to posit a chronological framework for early Mesopotamian art. Tablets were recorded with their find spots, for the first time, allowing Frankfort to draw a stylistic development of this category of objects such as the seals, spanning all of Mesopotamian art. Previously these had not been solidly classified since most objects had come either from unstratified excavations or the art market. His Kingship and the Gods underlined the relationship of near eastern religion as an expression of the integration of society with nature.

    Selected Bibliography

    [complete bibliography:] Vindenas, Johanne. “Bibliography of Henri Frankfort.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14, no. 1 (January 1955): 4-13; The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. Pelican History of Art 7. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955; and Wilson, John A., and Jacobsen, Thorkild, and Irwin, William A., and Frankfort-Groenewegen, Henriette. Before Philosophy: the Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: an Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946; Cylinder Seals: a Documentary Essay on the Art and Religion of the Ancient Near East. London: Macmillan, 1939; and Lloyd, Seton, and Jacobsen, Thorkild, and Martiny, Günter. The Gimilsin Temple and the Palace of the Rulers at Tell Asmar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940; The Birth of Civilization in the Near East. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951; and Pendlebury, John Devitt Stringfellow. The City of Akhenaten. Peet, T. Eric and Woolley, C. Leonard, eds. Part II. London/Boston: Offices of the Egypt Exploration Society, 1923ff.; and Loud, Gordon, and Jacobsen, Thorkild . “Excavations in the Palace and at a City Gate.” pt. 1 of, Khorsabad. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications I, vol. 38-40. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936ff.


    Wilson, John A. American Philosophical Society Yearbook 1955: 439-442; Suter, Claudia E. “Henriette Antonia Groenewegen-Frankfort., Brown Institute of Archaeology and the Ancient World; Gardiner, Margaret. Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir. Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1982, pp. 26-27; Barbara Hepworth. A Pictorial Autobiography. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970, pp. 32; [obituary:] “Prof. H. Frankfort: The Culture Of Babylon And Egypt.” The Times (London) July 17, 1954, p. 8; [Henri Frankfort Memorial Issue]. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 14, no. 1, (January 1955).


    "Frankfort, Henri." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: