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Gombrich, E. H.

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    Full Name: Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, Sir

    Other Names:

    • Ernst Gombrich
    • Ernst H Gombrich

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 30 March 1909

    Date Died: 03 November 2001

    Place Born: Vienna, Vienna state, Austria

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: Austria

    Subject Area(s): art theory and psychology

    Career(s): educators

    Institution(s): University of London and Warburg Institute


    University of London professor of art history, champion of psychological-approach to art. Gombrich grew up within one of the elite cultural circles of Vienna. His father, Karl Gombrich (1874-1950), was the vice-president of the Disciplinary Council of the Austrian Bar, and his mother, Leonie Hock (Gombrich) (1873-1968), was a pianist who had studied under the composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) and taught piano to Gustav Mahler’s sister. Gombrich himself was an accomplished cellist. The family had originally been Jewish but converted to Lutheranism at the turn of the 20th century. Gombrich himself never claimed any religious affiliation. As a child immediately after World War I, when starvation in Austria was widespread, he and his sister, Lisbeth (1907-1994), were sent by the Save the Children (organization) to live with families in Sweden for nine months in 1920. Returning to Vienna, Gombrich was attended the Theresianum secondary school where at age 14 he wrote an essay on the ways art appreciation had changed from Winckelmann to the present. His interest in art history affirmed, Gombrich entered the University of Vienna in 1928 where he studied under the so-called Vienna School art historians, Hans Tietze, Karl Maria Swoboda, and Julius von Schlosser, the latter with whom he wrote his dissertation was on the Mannerist architecture of Giulio Romano. Never happy to be the disciple of only one scholar, Gombrich also attended lectures by Josef Strzygowski, Schlosser’s egotistical arch rival, at the competing Wiener Institut in Vienna. Gombrich’s Viennese colleagues during this time also included Otto Kurz, who years later taught with Gombrich at the Warburg Institute.

    While researching his dissertation on the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, he corresponded with a friend’s young daughter about his work. The publisher Walter Neurath (1903-1967) convinced him to turn this into a book of world history for children, Weltgeschichte für Kinder, 1936. Gombrich did this in part because the economy and anti-semitic government made an academic position difficult to find. He also occupied his time learning Chinese. Through Schlosser, Gombrich met the museum curator and psychoanalyst Ernst Kris. Together they authored a book on caricature (eventually published in a much abbreviated form in 1940). Kris introduced Gombrich to Fritz Saxl, the director of the Warburg Institute in London (where it had moved from Hamburg in 1933). Kris recommended Gombrich to the Warburg, who assigned him a two-year fellowship in 1936, assisting Gertrud Bing in preparing the papers of its founder, Aby M. Warburg for publication. The same year he married Ilse “Lonnie” Heller (1910-2006), a Czech concert pianist and pupil of the pianist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991). The Holocaust fully under way, Gombrich assisted his parents to escape Vienna in 1938 shortly before the beginning of World War II. He moved to the newly-founded Courtauld Institute when the Warburg lost its temporary lodgings at Thames House. Between 1938 and 1939 he lectured weekly on Giorgio Vasari. With Kurz, he began collaborating on a book on iconography, which was never published because of the outbreak of the World War II. During the War, Gombrich worked intercepting and translating foreign radio broadcasts for the BBC at Evesham, England. He also published an essay on Poussin in The Burlington Magazine, maintaining his connections with the Warburg Institute, which had been incorporated by London University in 1944.

    He returned to Warburg in 1946 as a senior research fellow named by Saxl. After Saxl’s death in 1948, Saxl’s successor, Henri Frankfort, appointed Gombrich a Lecturer at the Warburg (to 1954). Gombrich wrote his famous study of Botticelli’s Primavera, an essay associating the ideas of the Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino with the Botticelli painting. After the War, he resumed his work editing Warburg’s papers. Phaidon Press founder Bela Horovitz (1898-1955) convinced him to rewrite a general textbook of art, akin to his Weltgeschichte which had he had begun in 1937. The result was The Story of Art (1950), ostensibly written for teenagers, but which had a huge impact on the general post-war populace. He was named the Slade Chair at Oxford University, 1950-1953, and Durning-Lawrence Professor at University College, London, 1956-1969. Gombrich always retained a position at the Warburg, Reader, between 1954-1956 and Special Lecturer from 1956-1959. In 1956, too, Gombrich delivered the Mellon lectures in Washgington, D. C., called “Art and Illusion.” This appeared in book form in 1960. Art and Illusion laid the framework for a psychological understanding of art to a wider public. He became director of the Warburg in 1959. As director, he reorganized the institute, encouraging its scholars, who now included Rudolf Wittkower, Hugo Buchthal and Kurz, to teach as well as research. He also launched a lecture series bringing in outside speakers. He was Visiting Professor of Fine Art at Harvard University in 1959, returning to be named Professor of the History of Classical Tradition at London University in 1959, which he held to 1976. Between 1961 and 1963 he was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge, and in 1967, became Lethaby Professor at the Royal College of Art, 1967-1968.

    His collected essays on art appreciation, Meditations on a Hobby Horse appeared in 1968. Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, 1972, discussed the historical importance of forms of symbolism. Gombrich was appointed Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large, Cornell University, from 1970 to 1977. During that time he was knighted (1972) and delivered the Romanes Lecture at Oxford University, “Art History and the Social Sciences,” 1975. In 1979 he returned to questions of perception and representation in his Wrightsman Lectures, published as A Sense of Order, a collaboration with the neuropsychologist Richard Gregory. Gombrich was appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1988. His students include Michael Podro and Michael Baxandall. His son, Richard Gombrich (b. 1937), was Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University between 1976 and 2004.

    Gombrich’s unique approach to art history began with his dissertation, written under Schlosser, on the Mannerist architect and painter Guilio Romano. Mannerism in the 1930s was considered a deliberate distortion of the ideals of the Renaissance (and often compared to the Expressionism of Germany in their century). Schlosser himself had written on it. Gombrich asserted that the eccentricities of Giulio’s Mannerist style, far from being degenerate, were employed for a patron eager for fashionable novelty. Throughout his career, Gombrich avoided using the prevailing methods of art history, connoisseurship and attribution, remarking that they were “very much on the fringe of [his] formation” (Kimmelman). He characterized most of art criticism as simply the critic’s emotional response to art. Parallels have been drawn between Gombrich’s melding of art history with psychology to that of the philosopher Karl Popper’s psychology and the history of science. Gombrich publicly claimed a debt to his friend, Popper, assisting Popper in the preparation of Popper’s manuscript of The Open Society and its Enemies,1945. Although Gombrich wrote about Picasso and modern artists, he had little affinity for contemporary art. His essay “The Vogue of Abstract Art” (reprinted in Meditations) denounced American action painting, as a “visual fad” supported by dealers rather than ideas. Elsewhere he wrote skeptically about Schoenberg’s 12-tone system.

    Many of Gombrich’s theories on art were drawn from his rich life experiences. As radio translator of Nazi broadcasts during World War II, he frequently had to glean words from faint transmissions. Later, in Art and Illusion, he wrote that “you had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said.” This concept, which he called “making and matching,” was crucial, he claimed, to how people perceive images. His interpretation of Cubism criticized the movement as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture.” Gombrich was comfortable as an iconographer, identifying in the practice of iconology two currents: the neo-Platonic, mystical (e.g., Erwin Panofsky) and the Aristotelian, rhetorical function (code of signs) (Bazin). It was his survey, The Story of Art, however, that established Gombrich’s popular reputation. While most surveys had been little more than long lists of names, dates and discussions styles, Gombrich focused on the problems which artists at different periods had solved. Methodologically, he was particularly opposed to Marxist approaches to art (see Gombrich’s discussion of the approach in the entry on Arnold Hauser), Hegelian world views, or doctrines, such as Weltanschauung (Spirit of the Age”) that embraced cultural relativism or collectivizations of art. “We should not go off on a tangent but rather learn as much as we can about the painter’s craft,” he declared. Gombrich was a charismatic lecturer, surprising audiences with images from magazine advertisements or Saul Steinberg cartoons in between projections of paintings of Old Masters.

    Not all of Gombrich’s writings have wholly been accepted. His assertion of a link between Renaissance art and the philosophical doctrines, stated in the Botticelli Primavera article, have been doubted, even later by Gombrich himself, in the introduction to Symbolic Images (1972). He insisted that Hegel’s work, not Winnckelmann’s, should be considered the beginning of art history.  Gombrich’s initial assignment at the Warburg Library in London was to ready Warburg’s papers for publication. He astutely realized that Warburg’s notes were not suitable for publication because of the juxtaposing way Warburg worked (see DoAH entry on Warburg) and Warburg’s inability to draw lucid conclusions. Gombrich used his study of Warburg to write an intellectual biography of Warburg (1970, 2nd ed., 1985), which is by far the best introduction to Warburg’s ideas.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Giulio Romano als Architekt. University of Vienna, 1933; “Botticelli’s Mythologies.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 8 (1945): 7-60; “Review of Charles Morris’s Signs, Language and Behavior.” Art Bulletin 31 (1949): 68-73; The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1950; “The Renaissance Concept of Artistic Progress and Its Consequences.” Actes du XVIIme Congrès international d’Histoire de l’Art. The Hague, 1955; Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Bollingen Series, 35. A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 5. New York: Pantheon Books, 1961; Meditations on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art. London: 1963 [First appearing in:] Aspects of Form: A Symposium on Form in Nature and Art. New York: 1951, 2nd ed. London: Lund Humphries, 1968; “Light, Form and texture in Fifteenth-Century Painting.” Journal of the Royal Institute of Art 112 (1964): 826-49; “Momemt and Movement in Art.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtald Institutes 27 (1964): 293-306; “Visual Discovery through Art.” Arts Magazine 40 (1965): 17-28; Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 1966; “From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of the Arts: Nicolo Niccoli and Filippo Brunelleschi,” in Essays Presented to Rudolf Wittkower on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday. 2 vols. London: 1967, II : 71-82; The Ideas of Progress and their Impact on Art. New York: Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture, 1971 [published in an expanded version in German as Kunst und Fortschritt: Wirkung und Wandlung einer Idee. Cologne: DuMont, 1978]; Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 1972; “Illusion and Art.” In Illusion in Nature and Art. London: Duckworth, 1973, pp. 193-243; The Heritage of Appelles: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. Oxford: Phaidon, 1976; Means and Ends: Reflections on the History of Fresco Painting. London: Thames & Hudson, 1976; “The Leaven of Criticism in Renaissance Art.” In Art, Science, History of the Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967: 3-42; “Kunstwissenschaft.” In Atlantisbuch der Kunst. Zürich: 1952: 653-64; Die Krise der Kulturgeschichte: Gedanken zum Wertproblem in den Geistes wissenschaften. Stuttgart: Klett-cotta, 1983; Jüdische Identität und jüdisches Schicksal: eine Diskussionsbemerkung. Vienna: Passagen-Verlag, 1997.


    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, p. 63 cited, 72-3, 83, 102; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 94-96, 158; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, pp. 225-226; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1, pp. 221-233; Gombrich, Ernst. “An Autobiographical Sketch.” The Essential Gombrich. London: Phaidon, 1996, pp. 21-36; [obituaries:] Frayling, Christopher. “In Memoriam: Ernst Gombrich.” The Observer [London]. November 11, 2001, p. 10; Irish Times November 10, 2001, p. 16; Kimmelman, Michael. “E. H. Gombrich, Author and Theorist Who Redefined the History of Art, Is Dead at 92.” New York Times November 8, 2001, p. 25; Daily Telegraph (London) November 6, 2001, p. 25; Jeffries, Stuart. The Guardian (London) November 6, 2001, p. 10; Hope, Charles. The Independent (London) November 6, 2001, p. 6; personal correspondence, Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, Feb. 10, 2008.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Gombrich, E. H.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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