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Simson, Otto von

    Full Name: Simson, Otto von

    Other Names:

    • Otto Georg von Simson

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1912

    Date Died: 1993

    Place Born: Berlin, Germany

    Place Died: Berlin, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), Medieval (European), Renaissance, and sculpture (visual works)


    Scholar of medieval and renaissance architectural and art history; professor at the University of Chicago 1945-1957. Simson was the son of Ernst Eduard von Simson, and undersecretary of state in the German foreign office, and Martha Enole (von Simson), a descendent of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). His great grandfather had originally been Jewish but converted to Roman Catholicism. Simson himself grew up in the cultured home of his grandfather, the chemist Franz Oppenheim (1852-1929) in the “Villa Oppenheim.” Their neighbor was the director of the Hamburg Kunsthalle Alfred Lichtwark, who inhabited the villa formerly owned by Max Liebermann. The young Simson grew up among the masterworks of German Impressionism. His family was highly distinguished in German politics and statecraft, his father served as a state administrator. Simson attended the Arndtgymnasium in Berlin Dahlem Dorf. After graduation (age 17) he was sent to England to learn English. After returning, he entered the university in Freiburg studying art history under under Hans Jantzen, Walter F. Friedländer, and Kurt Bauch. He studied briefly in Berlin before focusing moving to Munich in 1932 to study under Wilhelm Pinder. Most of Simson’s work, however was under Hans Gerhard Evers. Simson completed a dissertation on Rubens, and published as Zur Genealogie der weltlichen Apotheose im Barock, besonders der Medicigalerie des Peter Paul Rubens, in 1936. He married the princess Aloysia (Louise) Alexandra von Schönburg Hartenstein (1906-1976) the same year. Simson worked initially at the Courtauld Institute Library in 1936 and as an editor for the periodical Hochland in Munich. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1937. With Germany’s seizure of Czech lands, the so-called Czech Crisis, Simson was drafted into the German army. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Simson used his military Wehrpass (military pass) to visit American museums on the excuse of his being an art historian; he remained in the U.S. with his wife and children following. He taught briefly at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York (1939-43) (an offer to teach at Johns Hopkins came too late) and St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. In 1945 University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977) offered Simson a job in the University’s Committee on Social Thought and only secondarily in the Department of Art. He rose to full professor in 1951. During this period he produced two major books characteristic of his methodology. The first, The Sacred Fortress (he despised the title; it was suggested by his editor) appeared in 1948. He was also a guest resident at the University of Frankfurt in the years immediately after the war. Simson’s The Gothic Cathedral appeared in 1956 and with it a rave review in the Times Literary Supplement, but a caustic review by Sumner McKnight Crosby in the Art Bulletin. The heated exchange broke a long-standing friendship between the two. Simson returned to Germany in 1957, taking a position first at the university Frankfurt, and then as the first German member of UNESCO. In 1964 he became Director of the Kunsthistorisches Institut of the Freie Universität in Berlin (succeeding literary historian Hans Kaufmann, 1926-2000) and professor of modern art. At the Freie Universität he was instrumental in sponsoring several conferences on Dutch art, such as the 1970 one on Rembrandt and the 1975 one on Brueghel. In 1972 he edited and wrote the revision to the prestigious Propyläen Kunstgeschichte volume on the middle ages, Das Mittelalter II: das Hohe Mittelalter, along with Hermann Fillitz and others. After the death of his first wife in 1976, he married another woman of noble lineage, Marie-Anne zu Salm-Reifferscheidt-Krautheim und Dyck (b. 1933) in 1978. He remained at the Freie Universität until 1979. In 1986 his book, Der Blick nach Innen, the result of lectures he presented at Harvard on nineteenth-century German art, Simson put forth the concept of “Innerlichkeit” as characteristic in the work of four German painters, Caspar David Friedrich, Carl Spitzweg, Wilhelm Leibl and Ludwig Richter. The posthumous Peter Paul Rubens (1577 1640) Humanist, Maler, Diplomat (1996) brought together Simson’s work on the artist with whom he had been preoccupied, though little published, for much of his career. Simson’s methodology was in large part to lay an intellectual Geistesgeschichte framework over his studies of medieval architecture. His book The Sacred Fortress deals with the mosaics of Ravenna in terms of the liturgy which would have been used at the time. Because of the war, Simson never had a chance to examine the mosaics during the time he wrote the book. His Gothic Cathedral put him in the middle of a wider, 20th-century dialogue on Gothic architecture with Hans Sedlmayr, Erwin Panofsky and Crosby. He and Sedlmayr wrote of the Gothic church as a mystical Gesamtkunstwerk, a totality of all artistic media, whose meaning had to be derived from experiencing the building as a whole, as opposed to scholars who sought to dissect a building to interpret its iconographic parts (Crossley). Simson’s erudite study of Abbot Suger’s choir in the Gothic Cathedral postulated the formation of the Gothic as a combination of “Pseudo-Dionysian light metaphysics” and the harmonic ratios of musical cosmology. This interpretation was challenged by Martin Gosebruch and denied by Peter Kidson as over-intellectualizing. Simson’s published dissertation on the secular apotheosis in Baroque art found praise early from Panofsky. Simson conceived his Propyläen series Das Mittelalter II: das Hohe Mittelalter as an extension of his Gothic Cathedral, but greatly internationalized, with Polish scholars writing the sections on the art in Poland formerly under German rule. He was known as an engaging lecturer and warm to his many students.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Zur Genealogie der weltlichen Apotheose im Barock: besonders der Medicigalerie des P. P. Rubens. University of Munich, published under same title as, Strassburg: Heitz, 1936; The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956. The Sacred Fortress: Byzantine Art and Statecraft in Ravenna. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948; [Kunsthistorisches Institut, Freie Universität Rembrandt conference] and Kelch, Jan, eds. Neue Beiträge zur Rembrandt-Forschung. Berlin: Mann, 1973; and Winner, Matthias. Pieter Bruegel und seine Welt. Berlin: Mann, 1979; Das Mittelalter II: das Hohe Mittelalter. Propyläen Kunstgeschichte 6. Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1972; “The Birth of the Gothic.” Measure, a Critical Journal 1 no. 3 (Summer 1950): 275-296; Der Blick nach Innen: vier Beiträge zur deutschen Malerei des 19. Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Hentrich, 1986; “über die Bedeutung von Masaccios Trinitätsfresko in S. Maria Novella.” Sonderdruck aus Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 8 (1966): 119-159; Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): Humanist, Maler und Diplomat. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1996; Von der Macht des Bildes im Mittelalter: gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kunst des Mittelalters. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1993.


    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. 71, mentioned, p. 127; 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. 67 cited, p. 81 cited, pp. 85, 87 mentioned; Lucius Grisebach, ed. Festschrift für Otto von Simson zum 65. Geburtstag. Frankfurt am Main: Propyläen Verlag, 1977, [biographical essay]; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 387-9; Art Historian Otto von Simson. Oral History Collection, Dept. of Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles Library, 1994; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 2, pp. 643-649; [transcript] “Otto von Simson, interviewed by Richard Cándida Smith.” Art History Oral Documentation Project. Getty Research Institute, Malibu, CA; Crossley, Paul. “The Gothic church as a Gesamtkunstwerk and the notion of ‘artistic integration’ in Gothic architecture.” [sect xvi of] “Introduction: Frankl’s Text: Its Achievement and Significance.” Frankl, Paul and Crossley, Paul. Gothic Architecture. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, p. 24, 27-28.


    "Simson, Otto von." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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