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Steinberg, Leo

    Full Name: Steinberg, Leo

    Other Names:

    • Leo Steinberg

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 09 July 1920

    Date Died: 13 March 2011

    Place Born: Moscow, Russia

    Place Died: New York, NY, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, Modern (style or period), and Renaissance


    Michelangelo- and modernist art historian; Benjamin Franklin professor of art at University of Pennsylvania, 1975-1991. Steinberg was born in Moscow of German-Jewish parents (his mother was Anyuta Esselson [Steinberg], 1890-1954) and his father, Isaac Nachman Steinberg (1888-1957), government figure and lawyer in revolutionary Russia. Lenin appointed Steinberg’s father commissar of justice. His idealism, (he wanted to abolish the prison system, for example) forced the family into exile in Berlin, where the younger Steinberg grew up. After the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the family moved to London where Steinberg studied (studio) painting and sculpture at the Slade School in London from 1936 to 1940. After World War II he immigrated to New York working initially as a freelance writer and translator (including a holocaust account, Ashes and Fire, 1947). He also taught drawing at the Parsons School of Design. He studied art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, under Richard Krautheimer and Wolfgang Lotz, receiving his Ph.D., in 1960. His dissertation, written under Lotz, was on Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. In 1962 he an art editor for Life magazine married Dorothy Seiberling (later divorced). Between 1962-1975 Steinberg taught art history and life drawing at Hunter College, the City University of New York. He and Milton W. Brown developed the curriculum for the City University’s graduate program in art history, instituted in 1971. During this time he began buying prints, which developed into one of the finest Italian Renaissance and Mannerist graphics collections in private hands. His collection also included many modern masters, another a research interest of Steinberg’s. From 1969 to 1971, he was a board member of the College Art Association. Steinberg largely confined himself to articles (as opposed to books) for most of his early career. In 1972, he wrote two of the articles for which he is best known, neither of which was on a Renaissance topic. The first, “Reflections on the State of Art Criticism,” which attacked traditional art criticism (see below), and a (re)analysis of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, entitled “The Philosophical Brothel.” The latter article, which situated the viewer as a patron in a house of prostitution and intellectually as a participant of the pivot of Cubism, brought a storm of criticism (among groups as disparate as feminists and formalists) as well as widespread acceptance. In 1972, too, Steinberg also co-founded the art history department of the graduate center at CUNY. His collected essays, Other Criteria was published the same year. In 1975 he was named Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Also in 1975, Steinberg wrote his first monograph, Michelangelo’s Last Paintings. In 1982, he delivered the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washgington, D. C., titled, “The Burden of Michelangelo’s Painting.” The following year, Steinberg published another “blockbuster” re-evaluation of a traditional genre: the sexual representation of the infant Christ. A storm of controversy again ensued and the article (it required the entire issue of October magazine) appeared in book form the same year. In 1983 Steinberg was received a literature award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the first art historian to win this distinction. He won the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Criticism in 1984 and was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1986. Before his retirement in 1991, he taught a semester as the Meyer Schapiro Chair at Columbia University in New York. During the 1995-1996 academic year, he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. A 1996 visiting faculty position at the University of Texas, Austin resulted in Steinberg’s donation in 2002 of his more than 3,200 prints assembled over four decades. It was valued at $3.5 million. A historiographic book on the popularity of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, appeared in 2001. Steinberg was a resident scholar at the American Academy in Rome and the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica, CA. Steinberg followed no methodological school, remaining a respected maverick in the art history community, and one of the scrappiest. His essay “Reflections on the State of Art Criticism” in Artforum attacked purely formalist criticism in favor of a pluralistic interpretation (which included formal analysis) as well as emotional response, and a contextualization of the object historically. His paradigm became highly influential in the subsequent decades. Steinberg’s study of the sexual representations of Christ in Renaissance art was a Freudian/textual critique, was admired for its originality but not wholly embraced by the art-historical community. E. H. Gombrich, speaking of Steinberg’s 1975 book Michelangelo’s Last Paintings, chided him for unprovable meanings, writing, ”He has produced a book to be reckoned with, but a dangerous model to follow.” His collected essays Other Criteria, mostly on contemporary art, demonstrate his combination of powerful observation and documentary scrutiny which made his writing unique. Feminists such as Carol Duncan attacked his view as being exclusionary to a female gaze. His celebrated disagreement with Museum of Modern Art Director William S. Rubin over the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” interpretation was covered in the pages of Art in America in the late 1970s. Steinberg’s writing was lampooned, not very insightfully, by Tom Wolfe in his book The Painted Word (1975).

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane: a Study in Multiple Form and Architectural Symbolism. New York University, 1960, slightly revised and published, New York: Garland, 1977; translated, Pat, Jacob. Ashes and Fire. New York: International Universities Press, 1947; “The Twin Prongs of Art Criticism.” Sewanee Review 60 no. 3 (Summer 1952): 418-444; “Bible-age Relics and Jewish Art: The Metropolitan Museum’s Archeological Exhibition.” Commentary 16 no. 2 (August 1953): 164-166; “The Eye is a Part of the Mind.” Partisan Review 20 no. 2 (March/April 1953): 194-212; “Professor Janson’s Donatello.” Arts Magazine 32 (June 1958): 41-43ff; Jasper Johns. New York: G. Wittenborn, 1963; “The Metaphors of Love and Birth in Michelangelo’s Pietàs.” Studies in Erotic Art. New York: Basic Books 1970, pp. 231-284; “The Philosophical Brothel.” Art News 71 (September 1971): 20-29, part II (October 1972) [this version disowned by Steinberg in favor of the reissued and enlarged essay in:] October 44 (Spring 1988): 3-74; Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-century Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972; Michelangelo’s Last Paintings: the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican Palace. London: Phaidon, 1975; “Michelangelo and the Doctors.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 56 (1982): 543-553; “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion.” October 25 (Summer 1983): 1-222; The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983; “Who’s Who in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam: a Chronology of the Picture’s Reluctant Self-revelation.” Art Bulletin 74 (December 1992): 552-566; Encounters with Rauschenberg: (a Lavishly Illustrated Lecture). Houston: Menil Collection/ Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000; Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. New York: Zone Books, 2001;[Demoiselles d’Avignon controversy:] “Resisting Cezanne: Picasso’s Three Women.” Art in America 66 (November 1978): 114-33, [appendix to “Resisting Cezanne” article by Steinberg:] “Polemical Part.” Art in America 67 (March 1979):114-27, [reply by Rubin, William S. “Pablo and Georges and Leo and Bill.” Art in America 67 (March 1979): 128-47]; see also Duncan, Carol. “The MoMA’s Hot Momas.” Art Journal 48 (Summer 1989): 171-178, [Steinberg’s and Duncan’s replies] “Letters.” Art Journal 49 (Summer 1990): 207.


    “History of Art @ UPENN: Faculty.”; Siegel, Katy. “March 1972.” Artforum International 40 no. 7 (March 2002): 48; Florman, Lisa. “The Difference Experience Makes in ‘The Philosophical Brothel’.” Art Bulletin 85 no. 4 (December 2003): 769-83; Carrier, David. “Erwin Panofsky, Leo Steinberg, David Carrier: the Problem of Objectivity in Art Historical Interpretation.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47 (Fall 1989): 333-47; [transcript] Leo Steinberg. Interviews with Art Historians, 1991-2002. Getty Research Institute, Malibu, CA; [obituary:] Johnson, Ken, and Slotnik, Daniel E. “Leo Steinberg, Vivid Writer and Bold Thinker in Art History, Is Dead at 90.” New York Times, March 15, 2011 p. B 19,


    "Steinberg, Leo." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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