Gombrich, E(rnst) H(ans Josef) 1909-2001

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GOMBRICH, E(rnst) H(ans Josef) 1909-2001

PERSONAL: Born March 30, 1909, in Vienna, Austria; died November 3, 2001, in London, England; son of Karl B. (a lawyer) and Leonie (a pianist; maiden name, Hock) Gombrich; married Ilse Heller, 1936; children: Richard. Education: Vienna University, Ph.D.

CAREER: Art historian and author. University of London, Warburg Institute, London, England, research assistant, 1936-39, senior research fellow, 1946-48, lecturer, 1948-54, reader, 1954-56, special lecturer, 1956-59, professor of history of classical tradition, 1959-76, director of institute, 1959-76. Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford University, 1950-53, and at Cambridge University, 1961-63; University of London, University College, Durning-Lawrence Professor of the History of Art, 1956-59; Harvard University, visiting professor, 1959; Royal College of Art, Lethaby Professor, 1967-68; Cornell University, Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large, 1970-77. Military service: British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) Monitoring Service, translator, 1939-45.

MEMBER: British Academy (fellow), Society of Antiquaries (fellow), Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Royal Institute of British Architects (fellow), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, American Philosophical Society, Accademia delle Scienze a Torino (corresponding member), Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (Uppsala; corresponding member), Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Accademia de Lincei (Rome), Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Royal Belgian Academy of Science, Goettingen Akademie der Wissenschaften (honorary member).

AWARDS, HONORS: Honorary fellow, Royal College of Art, 1961, and Jesus College, Cambridge, 1963; W. H. Smith Literary Award, 1964, for Meditations on a Hobbyhorse; Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1966; New York University medal for distinguished visitors, 1970; knighted, 1972; Erasmus Prize, 1975; Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1975; Hegel Prize, 1976; member, Order pour le merite, 1978; Austrian Ehrenzeichen fur Wissenschaft und Kunst, 1984; International Balzan Prize, 1985; Rosina Viva Prize of the Commune of Anacapri, 1985, for the Italian translation of The Sense of Order; Encyclopaedia Britannica award, 1989, for "excellence in the dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of mankind"; Vienna Gold Medal, and Goethe Prize from city of Frankfurt, both 1994. Honorary degrees from numerous universities, including University of Belfast, 1963, University of Leeds, 1965, University of St. Andrews, 1965, Oxford University, 1969, Cambridge University, 1970, University of Manchester, 1974, University of Chicago, 1975, University of London, 1976, Harvard University, 1976, University of Essex, 1977, University of Philadelphia, 1977, Royal College of Art (London, England), 1981, and Brandeis University, 1981.


Weltgeschichte fuer Kinder, (Vienna, Austria) 1936, (Cologne, West Germany), 1985, published as Eine kurze Weltgeschichte fuer junge Leser, Dumont, 2004.

(With Ernst Kris) Caricature, Penguin Books (London, England), 1940.

The Story of Art, Phaidon (London, England) (London, England), 1950, 16th revised edition, 1995.

Raphael's Madonna della sedia, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1956.

Lessing, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1957.

(Editor) Essays in Honor of Hans Tietze, 1880-1954, Gazette des Beaux-Arts (Paris, France), 1958.

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1960, 5th edition, Phaidon (London, England), 1977.

The Cartoonist's Armory, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1963.

Meditation on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, Phaidon (London, England), 1963, 2nd edition, 1971.

Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, Volume 1: Norm and Form, Phaidon (London, England), 1966, 2nd edition, 1971, Volume 2: Symbolic Images, Phaidon (London, England), 1972, Volume 3, The Heritage of Apelles, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1976, Volume 4: New Light on Old Masters, Phaidon (London, England), 1986, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1988.

In Search of Cultural History, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1969.

Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, Warburg Institute, 1970, revised edition, University of Chicago (Chicago, IL), 1986.

The Ideas of Progress and Their Impact on Art, School of Art and Architecture, Cooper Union (New York, NY), 1971.

(With others) Art, Perception, and Reality, Johns Hopkins Press (Baltimore, MD), 1972.

(Editor, with R. L. Gregory) Illusion in Nature and Art, Scribner (New York, NY), 1973.

Art History and the Social Sciences, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1975.

Means and Ends: Reflections on the History of Fresco Painting, Thames & Hudson (New York, NY), 1976.

The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, Phaidon (London, England), 1979.

Ideals and Idols, Phaidon (London, England), 1979.

The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Phaidon (London, England), 1981.

Tributes, Phaidon (London, England), 1984.

Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Issues in Learning and in Art, Phaidon (London, England), 1991.

A Lifelong Interest: Conversations with Didier Eribon, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1993.

Das forschende Auge, [Frankfurt, Germany], 1994.

Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1996.

The Uses of Images: Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication, Phaidon (London, England), 1999.

The Preference For the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, Phaidon (London, England), 2002.

Author of Gastspiele: Zur deutschen Sprache und Germanistik, 1992. Contributor to journals.

SIDELIGHTS: E. H. Gombrich was one of those rare academic writers who managed to become popular outside academia. His insightful books about art and art history have sold as well as some works of fiction. He wrote more than twenty books during his career, including Meditation on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, Ideals and Idols, and in 1996, Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art. His The Story of Art has been translated into eighteen languages and has sold more than four million copies. This overview traces the lineage of art from prehistoric times to the modern day and remains, according to Booklist's Donna Seaman reviewing the sixteenth edition, an "invaluable history" and a "veritable celebration." Noting the effect the book's publication had on Gombrich, London Times contributor Clive Aslet wrote: "The Story of Art changed Sir Ernst's life. It was reviewed by one of the electors to the Slade Professorship at Oxford, to which Sir Ernst was duly appointed in 1950. The prestige that the professorship carried with it established his reputation in the United States." Decades after its first appearance, the book is still in demand as a basic survey of the field and up to the time of his death in 2001, Gombrich had to take time out from his busy schedule to update each new printing with the newest additional information from the art world.

Gombrich was educated at the Theresianum in his native Vienna, Austria, and received a doctorate from Vienna University where he studied art history. After graduation he was hired as a research assistant at the Warburg Institute at the University of London. In 1936 his first book, Weltgeschichte fuer Kinder, a children's book on the history of the world, was published. While in England Gombrich worked for the BBC monitoring service, which helped him learn to speak and write English. One of his assignments was to write a note to Prime Minister Winston Churchill advising him that Hitler was dead. After World War II Gombrich completed The Story of Art and, though still on the faculty at the institute, was elected Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford University, where he stayed from 1950 to 1953. In 1956 he was named Durning-Lawrence Professor in Art History at University College at the University of London, a post he kept until 1959, and two years later joined the faculty at Cambridge University. Throughout this time he maintained his affiliation with the Warburg Institute and was named its director in 1959, a post he kept until retiring in 1976.

Gombrich brought his interest in the history of ideas, as well as of art, to each of his works and in them expounded on highly original and stimulating theories. "One of Sir Ernst's more provocative theses," observed Grace Glueck in the New York Times, "is that art is not necessarily related to other developments of a particular era, not a product of a Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. 'We search for one common denominator, which says, for example, that Cubism relates to relativity, or that Mannerism was the result of the deep spiritual crisis of the age,' he said. 'But I don't like those intellectual shortcuts. Culture has no such monolithic character. Art is the product of individual artists, and sometimes it's even they who influence history.'"

Discussing another one of Gombrich's theories, critic Henri Zerner of the New York Review of Books wrote that in Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, the art historian "once and for all dispelled the myth of the 'innocent eye,' the idea that the artist looks at the world and transcribes what he sees as best he can." Art and Illusion is a compilation of lectures Gombrich had given, and was published in 1960. That book's subject was a discourse on how artists convince viewers that the work they see looks like someone or something. Discussing yet another one of his ground-breaking works, Mary Ann Tighe noted in the Washington Post Book World that Gombrich opens his The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art "with the thesis that the human mind is not a tabula rasa, but comes equipped with a framework, a 'filing system' that enables man to organize and understand time and space."

Many of Gombrich's numerous books were comprised of his lectures, collected thematically. Thus in the 1991 Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Issues in Learning and in Art, Gombrich serves up opinions on subjects from the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka to poster art. "But the faithful need not worry," a contributor for the Economist noted, for Gombrich's "interpretations remain firmly rooted in the Vienna of the 1920s." Throughout his career, Gombrich took a conservative view of art, distrusting change and experimentation simply for the sake of novelty. The Economist reviewer further noted of Gombrich that he is a "self-professed humanist," however, it seemed to this reviewer that "humanity remains an undeniably cliqueish species. His Story of Art, notoriously, does not contain the work of a single woman artist, let alone a nod to minority artists." Along these same lines, the obituary notice for Gombrich in the New York Times noted that Gombrich's "discomfort with modern art was undeniable, and it had partly to do with his disdain for novelty for its own sake."

Gombrich's Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, a study of the use of such a technique from the fifteenth century to modern times. Reviewing the work in Art in America, Paul Mattick noted that Gombrich's work "for the most part catalogues the artistic functions of cast shadows and has nothing to say about the importance or interest in these functions." In his 1999 title, The Uses of Images: Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication, Gombrich examines a wide range of art objects, from frescoes to doodles, in a book that "encourages us to view 'art as task,'" according to Nadine Dalton Speidel, writing in Library Journal. Gombrich's 2002 title, The Preference for the Primitive:Episodes in the History of Western Taste for Art, is "the last in a long and distinguished series" of books on art history, theory, and criticism, according to Jasper Griffin, writing in the Spectator. In this final work, completed just before his death, Gombrich asks questions about how taste in art and indeed art itself grows. He questions the long-held belief that art grows organically, much as a plant. Griffin praised Gombrich for having done "more than anyone else to popularize the knowledge of the great tradition of European art."

Offering an evaluation of Gombrich's work as a whole, a Yale Review commentator estimated that the author, "almost single-handedly, is releasing the discipline of art history from certain grave difficulties deeply imbedded, on the one hand, in the semantics of Woelfflin, and, on the other, in the increasingly questions surrounding the identification of stylistic categories. Although he does not produce a needle from each haystack, he is surely on the right track in telling us which haystacks to avoid and which to search more thoroughly." In similarly glowing terms, Donald Posner, deputy field director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, told Glueck, "Gombrich is certainly one of the giants in our field…. His studies of visual perception, whether they're right or wrong, are really the starting point for all our discussions—whether Structuralist, semiotic or post-modern—of what art and seeing art mean." In an Art in America obituary, Raphael Rubenstein noted that "as well as being marked by great erudition and a clear writing style, Gombrich's books, which nearly always originated as lectures, emphasized the value of rationality."



Inarra, Joaquin Lorda, Gombrich: Una Teoria del Arte, (Barcelona, Spain), 1991.


Art in America, September, 1996, Paul Mattick, review of Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, p. 33.

Art Journal, spring, 1997, Douglas Dreishpoon, review of Shadows, p. 103.

Booklist, October 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of The Story of Art, p. 243.

British Journal of Aesthetics, July, 1996, Richard Woodfield, "Gombrich's Story of Art," p. 313.

Library Journal, May 1, 1999, Nadine Dalton Speidel, review of The Uses of Images: Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication, p. 71.

New York Review of Books, June 28, 1979, Henri Zerner, review of Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.

New York Times, February 23, 1989.

Publishers Weekly, August 14, 1995, "Gombrich Revised via Chronicle," p. 23.

Spectator, October 12, 2002, Jasper Griffin, review of The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste for Art, p. 70.

Times (London, England), March 29, 1984.

Washington Post Book World, August 26, 1979, Mary Ann Tighe, review of The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art.

Yale Review, June, 1967.



Art in America, January, 2002, Raphael Rubenstein, "Obituaries," p. 134; August, 2002, p. 45.

Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2001, p. B11.

New York Times, November 8, 2001, p. A22.

Times (London, England), November 6, 2001, p. 17.

Washington Post, November 8, 2001, p. B7.*