Gombrich, Ernst Hans (1909–2001)

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Art historian.

Ernst Hans Gombrich was probably the most famous and among the most original art historians of the second half of the twentieth century. His best-known book, The Story of Art, first published in 1950 and still in print, has sold more than six million copies in at least thirty languages. It is exceptional among art historical surveys in that it was little concerned with changes in style or in patterns of patronage but took as its theme the ways in which artists represented the visible world and how these changed over time. Gombrich's text, like all his writings, is notable for its unpretentious tone and clarity of expression.

Gombrich's studies at the University of Vienna gave him knowledge of a remarkably wide range of art, from ancient Egyptian onward, as well as a familiarity with the relevant written sources. His doctoral dissertation on the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, published in 1934, was an analysis of the style of that Renaissance building and its decoration. The thesis was influential in introducing the notion of mannerism into the history of architecture, but Gombrich himself soon became skeptical about the type of approach he had adopted, especially the assumption, then widely accepted, that artistic styles reflected in some direct way the spirit of the age in which they were created and that artistic change was governed by an inevitable process of historical development, a belief that he attributed especially to the influence of G. W. F. Hegel. Many of his publications, which often consisted of lectures and reviews, were devoted to challenging such ideas, suggesting instead that changes in artistic style, as in fashion, were often motivated by more readily analyzed factors such as technical innovations on the part of artists, a climate of artistic competition, or a desire for novelty on the part of patrons.

After completing his dissertation, Gombrich collaborated with the psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris on a book on caricature. Although never completed, the project introduced him to problems of artistic representation and in particular to the question of how artists could use minimal and even highly distorted visual indications to create a likeness. In 1936, with Kris's help, he obtained a fellowship at the Warburg Institute in London, which was to remain his professional home for the rest of his life. His first task was to edit the unpublished works of the institute's founder, the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929). This proved an unfeasible project, but soon afterward Gombrich wrote Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography. Largely completed by 1947 but not published until 1970, it remains the best and most accessible introduction to Warburg's ideas.

The two scholars could scarcely have been more different. Warburg, who always had great difficulty articulating his views in a definitive form, regarded works of art as powerful evidence of the mentality of the educated public of the period in which they were produced, whereas Gombrich was deeply skeptical about this attitude, which violated the approach he had learned from his great friend Karl Popper, namely, that the only hypotheses worth discussing are those that can be tested and refuted. In a sense, all his later writings can be read as challenges to the ideas and methods of Warburg.

This applies both to his articles on iconography, collected in Symbolic Images (1972), in which he revealed an increasing skepticism about the elaborate interpretations of paintings proposed by various scholars associated with the Warburg Institute in its early years (including himself), and also to his most important book, Art and Illusion (1960), in which he drew on recent developments in psychology to examine both the different conventions used by artists to represent the visible world and the ways in which these conventions are then interpreted by viewers. Gombrich's attempt to extend his analysis to decorative art in The Sense of Order (1979) was more controversial, but this book is also important for the extensive historical research on which the discussion is based.

Gombrich never concerned himself with the traditional art historical issues of connoisseurship and the dating of works of art, nor was he interested in challenging traditional ideas about the merits of individual artists. He preferred instead to explore the processes of change in artistic expression and in attitudes to art. Unrivaled in his ability to engage a nonspecialist audience, he was highly influential both in his attempts to apply the study of visual perception to the history of art and in his powerful criticisms of many of the assumptions that had dominated the study of the subject, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.

See alsoPsychology.


Gombrich, E. H., and Didier Eribon. A Lifelong Interest: Conversations on Art and Science with Didier Eribon. London, 1993.

Trapp, J. B. E. H. Gombrich: A Bibliography. London, 2000.

Charles Hope