Austrian-born British writer and educator Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001) penned The Story of Art (1950), a textbook that dominated its field like few others in the twentieth century. Reprinted more than 15 times and translated into 33 languages, including Chinese, by the century's end, The Story of Art introduced students all over the world to European art history.
The book was successful partly because it was both accessible and philosophical. Originally written for young people, it featured Gombrich's clear, jargon-free writing. But it also made use of many of its author's fresh, original ideas about the nature of art—ideas upon which he expanded in a large collection of further writings. An individual whose curiosity and interests extended from ancient Greek sculpture to teddy bears, Gombrich was an influential teacher in both Britain and the United States, and was generally considered one of the most penetrating thinkers of his age.
Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 30, 1909. Gombrich's professional family, of Jewish descent, had adopted a nonsectarian Protestant faith. His father, Karl, was a lawyer and an official with Austria's bar association. His interest in the arts was perhaps inherited from his mother, Leonie, who had studied music with composer Anton Bruckner and had turned the pages of sheet music for an even greater Viennese composer, Johannes Brahms. Gombrich himself became a good cellist. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was a family friend.
World War I disturbed the family's prosperous existence. Allied border controls after the war resulted in widespread famine in Vienna, and Gombrich and his sister were sent, under the auspices of Britain's Save the Children charitable organization, to live for nine months with the family of a Swedish carpenter who built coffins.
Back in Vienna, Gombrich attended a high school called the Theresianum, suffering impatiently in his classes because he found them too easy, but learning a great deal on his own. He was interested in art from the beginning and wrote a long essay on art history while still in high school, but his reading covered diverse subjects. Scientific American magazine counted him among its subscribers. At Vienna University, Gombrich studied with one of the most influential founders of modern art history, Julius von Schlosser. He wrote a thesis on the sixteenth-century Italian artist Giulio Romano, a successor to Michelangelo, and he had a gift for explaining art to young people. He believed that the features of artworks resulted from efforts by artists to solve problems specific to their own situations rather than from a vague spirit of the time or timeline of historical development. This approach was to become central to Gombrich's mature writings about art. He apparently enjoyed writing for children; his first book, published in 1936, was called Weltgeschichte für Kinder (World History for Children). It was translated into several languages, although never into English. The book's success was fortunate, for anti-Semitism was hampering his search for an academic position.
In 1936 Gombrich married classical pianist Ilse Heller, and the two had a son, Richard, who became a professor of Sanskrit. Gombrich at that time could already see that his parents' conversion to Protestantism would count for nothing with Austria's new fascist government. He left the country, taking a job as a research assistant at the Warburg Institute in London, a private art library that had moved its collections from Germany to England as cultural life in Germany deteriorated under the Nazi regime. In 1938 he was able to help his parents flee Austria as well. That year he began teaching art history classes at London's Courtauld Institute, and he started writing a book about caricature with fellow art historian Ernst Kris. The book was never published, but it was at this time that Gombrich adopted the name E. H. Gombrich for professional purposes—he was irritated by the double "Ernst" that would have resulted on the projected title page.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Gombrich began to serve his new country as a radio monitor with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), translating German broadcasts for intelligence purposes. He stayed in this post until the war's end in 1945, using the work as a way of learning to write English well, and when Adolf Hitler committed suicide, Gombrich personally carried the news to British prime minister Winston Churchill.
After the war Gombrich returned to the Warburg Institute and resumed working on the book that became The Story of Art . He had begun writing it in 1937 in response to a commission from the publisher of Weltgeschichte für Kinder , and it was originally aimed at young readers. Gombrich's clear, accessible style, however, proved to be ideal for students of all ages. The Story of Art was published in 1950 by Phaidon. The book was composed in an unusual way: Gombrich dictated it to a secretary. "There really is no such thing as art," the text famously began. "There are only artists."
What Gombrich meant was that art resulted from the efforts of artists to solve specific problems at specific times. He was not interested in treating art as an eternal pursuit of beauty. "If you try to formulate a principle for beauty in art, somebody can show you a counter-example," he pointed out, as quoted in the Times of London. And he never collected art personally. Nor did he see art as the expression of some vague zeitgeist or spirit of its times. He might at times tie art to philosophical ideas, but only in a very specific way. Instead, Gombrich looked at the situations in which specific artworks were created: who commissioned them, where they were to be put, what they were intended to accomplish, and what technical difficulties the artist faced as a result of these factors.
The Story of Art has always had its critics. Gombrich had little sympathy for modern art, with its stress on formal principles and its relentless innovation, and he did not explore art of the non-Western world in any depth. Gombrich's book, however, produced a new generation of students with fresh insights into familiar paintings, and his academic career took off after its publication. Maintaining his association with the Warburg Institute (later part of the University of London) for many years, he became its director in 1959. But he also had stints as an art history professor at Oxford (1950–53) and Cambridge (1961–63) universities, and at Cornell University in New York State (1970–77), and held numerous visiting professorships and lectureships.
In public lectures, such as the prestigious Mellon lecture series he gave in Washington, D.C., in 1956, Gombrich did not simply strive to give entertaining presentations. Instead he treated them as occasions for serious thought, and he took the opportunity to formally develop some of the ideas about art and psychology that lay behind The Story of Art . Many of Gombrich's books were reworked versions of lectures he had given. Art and Illusion (1960), one of the most famous, was based on the Mellon lectures of 1956, and it explored how important convention was in the perception of artworks. Artists can never, Gombrich contended, simply draw or paint what they see, but depend on a kind of shorthand based on expectations derived from what audiences have already seen.
In his lectures and writings, Gombrich expanded on his psychological ideas. In later years he enjoyed using the example of the drawings of human beings that were sent out in unmanned probes as they roamed the universe, hoping to communicate something about human beings and their place in the cosmos to any alien beings who might encounter the craft. Any such alien, Gombrich pointed out, would have no frame of reference for interpreting the crude drawings of human beings they would find—unless they happened to have human-like hands they would think, for instance, that the woman whose hand was pictured in profile in one of the drawings actually had a claw. Gombrich applied the same kind of reasoning at a more specific level to famous paintings and to the assumptions that audiences made when they viewed them. He was delighted by new forms of representation that depended on representational assumptions, and he once wrote an essay about teddy bears, pointing out that they were a characteristically modern phenomenon.
Some of Gombrich's later books, such as The Cartoonist's Armory (1963) and Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art (1996) dealt with specific topics within his more general field of ideas about psychology and representation. Other books were collections of essays and speeches on various topics; some of the most widely read included Meditation on a Hobby Horse, and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (1963), The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1981), and Topics of Our Times: Issues in Learning and Art (1991). Between 1966 and 1988 he also wrote a four-volume series of Studies in the Art of the Renaissance , and he maintained a lifelong interest in the art of the ancient world. From 1959 until his retirement in 1976, he held the post of professor of the history of the Classical tradition at London University.
Despite the reliance of his ideas on the specifically modern science of psychology, Gombrich was not noted as a supporter of modern art. One of his most widely read articles appeared in Atlantic magazine in 1958; he gave it the title The Vogue of Abstract Art , but editors gave it the more provocative title of The Tyranny of Abstract Art . He disliked what he saw as a preoccupation with novelty in twentieth-century art, and he devoted a book, The Ideas of Progress and Their Impact on Art , to the question of art and its relationship to ideologies spawned by technological change. Gombrich was never categorizable as a strict conservative, however, and he did champion some modern artists, including the semiabstract British sculptor Henry Moore.
In any event, he lived long enough to see representational modes of art come to the fore once again. Gombrich remained active into his tenth decade, writing and lecturing despite declining health. He died in London on November 3, 2001, with enough finished work on his desk to allow for the publication of a posthumous volume, The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art . By that time, an estimated two million copies of The Story of Art had been sold. Gombrich's intellectual legacy was enormous, extending to art history classes in far-flung community colleges where an instructor might point out some kind of distortion of reality in a famous painting and asked the students in attendance why the artist might have done it that way.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), November 6, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), November 5, 2001.
Independent (London, England), November 6, 2001.
GoodBye! The Journal of Contemporary Obituaries , October-December 2001.
New York Times , November 7, 2001.
Times (London, England), November 6, 2001.
Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2006, reproduced in Biography Resource Center , Thomson Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 15, 2006).