Ernst Gombrich Essays On The Great

Sir Ernst Hans Josef GombrichOMCBEFBA (; German:[ˈgɔmbʀɪç]; 30 March 1909 – 3 November 2001) was an Austrian-born art historian who, after settling in England in 1936,[1] became a naturalised British citizen in 1947[2] and spent most of his working life in the United Kingdom.

Gombrich was the author of many works of cultural history and art history, most notably The Story of Art, a book widely regarded as one of the most accessible introductions to the visual arts,[3] and Art and Illusion,[4] a major work in the psychology of perception that influenced thinkers as diverse as Carlo Ginzburg,[5]Nelson Goodman,[6] and Umberto Eco.[7]


The son of Karl Gombrich and Leonie Hock, Gombrich was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, into an assimilated bourgeois family of Jewish origin who were part of a sophisticated social and musical milieu. His father was a lawyer and former classmate of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and his mother was a distinguished pianist who graduated from the Vienna Conservatoire with the School's Medal of Distinction. At the Conservatoire she was a pupil of, amongst others, Anton Bruckner. However, rather than follow a career as a concert pianist (which would have been difficult to combine with her family life in this period) she became an assistant of Theodor Leschetizky. She also knew Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms.[8]Rudolf Serkin was a close family friend. Adolf Busch and members of the Busch Quartet regularly met and played in the family home. Throughout his life Gombrich maintained a deep love and knowledge of classical music. He was a competent cellist and in later life at home in London regularly played the chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and others with his wife and his elder sister Dea Forsdyke, a concert violinist.

Gombrich was educated at Theresianum Secondary School and at Vienna University, where he studied art history under Hans Tietze, Karl Maria Swoboda, Julius von Schlosser and Josef Strzygowski, completing a PhD thesis on the Mannerist architecture of Giulio Romano, supervised by Von Schlosser. Specialized in caricature, he was invited to help Ernst Kris, who was then keeper of decorative arts at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, on his graduating in 1933.[9] In 1936 he married Ilse Heller, a pupil of his mother, and herself an accomplished pianist. Their only child, Richard Gombrich, went on to become a noted Indologist and scholar of Buddhism, acting as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University in 1976–2004. Lady Gombrich died in 2006.

After publishing his first book A Little History of the World in German in 1936, written for children and adolescents, seeing it become a hit only to be banned by the Nazis for pacifism and fleeing to Britain in 1939, he took up a post as a research assistant at the Warburg Institute, University of London.

During World War II, Gombrich worked for the BBC World Service, monitoring German radio broadcasts. When in 1945 an upcoming announcement was prefaced by a Bruckner symphony written for Wagner's death, Gombrich guessed correctly that Hitler was dead and promptly broke the news to Churchill.

Gombrich returned to the Warburg Institute in November 1945, where he became Senior Research Fellow (1946), Lecturer (1948), Reader (1954), and eventually Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition and director of the institute (1959–72). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960, made CBE in 1966, knighted in 1972, and appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1988. He continued his work at the University of London till close to his death in 2001. He was the recipient of numerous additional honours, including Goethe Prize 1994 and Balzan Prize in 1985 for History of Western Art.

Gombrich was close to a number of Austrian émigrés who fled to the West prior to the Anschluss, among them Karl Popper (to whom he was especially close), Friedrich Hayek and Max Perutz. He was instrumental in bringing to publication Popper's magnum opus The Open Society and Its Enemies. Each had known the other only fleetingly in Vienna, as Gombrich's father served his law apprenticeship with Popper's father. They became lifelong friends in exile.


Gombrich remarked that he had two very different publics: amongst scholars he was known particularly for his work on the Renaissance and the psychology of perception, but also his thoughts on cultural history and tradition; to a wider, non-specialist audience he was known for the accessibility and immediacy of his writing and his ability to present scholarly work in a clear and unfussy manner.

Gombrich's first book, and the only one he did not write in English, was Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser (A short history of the world for young readers), published in Germany in 1936. It was very popular and translated into several languages, but was not available in English until 2005, when a translation of a revised edition was published as A Little History of the World. He did most of this translation and revision himself, and it was completed by his long-time assistant and secretary Caroline Mustill and his granddaughter Leonie Gombrich after his death.[10]

The Story of Art, first published in 1950 and currently in its 16th edition, is widely regarded as one of the most accessible introductions to the history of visual arts. Originally intended for adolescent readers, it has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than 30 languages.

Other major publications include Art and Illusion (1960), regarded by critics to be his most influential and far-reaching work, and the essays gathered in Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963) and The Image and the Eye (1981). Other important books are Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970), The Sense of Order (1979) and The Preference for the Primitive (posthumously in 2002). The complete list of his publications, E.H. Gombrich: A Bibliography, was published by Joseph Burney Trapp in 2000.


Psychology of perception[edit]

When Gombrich arrived in England in 1936, Art History was largely concerned with connoisseurship. Gombrich, however, had been brought up in the Viennese culture of Bildung[8] and was concerned with wider issues of cultural tradition and the relationship between science and art. This latter breadth of interest can be seen both in his working relationship with the Austrian psychoanalyst and art historian, Ernst Kris, concerning the art of caricature[11] and his later books, The Sense of Order (1979) (in which information theory is discussed in its relation to patterns and ornaments in art) and the classic Art and Illusion (1960).[12]

It was in Art and Illusion that he introduced the ideas of 'schemata', 'making and matching', 'correction' and 'trial and error'[13] influenced by 'conjecture and refutation', in Popper's philosophy of science. In Gombrich's view, the artist compares what he has drawn or painted with what he is trying to draw/paint, and by a 'feedback loop' gradually corrects the drawing/painting to look more like what he is seeing. The process does not start from scratch, however. Each artist inherits '"schemata" that designate reality by force of convention'.[14] These schemata, plus the techniques and works of previous masters, are the starting points from which the artist begins her own process of trial and error.

"This [Popperian description of conjecture and refutation, trial and error] is eminently applicable to the story of visual discoveries in art. Our formula of schema and correction, in fact, illustrates this very procedure. You must have a starting point, a standard of comparison, to begin that process of making and matching and remaking which finally becomes embodied in the finished image. The artist cannot start from scratch, but he can criticise his forerunners"[15]

The philosophical conceptions developed by Popper for a philosophy of science meshed well with Gombrich's ideas for a more robust explanation of the history of art. Gombrich had written his first major work The Story of Art in 1950, ten years before Art and Illusion. The earlier book has been described as viewing the history of art as a narrative moving 'from what ancient artists "knew" to what later artists "saw"'.[16] And as Gombrich was always more concerned with the individual rather than mass movements (the famous first line of The Story of Art is 'There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists'[17]), he saw the use of scientific and psychological explanations as key to understanding how these individual artists 'saw', and how they built upon the traditions they had inherited and of which they were a part. With the dialectics of making and matching, schema and correction, Gombrich sought to ground artistic development on more universal truths, closer to those of science, than on what he regarded as fashionable or vacuous terms such as 'zeitgeist' and other 'abstractions'.[18]

Renaissance studies[edit]

Gombrich's contribution to the study of Renaissance art began with his doctoral dissertation on mannerism. In this he argues that the work of Giulio Romano, at the Palazzo del Tè, was not the work of a decadent Renaissance artist but rather showed how the painter responded to the demands of a patron 'eager for fashionable novelty'[19]

The four-volume series Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (1966) comprises the volumes: Norm and Form; Symbolic Images; The Heritage of Apelles; New Light on Old Masters and made a major contribution to the study of symbolism in the work of this period.

Gombrich was a great admirer of Leonardo da Vinci and wrote extensively on him, both in these volumes and elsewhere.[20]


Gombrich has been called 'the best known art historian in Britain, perhaps in the world'[21] and also 'one of the most influential scholars and thinkers of the 20th century'.[22]


Gombrich was sensitive to the criticism that he did not like modern art and was obliged to defend his position on occasion.[23] He has also been criticised for taking what is now viewed as a eurocentric, not to say neo-colonialist, view of art, and for not including women artists in much of his writing on Western art. His answer to the latter was that he was writing a history of art as it was and that women artists did not feature widely in the West before the 20th century. He admired 20th century female artists such as Bridget Riley whose work was included in a revised edition of The Story of Art.

While several works of Gombrich (especially Art and Illusion) had enormous impact on art history and other fields,[4] his categorical attacks on historism have been accused (by Carlo Ginzburg) of leading to "barren" scholarship;[24] many of his methodological arguments have been superseded by the work of art historians like Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall.[25]

Honours and awards[edit]

Selected publications[edit]

  • The Preference for the Primitive. Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art. London: Phaidon 2002
  • The Uses of Images. Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication. London: Phaidon 1999
  • Topics of Our Time. Twentieth-Century Issues in Learning and in Art. London: Phaidon 1991
  • Reflections on the History of Art. Views and Reviews. Oxford: Phaidon 1987
  • Tributes. Interpreters of our Cultural Tradition. Oxford: Phaidon 1984
  • Ideals & Idols. Essays on Values in History and Art. Oxford: Phaidon 1979
  • The Sense of Order. a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. Oxford: Phaidon 1979
  • Aby Warburg, an Intellectual Biography. London: The Warburg Institute 1970
  • The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Oxford: Phaidon 1982, ISBN 0-7148-2245-0
  • Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. London: Phaidon 1967–1986 (also published as: Gombrich on the Renaissance.)
    • 1: Norm and Form. 1967
    • 2: Symbolic Images. 1972
    • 3: The Heritage of Apelles. 1976
    • 4: New Light on Old Masters. 1986
  • Meditations on a Hobbyhorse and other Essays on the Theory of Art. London: Phaidon 1963
  • Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon 1960
  • The Story of Art. London: Phaidon 1950
  • Weltgeschichte von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart. Wenen: s.n. 1935 (also published as: Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser. Von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart.) English translation: A Little History of the World.


  1. ^Lyons, M. (2013). Books: a living history. London: Thames & Hudson.
  2. ^Liukkonen, Petri. "Ernst Gombrich". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 27 August 2014. 
  3. ^William Skidelsky (17 May 2009). "Classics corner: The Story of Art by EH Gombrich". The Observer. London. Retrieved 3 February 2012. 
  4. ^ abShone, Richard and Stonard, John-Paul, eds.. The Books That Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss, chapter 9. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  5. ^Ginzburg, Carlo. "From Aby Warburg to E.H. Gombrich." In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, 46. Baltimore: JHU Press, 1989.
  6. ^N. Goodman: Languages of Art, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1976.
  7. ^U. Eco: Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, 1976, pp.204–05.
  8. ^ abEribon, D. A Lifelong Interest London:Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-01574-0
  9. ^Vienna (30 March 1909). "Gombrich, Sir Ernst(Hans Josef)". 
  10. ^Leonie Gombrich in the Preface to A Little History of the Word New Haven and London: Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-14332-4
  11. ^E. H. Gombrich (with Ernst Kris), "The Principles of Caricature", British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol. 17, 1938, pp. 319–342.
  12. ^E H Gombrich. Art and Illusion Princeton:Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-07000-1
  13. ^Richter, P. On Professor Gombrich's Model of Schema and Correction British Journal of Aesthetics (1976) 16 (4): 338–346
  14. ^Wood, Christopher S, E.H. Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation’, 1960'' The Burlington Magazine, December 2009
  15. ^Quoted in Sheldon Saul Richmond Aesthetic Criteria: Gombrich and the Philosophies of Popper and Polanyi. Google Books. Retrieved 6 May 2012. 
  16. ^Obituary, Daily Telegraph"Sir Ernst Gombrich OM". The Daily Telegraph. London. 6 November 2001. Retrieved 6 May 2012. 
  17. ^Gombrich, E H. The Story of Art London:Phaidon Press Ltd, ISBN 0-7148-3247-2
  18. ^Sir Ernst Gombrich OM, Obituary, Daily Telegraph"Sir Ernst Gombrich OM". The Daily Telegraph. London. 6 November 2001. Retrieved 6 May 2012. 
  19. ^Dictionary of Art Historians "Ernst Gombrich". Retrieved 6 May 2012. 
  20. ^Ernst Gombrich "The Mystery of Leonardo". New York Review of Books. Retrieved 8 May 2012. 
  21. ^Sir Ernst Gombrich OM, Obituary, Daily Telegraph"Sir Ernst Gombrich OM". The Daily Telegraph. London. 6 November 2001. Retrieved 8 May 2012. 
  22. ^The Essential Gombrich"The Essential Gombrich". Retrieved 8 May 2012. 
  23. ^Ernst Gombrich Kimmelman, Michael (7 November 2001). "Obituary, E H Gombrich". New York Times. Retrieved 8 May 2012. 
  24. ^Ginzburg, Carlo. "From Aby Warburg to E.H. Gombrich." In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, 43. Baltimore: JHU Press, 1989.
  25. ^Shone, Richard and Stonard, John-Paul, eds.. The Books That Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss, chapter 13. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  26. ^"Reply to a parliamentary question"(pdf) (in German). p. 427. Retrieved 20 October 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Richmond, Sheldon. Aesthetic Criteria: Gombrich and the Philosophies of Science of Popper and Polanyi. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1994. 152 pp. ISBN 90-5183-618-X.
  • Woodfield, Richard. Gombrich on Art and Psychology. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996. 271 pp. ISBN 0-7190-4769-2.
  • Trapp, J.B. E.H. Gombrich: A Bibliography. London, Phaidon 2000. ISBN 978-0-7148-3981-3
  • Gombrich, E.H.J. & Eribon, D. Conversations on Art and Science. New York: Abrams 1993 (also published as: A Lifelong Interest.)
  • Onians J. (ed.). Sight & Insight. Essays in honour of E.H. Gombrich. London: Phaidon 1994
  • McGrath, Elizabeth.‘E. H. Gombrich’, Burlington Magazine, 144 (2002), 111–12
  • Carlo Ginzburg, ‘From Aby Warburg to E.H. Gombrich: A Problem of Method’, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, John and Anne C. Tedeschi, trans, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, 17–59

External links[edit]

Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich Biography

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.

Mother Turned Pages for Brahms

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.

Fled Austrian Fascism

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.

Appointed Oxford Professor

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, (December 15, 2006).


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