Study Guide

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

by E. H. Gombrich

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation Summary

Summary

Part 1: The Limits of Likeness
In the introduction to Art and Illusion, Gombrich asks the question, ‘‘Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?’’ This is the question he attempts to answer in his book. First, however, he provides the reader with a critical account of the history of style and the psychology of representation. That accomplished, he turns to Chapter One, ‘‘From Light into Paint.’’ In this chapter, Gombrich notes that the English painter, John Constable said, ‘‘Painting is a science.’’ Like Constable, Gombrich believes that science is involved in both the creation and the appreciation of art. He explains the many ways that artists through the years have learned how to represent light in their paintings.

Chapter Two, ‘‘Truth and Stereotype,’’ begins with a discussion of how a picture can be neither true nor false. By contrast, the caption of the picture can be so judged. Further, when artists undertake to paint pictures, they start not with what they see, but rather with an idea or concept, what Gombrich calls a ‘‘schema.’’ The schema, Gombrich argues, is ‘‘the first approximate, loose category which is gradually tightened to fit the form it is to reproduce.’’ Thus, in portraying a person, animal, landscape, or thing in art, the artist must have a starting point, for, as Gombrich states, ‘‘you cannot create a faithful image out of nothing.’’ Furthermore, an artist will tend to look for ‘‘certain aspects in the scene around him that he can render. Painting is an activity and the artist will therefore tend to see what he paints rather than paint what he sees.’’

Part 2: Function and Form
The first chapter, ‘‘Pygmalion’s Power,’’ covers the connection between the artist and creation. It is not, Gombrich argues, the artist’s aim to make a likeness, but rather to create something real. In so doing, the artist particularizes, starting with an idea, say, of chairness, and particularizing this idea until it represents the chair that is the subject being painted.

The section continues with a description of how Greek art moves from a stiff rendering to more ‘‘lifelike’’ rendering. Gombrich asserts that this is a perfect illustration of the theory that making always occurs before matching. That is, an artist (or culture) begins with a schemata, which the artist then adjusts and corrects to make it ever closer to the appearance the artist wants the creation to have. Gombrich then moves to an exploration of ‘‘the basic geometric relationships that the artists must know for the construction to be a plausible figure.’’ In so doing, he considers the Medieval and Renaissance ‘‘drawing books’’ which used geometric shapes as formulas for teaching drawing. These books, according to Gombrich, ‘‘form a reservoir of formulas or schemata which spread throughout Europe.’’ He compares these books with basic vocabularies; in a very real sense, they provided artists with the building blocks of the language of art. For Gombrich, however, ‘‘effective portrayal’’ is only possible when the artist goes beyond the formulas and demonstrates a willingness ‘‘to correct and revise.’’

Part 3: The Beholder’s Share
The chapters of this section focus primarily on the role of the viewer in the reading of an artist’s image. Gombrich relates this tendency to what psychologists call ‘‘projection,’’ wherein a person...

(The entire section is 1459 words.)