Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Gombrich was born in Vienna on March 30, 1909. His education was at the Theresianum and the University of Vienna, from which he received the degree of doctor of philosophy in the history of art. Gombrich was taught to think initially and academically in German with its special overtones; he came also in time and by choice to think in English with its contrasting undertones. In Art and Illusion, he pays dedicatory homage in a chronological listing to the memory of three teachers; under the second he wrote his dissertation.

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To Emanuel Loewy, specialist in Greek sculpture and inscriptions, including especially those pertaining to artists, Gombrich ascribed, admittedly in the context of “the outlook of sense-data psychology,” “most of what is worth preserving” in “evolutionism.”

Julius von Schlosser, noted for the study of monastic architecture, early and later Renaissance art, and the history of musical instruments, and for the cataloging of the private and state collections of Austria, is acknowledged as the source of Gombrich’s recurrent interest “in the role of the type and even of the stereotype in tradition,” in “the use of ’precedents’ or ’similes,’ ” in the “conceptual image,” and ultimately in the “style” of an age.

Through Ernst Kris, a student of decorative art, especially sculpture, and of the psychology of art and the relationship of psychoanalysis to art, there was mediated to Gombrich that concern for the “psychological-philosophy” of Sigmund Freud, to which Gombrich comes back with some frequency for matters of aesthetics applied to illusion, perception, caricature, and the whole “psychology of pictorial representation.” Like Kris, Gombrich became a student of propaganda during World War II.

Gombrich became an art historian in the midst of a belligerent National Socialism and on the verge of World War II. His initial connection with the Warburg Institute dates from the beginning of 1936. Along with a variety of visiting lectureships, he retained that connection, moving with the institute to England; Gombrich eventually attained British citizenship and, in 1972, knighthood. Thus, he came to hold both a professorship of the history of the classical tradition in the University of London (from 1956) and the directorship of the institute (from 1959), until his retirement in 1976.

To understand Art and Illusion, one cannot ignore the enormous though indirect influence upon Gombrich of the institute’s founder, Warburg, whose many private papers and library notes Gombrich employed in his study Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970, second edition 1986). Indeed, at times in this work it becomes impossible to disentangle Warburg from Gombrich himself. The Warburg collection is essential to understand Gombrich; in its context lies the importance of Art and Illusion—a holistic treatise integrating works of art not only with their making but also with their comprehensive discussion.

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