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

E. H. Gombrich


(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

One of Gombrich’s most important themes in Art and Illusion is that of perception. Technically, perception is the process through which a human being gains sensory information about the physical world. Twentieth-century scientists and philosophers have been intrigued by perception and by the way the brain takes sensory information and transforms it into a meaningful picture of the world. For example, how is it that humans have depth perception? How does the brain translate the images on the retina of the eye into a three-dimensional picture of the world? Those who study perception debate whether interpretation of sensory data is innate or learned. In other words, they explore whether people are born with the ability to understand sensory information or must learn how to interpret sensory information through trial and error. Gombrich, with his close attention to science and philosophy, is intrigued by questions of perception. He writes:

The question of what is involved in ‘‘looking at nature’’—what we today call the psychology of perception—first entered into the discussion style as a practical problem in art teaching. The academic teacher bent on accuracy of representation found, as he still will find, that his pupils’ difficulties were due not only to an inability to copy nature but also an inability to see it.

For Gombrich, then, perception is more than merely a physiological response to light and dark or patterns and background. Perception and the ability to ‘‘see’’ nature depend not only on the correctly functioning eyes, retinas, and brains but...

(The entire section is 676 words.)