Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, one of the most influential art historians of the twentieth century, was born to Karl B. and Leonie Hock Gombrich. His father was a lawyer who served as vice president of the Vienna Lawyers’ Chamber, and his mother was a pianist who had been an assistant to Theodor Leschetizky and a member of the circle around Gustav Mahler. His family, like many others in post-World War I Austria, had a hard struggle; eventually the young Ernst Gombrich was sent to Sweden by the Save the Children Fund. When he was able to return to Austria, he attended the Theresianum, a school that concentrated on classical subjects. From 1928 to 1935, he attended the University of Vienna, taking courses in art history, classical archaeology, psychology, and philosophy.
At the age of twenty-six, he published a highly successful world history book for children, which quickly became available in four languages. With the Nazi threat growing in Austria, Gombrich accepted an offer to join the Warburg Institute in London in 1936. He married Ilse Heller in 1937 and became a naturalized British citizen in 1947. In 1959, he became director of the Warburg Institute, a position he held until 1976. During his career, he published almost two dozen books, held several visiting professorships, and received many prestigious fellowships and awards.
Beginning in his student days, Gombrich was more interested in the psychological, philosophical, and cultural aspects of art than in purely aesthetic considerations. His publications include successful elementary and introductory textbooks as well as highly regarded scholarly studies. In 1950, he published The Story of Art, an introductory survey he had begun before World War II. This text, which has been translated into many languages, is generally regarded as the prototype of what a text can be; according to Gombrich, it is the principal reason he was offered the prestigious Stade Professorship at the University of Oxford from 1950 to 1952. His next major book, Art and Illusion, a study of the psychology of pictorial representation, is based on his Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, and it received high praise from scholars. Meditations on a Hobby Horse, a collection of essays published in 1963, won the W. H. Smith Literary Award in 1964. Norm and Form, In Search of Cultural History, and Symbolic Images all investigate the connection between the artist’s creative ordering of his subject and medium and the general cultural mind-set of his age. Gombrich’s iconographical study of the Renaissance led him to an analysis of art and Neoplatonism, as well as artistic representation and the Humanist revival of ancient myths, symbols, and images.
The ultimate aim of these various inquiries is to account for cultural, artistic, and aesthetic values and changes in them over time—or, as Gombrich put it in Art and Illusion, to examine “why different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in different ways.” In conducting these studies, he opened the history of art to the interpretive methods of philosophy and psychology. Gombrich died in 2001 at the age of ninety-two.
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