E.H. Gombrich Remembered (1909-2001)

For many of us, E.H. Gombrich was known as an author of the widely popular The Story of Art, which sold millions of copies and was translated into more than 20 languages. For some of us, he was also a writer on art theory, as in Art and Illusion (1960), as well as a recondite scholar of the Italian Renaissance in four invaluable volumes of essays: Norm and Form (1966), Symbolic Images (1972), The Heritage of Apelles (1976), and New Light on Old Masters (1986). His other works include a study of the psychology of the decorative, The Sense of Order (1979), Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970), and, finally, The Essential Gombrich (1966).

Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, son of a respected lawyer and a famous piano teacher, was born in Vienna in 1909. He studied art theory with Julius von Schlosser and Classical Archaeology with Emanuel Loewy at the University of Vienna. Under Schlosser, a somewhat skeptical scholar who insisted that his students work with original materials from the existing archives rather than adopting the new radical approach led by Max Dvorak, Gombrich did his dissertation on the architecture of Giulio Romano.

A few years after the University, besides having learned Chinese, worked on the history of caricature, and written a short children’s history of the world, Gombrich began his research at the Warburg (The Warburg Institute had moved to London from Hamburg in 1933), and when the war was over he also briefly worked as a radio monitor for the BBC. Eventually, under the guidance of Ernst Kris—a museum curator and a practicing psychoanalyst—Gombrich managed to publish The Story of Art. This publication led to a Slade Professorship in the History of Art at Oxford University and subsequently to the position of Director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London, both positions he maintained until his retirement in 1976.

Like other great art historians of his generation, such as Erwin Panofsky and Meyer Schapiro, Gombrich’s lucid mind and vast erudition is exemplified in his contributions to the study of the Renaissance Iconography and the Theory of Art. But unlike some of them, Gombrich’s lesser commitment to Freudian analysis, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and Marxism resulted in a lack of interest in modern and contemporary art. Actually, there are a few notable exceptions, for he was an intimate friend of Oskar Kokoschka, Saul Steinberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Bridget Riley.

However, E.H. Gombrich’s dedication to the truth, and his moral and intellectual integrity, were invaluable to the increasing scholarly importance of art history. In 1966, he was awarded the C.B.E., was knighted in 1972, and in 1988, he was awarded the Order of Merit.


Phong Bui