Ernst Gombrich  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

"I have paid tribute in Art and Illusion to the most thorough and sophisticated of these experimenters, Rodolphe Toepffer, who established what I have proposed to call Toepffer's law, the proposition that any configuration which we can interpret as a face, however badly drawn, will ipso facto have such an expression and individuality." --Art, Perception, and Reality, page 24, E. H. Gombrich, 1972

Related e



Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, OM, CBE (30 March 19093 November 2001) was an Austrian-born art historian, who spent most of his working life in the United Kingdom. Gombrich was close to a number of Austrian émigrés who fled to the West prior to the Anschluss, among them Karl Popper (to whom he was especially close) and Friedrich Hayek. He is best-known for his books Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, A Little History of the World, The Story of Art and Art and Illusion, which ushered in reader-response criticism in visual culture theory.


Bibliography (selection)

  • The Preference for the Primitive. Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art. London: Phaidon 2002
  • The Uses of Images. Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication. London: Phaidon 1994
  • Topics of Our Time. Twentieth-Century Issues in Learning and in Art. London: Phaidon 1991
  • Reflections on the History of Art. Views and Reviews. Oxford: Phaidon 1987
  • Tributes. Interpreters of our Cultural Tradition. Oxford: Phaidon 1984
  • Ideals and Idols. Essays on Values in History and Art. Oxford: Phaidon 1979
  • The Sense of Order. a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. Oxford: Phaidon 1979
  • Aby Warburg, an Intellectual Biography. London: The Warburg Institute 1970
  • The Image and the Eye. Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Oxford: Phaidon 1982
  • Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. London: Phaidon 1966 (also published as: Gombrich on the Renaissance.)
    • 1: Norm and Form.
    • 2: Symbolic Images.
    • 3: the heritage of Appelles.
    • 4: New Light on Old Masters.
  • Meditations on a Hobbyhorse and other Essays on the Theory of Art. London: Phaidon 1963
  • Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon 1960
  • The Story of Art. London: Phaidon 1950
  • Weltgeschichte von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart. Wenen: s.n. 1935 (also published as: Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser. Von der Urzeit bis zur Gegenwart.) English translation: A Little History of the World.


He was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, into an assimilated bourgeois family of Jewish origin, who were part of a sophisticated social and musical milieu. His father was a lawyer and former classmate of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and his mother was a pianist who was a pupil of Anton Bruckner (she also knew Schoenberg, Mahler and Brahms). Rudolf Serkin as well was a close family friend. Gombrich was educated at Theresianum secondary school in Vienna and at Vienna University before coming to Britain in 1936 where he took up a post as a research assistant at the Warburg Institute, University of London.

During World War II, he worked for the BBC World Service, monitoring German radio broadcasts. When in 1945 an upcoming announcement was prefaced by a Bruckner symphony written for Wagner's death, Gombrich guessed correctly that Hitler was dead, and promptly broke the news to Churchill. He returned to the Warburg Institute in November 1945 where he became Senior Research Fellow (1946), Lecturer (1948), Reader (1954) before eventually becoming Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition and its director (1959–72). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1960, made CBE in 1966, knighted in 1972, and appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1988. He was the recipient of numerous additional honours.

Gombrich's first book was Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser (the only book he did not write in English), published in Germany in 1936. It was very popular and translated into several languages, but was not available in English until 2005 when a translation of a revised edition was published as A Little History of the World.

The Story of Art, first published in 1950 (currently in its 16th edition) is widely regarded as a seminal work of criticism and one of the most accessible introductions to the visual arts. Originally intended for adolescent readers, it has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than 30 languages. Other major publications include Art and Illusion (1960), regarded by critics to be his most influential and far-reaching work, and the papers gathered in Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963) and The Image and the Eye (1981). Other important books are Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (1970), The Sense of Order (1979) and The Preference for the Primitive (posthumously in 2002). A complete list of his publications was published by JB Trapp, E.H. Gombrich: A Bibliography in 2000.


Gombrich was the son of Karl Gombrich and Leonie Hock. Gombrich married Ilse Heller, an accomplished concert pianist, in 1936. (Ilse was a pupil of Ernst's mother, herself a distinguished concert pianist.) Ernst and Ilse's only child, Richard, went on to become a noted Indologist and scholar of Buddhist Studies, acting as the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University from 1976 to 2004.


Gombrich was close to a number of Austrian émigrés who fled to the West prior to the Anschluss, among them Karl Popper (to whom he was especially close) and Friedrich Hayek. He was instrumental in bringing to publication Popper's magnum opus The Open Society and Its Enemies. Both knew the other only fleetingly in Vienna, as Gombrich's father (a lawyer) was apprenticed to Popper's father Simon Popper (also a lawyer). They became lifelong friends in exile, both eventually settling in Britain.

Further reading

Sheldon Richmond, Aesthetic Criteria: Gombrich and the Philosophies of Science of Popper and Polanyi. Rodopi, Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA, 1994, 152 pp. ISBN 90-5183-618-X.

Richard Woodfield, Gombrich on Art and Psychology. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1996, 271pp. ISBN 0-7190-4769-2.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ernst Gombrich" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools