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Antal, Frederick (1887–1954), art historian, was born in Budapest on 21 December 1887, the only child of Alajos Antal MD and his wife, Sofia Gerstl. He first studied at the university of his native city, where he graduated as a doctor of law, but later he went to Vienna to study art history under Max Dvořák, for whom he wrote a thesis on French painting of the neo-classical and early Romantic periods. From 1914 to 1919 he worked in the print room of the Museum of Fine Arts at Budapest where, with Professor Johannes Wilde, he catalogued the collection of drawings. In 1917–18 he was sent to Udine by the Austro-Hungarian government to look after the works of art in Italian territory occupied by the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1919—at the time of the communist regime—he was commissioned to make a record of paintings by old masters and the nineteenth-century French painters in private collections which had been confiscated by the state, and he organized a remarkable exhibition of them in Budapest. After the collapse of the communist regime he left Hungary, going for a short time to Florence and Vienna before settling in Berlin in 1922. In 1933 he went to England, where he lived for the remainder of his life, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1946.

In Berlin, Antal devoted himself primarily to the study of sixteenth-century Italian and Flemish painting and was one of those who first clarified the meaning of the word ‘mannerism’. He was deeply interested in the method of art history and was one of the founders of the Kritische Berichte, a short-lived journal which was mainly devoted to the critical examination of the literature of art history. In this and in other periodicals he published a series of important articles devoted to the stylistic examination of mannerist painting.

At the same time Antal was working on what was to be the major undertaking of his life, a history of sixteenth-century Florentine painting. The text of this was finished in the late 1920s, but Antal decided not to publish it for two reasons. First, he had become increasingly interested in the Marxist interpretation of history and its application to his own special field of art history, and as a result he felt that he must master the social and economic history of Florence before he could write a full history of Florentine art. Second, he realized that the crucial revolution in the development of Florentine art had occurred in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and that, in order to see the later history of Florentine art in correct perspective, it was essential to begin with an account of the earlier period, particularly since he saw Florentine mannerism as in some ways a revival of late Gothic art. By 1933 he had finished the draft of the first volume dealing with the period up to about 1430, and he spent much of his first years in England reworking it and collaborating with various English art historians in the difficult task of translating it. Publication was held up owing to the Second World War, and the book appeared in 1948 under the title Florentine painting and its social background: the bourgeois republic before Cosimo de' Medici's advent to power. This work constituted a major contribution to knowledge of the early Renaissance, but it was also intended as a demonstration of how the Marxist interpretation of history could be applied to the arts. Its importance is widely recognized and it was translated into a number of languages; however, critics attacked it for being over-rigid in its attempt to link artistic phenomena with social and economic causes.

During the war Antal devoted much time to the study of Italian sixteenth-century drawings in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, the results of his research being incorporated in the catalogue published in 1949 by A. E. Popham and Johannes Wilde.

In his last years Antal returned to his early interest in the eighteenth century and published a volume of studies on Henry Fuseli and his contemporaries, in which he analysed perceptively the connections between Fuseli's works and sixteenth-century mannerism. Even more important was his study of Hogarth, who fascinated him as an expression of English middle-class morality and culture. In his book on this artist (which was not published until 1962, after Antal's death) his methods were applied more flexibly and more subtly than in his book on Florentine painting. It has been described by a later scholar as ‘the only serious and sustained’ critique of Hogarth before the 1970s, ‘a mine of insights’ (Paulson, xxi–xxii).

Many of Antal's most original ideas were published in the form of articles. The most important of these were republished in 1966 in a volume entitled Classicism and Romanticism, with other Studies in Art History. This volume included his ‘Remarks on the method of art history’, originally published in 1949, which is a statement of his own credo. Antal never held a regular teaching post in England, although he occasionally lectured at the Courtauld Institute of Art in the University of London; but he exerted considerable influence on a small group of students, to whom his enthusiasm and his astonishing range of knowledge were an inspiration.

In appearance, Antal was very tall with dark hair; his gaunt face, from which protruded very bushy eyebrows, generally wore a rather severe and vigilant expression. On 14 October 1936 Antal married Evelyn Foster (b. 1903/4), daughter of the Revd Thomas Foster Edwards, a Presbyterian minister. Three previous marriages had been dissolved. He had one son by his third marriage. Antal died at his home, 59C Marlborough Place, London, on 4 April 1954, and was survived by his fourth wife.

Anthony Blunt, rev. Rosemary Mitchell

Sources  

The Times (9 April 1954) · J. Berger, ‘Frederick Antal: a personal tribute’, Burlington Magazine, 96 (1954), 259–60 · D. J. Haynes, ‘Frederick Antal’, The dictionary of art, ed. J. Turner (1996) · personal knowledge (1971) · private information (1971) · R. Paulson, Hogarth, 1 (1991) · m. cert. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1954)

Wealth at death  

£297 6s. 6d.: administration, 14 July 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales