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Sir  Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909–2001), by Ronald B. Kitaj, 1986Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909–2001), by Ronald B. Kitaj, 1986
Gombrich, Sir Ernst Hans Josef (1909–2001), art historian, was born on 30 March 1909 in Vienna, the third and youngest child and only son of the lawyer Dr Karl B. Gombrich (1874–1950), vice-president of the disciplinary council of the Austrian bar, and his wife, Leonie, née Hock (1873–1968), a pianist who had studied under Anton Bruckner. His sister Lisbeth (1907–1996) became a writer and translator, and his sister Anna (Dea; 1905–1994) was a talented violinist. Gombrich himself was an accomplished amateur cellist.

Early years in Vienna

Gombrich's parents were of Jewish extraction but converted to protestantism; in this, and in a certain austerity of life and language, he followed them. Some conservatism also marked the family's cultural values, in spite of their connections with leading figures such as Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg, and all his life he remained in touch with, but critical of, the avant-garde. This comfortable background was transformed by the Austro-Hungarian empire's defeat in the First World War and subsequent collapse. Undernourished and ill, at the age of ten Gombrich was sent to Sweden, where for nine months he lived with the family of a coffin maker and learned Swedish. Returning to a shattered Vienna, he was, as an adolescent, powerfully affected by two great institutions that confronted each other across a square not far from his home. The Naturhistorisches Museum, with its prehistoric tools and minerals, was his early favourite, but his father preferred to take him to the Kunsthistorisches Museum; there he slowly developed a passion for art that was sustained by reading at home. He received a classical education at the Theresianum Gymnasium, but in the final examinations his wide personal interests emerged in his concentration on both physics and German literature, and in his decision to write a long essay on the changes in artistic taste after Johann Joachim Winckelmann, changes that had been especially rapid in his own short life.

Gombrich's interest in the intellectual history of art was greatly strengthened by his studies at Vienna University's Institut für Kunstgeschichte, then perhaps the most exciting centre for the history of art in Europe and effectively divided into two institutes by the debates between Josef Stryzgowski, passionately concerned to develop a comparative art history that looked beyond Europe to the East, and Julius von Schlosser, whose life's work was a history of European art theory. Becoming the last of Schlosser's doctoral students, Gombrich in 1931 went to Mantua to prepare a dissertation on Giulio Romano's Palazzo del Te. Working on an eccentric artist in a minor Italian city, he was free to develop a new explanation of Giulio's architecture, by relating it to the personal preferences of his patron Duke Federico Gonzaga and to such theories, then little known, as those of Sebastiano Serlio. The resulting dissertation (1933), a precocious study of the intellectual and psychological preoccupations of artist and patron, formed the basis for two major articles, ‘Zum Werke Giulio Romanos’, published in the Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien in 1934 and 1935, and led to a collaboration with Ernst Kris, the art historian and psychoanalyst, on investigating the psychic context of caricature.

Before Gombrich's work with Kris could be completed and partly published, as Caricature (1940), life in Vienna was again destabilized, by the growing menace of Nazism. Antisemitic policies denied Gombrich public employment and he found himself first accepting a private commission from the publisher Walter Neurath, later founder of Thames and Hudson, to write a short history of the world for children (1936; published in English in 2005 as A Little History of the World), and then accepting an invitation from Fritz Saxl to join the transformed and transplanted Kulturswissenchaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, which had already in 1934 been prudently moved from Hamburg to London as the Warburg Institute. He first went to England in January 1936. He returned briefly to Vienna in the summer, and married Ilse Heller (b. 1910), a Czech concert pianist and pupil of Rudolf Serkin. Gombrich and his wife settled permanently in England in autumn 1936. His parents were able to join them in 1938.

Settling into England

Gombrich's task as a research fellow at the Warburg Institute was to work on the papers of its founder, Aby Warburg, born the heir to a banking fortune. This inquiry obliged him to enter the mind of an exceptionally creative and independent scholar whose interest in universal human cultural norms had been fostered by his discovery of Darwin's The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals (1872), and whose concern with the transmission of symbolic expressions of those norms had led him to focus on the classical tradition. Research advanced well until it was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, when, as an enemy alien, Gombrich faced new difficulties. However, through the recommendation of Kris, then advising the BBC on the psychology of propaganda, he found employment in the corporation's monitoring service. Life, though, was not easy for an enemy alien provisionally ‘exempt from internment’, and the family—Gombrich's only child, Richard, having been born in 1937—had only inadequate temporary accommodation until the end of the conflict. In this new and very different mental environment Gombrich was responsible for transcribing and translating German radio broadcasts. As he often later pointed out, the exercise of trying to make sense of poor signals made him increasingly aware how much his ability to follow the text depended on his prior expectations.

Another crucial experience during the war was that of putting through the press Karl Popper's powerful defence of intellectual freedom, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Gombrich had got to know his fellow Austrian only briefly in London in 1936, but after the war their close friendship encouraged him both in his inclination to warn of the dangers of the breakdown of political order and in his desire to bring to humanistic studies something of the discipline of scientific method. Equally important in a different way was the commission he received from another Viennese émigré, Bela Horovitz, founder of the Phaidon Press, to adapt a project he had conceived before the war to write a history of art for children. Composed largely from memory, The Story of Art (1950), from cave painting to the twentieth century, which he told in a beautifully illustrated volume, became perhaps the best-known and most respected history of art in the world, translated into thirty-one languages and selling over two million copies in his lifetime.

Public acceptance and social integration

In 1946 Gombrich (who became a naturalized British citizen in the following year) returned to London and to the Warburg Institute, which had now found a home as a centre for the study of the classical tradition within London University, as a senior research fellow. His association with the institute became permanent with his appointment by Saxl (just before the latter's death) as lecturer in 1948. He became reader in 1954. With a secure base he could now begin to travel, and in 1949 (again through Kris), he was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship to visit the United States. It was the beginning of a profound and mutually beneficial relationship. Then, in 1950, the same year as the publication of The Story of Art—and on the recommendation of T. S. R. Boase, who reviewed it for the Times Literary Supplement—came the visiting appointment as Slade professor at Oxford (1950–53). Also in 1950 Gombrich acquired a house in Briardale Gardens, Hampstead. The latter became the modest but hospitable family home to which for the next half century, thanks to Ilse's generosity of spirit, he would welcome an endless stream of students and colleagues, friends and admirers, from many countries.

In 1956, at the suggestion of Kenneth Clark, Gombrich was invited to give the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery, Washington. These, when published in 1960 as Art and Illusion: a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, transformed the way not only art historians but also artists and many educated laymen experienced art. Gombrich expanded in the lectures on a conceptual framework already emergent in articles published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, such as ‘Meditations on a hobby horse’ (1951). He also drew upon his understanding, in unrivalled depth, of the psychology of perception, and brilliantly exploited his acute awareness of his own responses to works of art. Art and Illusion provided a series of meticulous expositions of how artists in the European tradition became increasingly expert in providing their viewers with an experience of art that seemed to correspond with their experience of reality. The book's impact was extraordinary. Using skills of gentle persuasion and apposite exemplification developed while writing his two books for children, Gombrich convinced even those who did not sympathize with his apparent celebration of a purely representational tradition that the making and viewing of all art were much more complex and interesting activities than they or anyone else had ever realized.

Intellectual achievement brought Gombrich institutional power. Appointed Durning-Lawrence professor at University College, London, in 1956, he returned in 1959 to the Warburg Institute as its director and professor of the history of the classical tradition. He continued to write a stream of ground-breaking articles, many of which were collected in handsome Phaidon volumes, beginning with Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963) and Norm and Form (1966). He presided, with an authority and an expressiveness of body language he did not shirk from using, over the director's work-in-progress seminars, and his influence was felt increasingly widely. At the Warburg itself he expanded teaching, introducing an MPhil degree in Renaissance studies. This filled with young students the library and the tea-room, where new arrivals often found themselves engaged by him in challenging but constructive conversation. On a wider stage, he became involved in a major controversy with the National Gallery's restorer about the tact—a value of great importance to him—of the cleaning of Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1961–2), became Lethaby professor at the Royal College of Art (1967–8), a trustee of the British Museum (1974–9), and a member of the Museums and Galleries Commission (1976–82). Internationally, having been a visiting professor at Harvard (1959), he became a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1964), the first of many such appointments to academies abroad, and Andrew D. White professor-at-large, Cornell University (1970–77). His success in all these fields brought him appointment as CBE in 1966, and a knighthood in 1972.

Art and science

Gombrich's achievement owed much to science and increasingly, as Art and Illusion became better known, scientists felt themselves to be in his debt. He had a long-running debate (underpinned by mutual respect) with the American psychologist James J. Gibson and a less contentious relationship with the British neuropsychologist Richard Gregory, with whom he published an edited volume on Illusion in Nature and Art (1973). This book, produced to coincide with an exhibition organized by Sir Roland Penrose at the Institute of Contemporary Art, contained, among others, articles on the latest discoveries in neuroanatomy and animal behaviour. Given the Nazis' abuse of biology, such implicit acceptance of its role in the humanities was difficult even for such a courageous figure as he, and the cost was apparent in his reluctance to contribute to a volume containing an article by the Austrian ethologist and Nazi sympathizer, Konrad Lorenz, though he characteristically found a way to overcome it.

This rapprochement with science also lifted some reserves affecting Gombrich's own work, and when he was invited to give the Wrightsman lectures at the Metropolitan Museum, New York (1976), choosing as his subject the study of ornament, he drew on several biological sciences. The different human dispositions involved were collectively acknowledged in the title of the published lectures, The Sense of Order: a Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (1979). Fundamental to Gombrich's understanding of this ‘sense’ was his discovery of information theory, a relatively new field then being developed as a tool vital for the new computing industry, but already applied to the nervous system. From this Gombrich derived the notion that an important attribute of ornaments is their possession of ‘redundancies’, an essential background for effective communication and one of the main sources of the satisfaction ornaments give the viewer. Other dispositions that needed to be considered when studying ornament included such specific inborn responses as the aversion to forms resembling claws and teeth. The extent of Gombrich's new engagement with science was apparent in his statement in the preface to the second edition of The Sense of Order that the book was designed ‘to establish and test the theory that there exists a Sense of Order which manifests itself in all styles of design and which I believe to be rooted in man's biological inheritance’ (Gombrich, The Sense of Order, 2nd edn, 1984, xxii). This ambitious claim, which looked both back to late nineteenth-century Kunstwissenschaft and forward to early twenty-first-century conclusions (made possible by developments in neuropsychology) about art as a worldwide phenomenon, did not, to his great disappointment, find the same warm response as those in Art and Illusion. It was now out of harmony with a discipline that was, especially in the English-speaking world, for the remainder of the twentieth century dominated by Marxism and post-structuralism, with their commitments to the type of social explanations of art that Gombrich often dismissed as ‘Hegelian rubbish’.

Final decades

The last twenty-five years of Gombrich's life saw a growing divergence between a reputation in Britain that tended to decline, at least among art historians of a younger generation, who often used selective quotation to caricature an oeuvre whose sophistication was such that it had already anticipated much of their criticism, and a reputation elsewhere that continued to rise. It was his stature not just as a historian of art and culture, but as a great humanist and thinker, that seemed above all to distinguish him. In Britain he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1988, while in Europe cities and institutions competed to accord him their highest intellectual honours, including the Erasmus prize, Amsterdam (1975), the Hegel prize, Stuttgart (1976), the medal of the Collège de France (1977), the Ludwig Wittgenstein Preis der Österreichischen Forschungsgemeinschaft (1988), and the Goethe prize, Frankfurt (1994), as well as more personally cherished distinctions, such as the citizenship of Mantua (1998). Abroad he also preserved his reputation as an art historian better than at home. The recognition in this area that he most appreciated was the effort of a devoted group of young Chinese scholars, against the grain in the 1980s and more freely in the 1990s, to translate as much of his work as possible, an effort that led indirectly to the history of art becoming established as a subject at university level. This meant much to him, partly because in the difficult mid-1930s he had distracted himself by starting to learn Chinese, and partly because of his abiding conviction that the Chinese tradition of art was the only one that came close in quality to that of the European classical tradition.

Gombrich went on publishing, republishing, and writing until the end of his life. Some publications reflected the particular preoccupations of his later years. One example was Tributes: Interpreters of our Cultural Tradition (1984), which brought together mostly recent lectures and addresses celebrating famous individuals, a genre in which his commitment to excellence, his critical honesty, and his wit made him a master—even when talking of Hegel, for whom his admiration was less than complete. Another was Shadows: the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art (1996), which was designed to accompany an exhibition at the National Gallery and which reflected his desire to tug the viewer's coat sleeve and point out some subtlety of technique or invention that deserved closer attention. His last major book, which appeared posthumously, was The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art (2002). This brought together old and new meditations on those moments when the finished, the up-to-date, and the naturalistic were rejected in favour of the imperfect, the ancient, and the schematic. This impulse, which had preoccupied him for forty years, representing as it did a counterpoint to his favourite theme, the pursuit of successful illusion, testified to what he called a psychological ‘law of gravitation’ toward simple configurations. Recognizing the inexorable power of this force threw into even greater relief the triumphs of the individual artists he most admired, such as Leonardo or Rembrandt.

Gombrich died at his home, 19 Briardale Gardens, Hampstead, London, on 3 November 2001, of bronchopneumonia and heart failure. He was survived by his wife, Ilse, and their son, Richard, who was Boden professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford from 1976.


Gombrich himself reflected on his long career in two publications that were, like much of his work, the product of ‘live’ events. ‘Sir Ernst Gombrich: an autobiographical sketch and discussion’ (1987), later published in The Essential Gombrich (1996), edited by Richard Woodfield, was the record of an occasion at the Center for the Critical Analysis of Contemporary Culture at Rutgers University; and Ce que l'image nous dit: entretiens sur l'art et la science (1991), translated into English as A Lifelong Interest: Conversations on Art and Science with Didier Eribon (1993), was the much more worked-out result of many hours of challenging discussions with Eribon, which went to the very heart of his methods and beliefs. From both documents Gombrich emerged as someone surprised at his own success and, for the most part, happy to acknowledge the role in obtaining it of protectors such as Ernst Kris, supporters such as T. S. R. Boase and Kenneth Clark, and mentors such as Emmanuel Löwy and Karl Popper.

Gombrich lived long enough and was realistic enough to share many of the intellectual community's evaluations of his work. He agreed that his main contribution was to the understanding of the psychology of perception involved in the making of and response to art, using concepts that later became bywords, such as ‘schema and correction’, ‘the eyewitness principle’, ‘the beholder's share’, and ‘the ecology of the image’, all of which drew attention to the mental constraints human beings must live with. He admitted to sharing many of his colleagues' reservations about some of his iconographical studies, and did not disagree with the widespread view that The Sense of Order was less successful than Art and Illusion because it both tried to do too much with too wide a field and was too dependent on information theory. He was unrepentant about his hostility to Hegelianism, invocations of the ‘spirit of the time’, Marxism, and any other form of collectivism, which had first opposed him to such contemporaries as Erwin Panofsky, and later alienated many younger art historians. He continued to insist on the potential importance of the creative individual, whether for the formation of a new style or the establishment of a new taste.

What was fresh in Gombrich's approach was his striking emphasis on biology. ‘My approach is always biological’, and ‘psychology is biology’, he told Eribon (Gombrich and Eribon, 133). He believed that our response to art is rooted in a biology we share with animals and is not, as argued by figures such as Nelson Goodman, only the product of the learning of conventions. One reason why in later life he was able to make this acknowledgement, which was in some conflict with his own and others' more humanist position in the 1950s and 1960s, was that neuroscience could now demonstrate that some of his hunches were correct. As a young man in Vienna he had been inspired by Alois Riegl's dream of an art history founded in the science of psychology, and he had worked largely alone to realize it. At the end of his life the findings of ethology and neuropsychology increasingly supported his claims. While his disdain for much of twentieth-century art and his conviction that the art of Europe is absolutely superior to that of other cultures are both likely to be increasingly seen as outmoded prejudices, Gombrich's fundamentally biological approach to the study of art, which might have saved him from both, is likely to be increasingly vindicated.

Unlike most great art historians, Gombrich did not change the view of a particular period or style. Rather, he changed the entire approach to the activity of the viewer—not just among art historians but among artists and the general public, and not just in Europe but around the world. To some extent everybody concerned with art has become a Gombrichian, and not just the tens of millions who have read his books. So too have the many psychologists of perception, who have been reminded by his work of the subjective nature of their experiments. His manifold impact in this area was the topic of a collection of papers by psychologists, philosophers, and art historians gathered by his thoughtful admirer, Richard Woodfield, in the volume Gombrich on Art and Psychology (1996).

Quite different was Gombrich's influence on the small group of individuals who either were or considered themselves his pupils. As the twenty articles they contributed to the volume Sight and Insight: Essays on Art and Culture Presented to E. H. Gombrich at 85 (1994) demonstrated, it was less any particular problem or approach that linked them than a freedom to follow their own inquiries further than would have been allowed by most supervisors. It is none the less remarkable how each took up and pursued some line of research already advanced in an exemplary way by their teacher, as in the case of the diagnosis of a painter's most elusive yet characteristic devices, the study of an artist's unconscious exploitation of the eye's neurobiology, the disentangling of the links between the histories of science and art, or the exposure of a hidden vein in the historiography of art. Gombrich admired greatness and, more than most academics, he encouraged the aspiration to it in his pupils. He passed on his gifts along with his interests. The Gombrich school is as difficult to define as his achievements, but it is equally palpable in its energies and may well cumulatively have a similar effect on the ways in which we look, write, and think.

John Onians


The Gombrich archive, www.gombrich.co.uk, accessed on 1 Aug 2004 · E. H. Gombrich and D. Eribon, A lifelong interest: conversations on art and science (1993) · E. H. Gombrich, ‘An autobiographical sketch’, The essential Gombrich: selected writings on art and culture, ed. R. Woodfield (1996) · The Guardian (5 Nov 2001) · The Times (6 Nov 2001) · Daily Telegraph (6 Nov 2001) · The Independent (6 Nov 2001) · Le Monde (6 Nov 2001) · Financial Times (7 Nov 2001) · E. McGrath, ‘E. H. Gombrich’, Burlington Magazine, 144 (2002), 111–12 · M. Podro, ‘Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, 1909–2001’, PBA, 120 (2003), 175–98 · WW (2001) · personal knowledge (2005) · private information (2005) · d. cert.


Bodl. Oxf., SPSL papers  



BFINA, ‘Botticelli's Primavera: myths or fingerprints?’, 14 Sept 1996 [first television interview given by Gombrich for twenty years] · BFINA, documentary footage




BL NSA, Third ear, interview with M. Kemp, BBC Radio 3, 20 Dec 1991, B8918/2 · BL NSA, Private passions, interview with M. Berkeley, BBC Radio 3, 1996, H7075/1 · BL NSA, National Life Story Collection, artists' lives, interviews with C. Courtney, 17 Sept 1999, F7736–7738 · BL NSA, More than meets the eye, interview with R. Gregory, H3771/1 · BL NSA, Night waves, interview with R. Porter, BBC Radio 3, H1451/2 · BL NSA, recorded talks


photograph, 1936 (with Ilse Gombrich), repro. in Art Newspaper (20 Dec 2001), 4 · Elliott & Fry, two negatives, 1961, NPG · Snowdon, photograph, 1963, Camera Press, London · M. Cosman, portrait, 1970; exh. Stadtmuseum, Düsseldorf 1988 · P. Joyce, bromide print, 1975, NPG · I. Mumford, two tempera portraits, 1978, priv. coll. · R. B. Kitaj, pastel and charcoal drawing, 1986, NPG [see illus.] · M. Robert, bromide fibre print, 1988–9, NPG · T. Pericoli, caricature, 1990, repro. in T. Pericoli, Ritratti arbitrari (1990), facing p. 74 · M. Werner, resin bust, c.1990, priv. coll. · C. Djanogly, bromide fibre print, 1997, NPG · H. Tappe, photograph, 1999, Camera Press, London · L. Ceschin, aquatint print, 2000, NPG · L. A. Dickens, C-type colour print, 2001, NPG · R. B. Kitaj, pastel and charcoal on paper, exh. RA 2002 · J. Bown, photograph, repro. in The Independent (6 Nov 2001) · P. Guidolotti, portrait, repro. in The Times (Feb 2002) · I. B. Jones, photograph, Warburg Institute, London, Gombrich Archive · T. Pilston, photograph, repro. in The Independent (29 Oct 1991), 11 · photograph, repro. in National Gallery Report (April 1991–March 1992), 11 · photograph, repro. in Art Quarterly (spring 2002), 11 · photograph, repro. in The Times (6 Nov 2001) · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in Podro, ‘Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, 1909–2001’, facing p. 175 · photographs, Warburg Institute, London

Wealth at death  

£1,108,811: probate, 19 June 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales