Ernst Gombrich

Austrian art historian

Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich, OM, CBE (30 March 19093 November 2001) was an Austrian-born art historian who became a naturalized British citizen in 1947, and spent most of his working life in the United Kingdom. He was the author of many works of cultural history and art history, including The Story of Art (1950), a book which had reached 16 editions by 2022.

Ernst Gombrich (1975)


  • There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.
    • E. H. Gombrich, (1950, p. 15) cited in: Paul Smith, ‎Carolyn Wilde (2008). A Companion to Art Theory, p. 428.
  • Like art, science is born of itself, not of nature. There is no neutral naturalism. The artist, no less than the writer, needs a vocabulary before he can embark on a 'copy' of reality.
    • E. H. Gombrich (1962), quoted in: Robert Maxwell Young. Mind, Brain, and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century, 1970. p. 101.
  • Images apparently occupy a curious position somewhere between the statements of language, which are intended to convey a meaning, and the things of nature, to which we only can give a meaning.
    • E. H. Gombrich, Symbolic Images, (1972).

Art and Illusion (1960)

  • Anyone who can handle a needle convincingly can make us see a thread which is not there.
    • Quoted in: Willie Maartens (2006). Mapping Reality, p. 185.
  • The true miracle of the language of art is not that it enables the artist to create the illusion of reality. It is that under the hands of a great master the image becomes translucent. In teaching us to see the visible world afresh, he gives us the illusion of looking into the invisible realms of the mind - if only we know, as Philostratus says, how to use our eyes.

In Search of Cultural History (1969)

  • The point is rather that all of them felt, consciously or unconsciously, that if they let go of the magnet that created the pattern, the atoms of past cultures would again fall back into random dust-heaps.
    In this respect the cultural historian was much worse off than any other historian. His colleagues working on political or economic history had at least a criterion of relevance in their restricted subject matter. They could trace the history of the reform of Parliament, of Anglo-Irish relations, without explicit reference to an all-embracing philosophy of history.
  • In my own field, the History of Art, it was Alois Riegl who, at the turn of the century, worked out his own translation of the Hegelian system into psychological terms.
  • If Van Eyck's patrons had all been Buddhists he would neither have painted the Adoration of the Lamb nor, for that matter, the Hunting of the Otter, but though the fact that he did is therefore trivially connected with the civilization in which he worked, there is no need to place these works on the periphery of the Hegelian wheel and look for the governing cause that explains both otter hunting and piety in the particular form they took in the early decades of the fifteenth century, and which is also expressed in Van Eyck’s new technique.
  • I hope and believe cultural history will make progress if it also fixes its attention firmly on the individual human being. Movements, as distinct from periods, are started by people. Some of them are abortive, others catch on. Each movement in its turn has a core of dedicated souls, a crowd of hangers-on, not to forget a lunatic fringe. There is a whole spectrum of attitudes and degrees of conversion. Even within the individual there may be various levels of conviction, various conscious and unconscious fluctuations in loyalty. What seemed acceptable during the mass rally or revivalist meeting may look pretty crazy on the way home. But movements would not be movements if they did not have their badges, their outward signs, their style of behaviour, style of speech and of dress. Who can probe the motives which prompt individuals to adopt some of these, and who would venture in every case to pronounce on the completeness of the conversion this adoption may express? Knowing these limitations, the cultural historian will be a little wary of the claims of cultural psychology.
  • Whether we know it or not, we always approach the past with some preconceived ideas, with a rudimentary theory we wish to test. In this as in many other respects the cultural historian does not differ all that much from his predecessor, the traveller to foreign lands. Not the professional traveller who is only interested in one particular errand, be it the exploration of a country’s kinship system or its hydroelectric schemes, but the broad-minded traveller who wants to understand the culture of the country in which he finds himself.

The Story of Art (1978 edition)

  • We are all inclined to accept conventional forms or colours as the only correct ones. Children sometimes think that stars must be star-shaped, though naturally they are not. The people who insist that in a picture the sky must be blue, and the grass green, are not very different from these children. They get indignant if they see other colours in a picture, but if we try to forget all we have heard about green grass and blue skies, and look at the world as if we had just arrived from another planet on a voyage of discovery and were seeing it for the first time, we may find that things are apt to have the most surprising colours.
    • p. 26.
  • One never finishes learning about art. There are always new things to discover. Great works of art seem to look different every time one stands before them. They seem to be as inexhaustible and unpredictable as real human beings.
    • p. 33.
  • The beginning of the sixteenth century, the Cinquecento, is the most famous period of Italian art, one of the greatest periods of all time. This was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, of Raphael and Titian, of Correggio and Giorgione, of Dürer and Holbein in the north, and of many other famous masters. One may well ask why it was that all these great masters were born in the same period, but such questions are more easily asked than answered. One cannot explain the existence of genius. It is better to enjoy it.
  • Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper. We use it to light up the past. First of all our own, and then we ask old people to tell us what they remember. After that we look for letters written by people who are already dead. And in this way we light our way back. There are buildings that are just for storing old scraps of paper that people once wrote on – they are called archives. In them you can find letters written hundreds of years ago. In an archive, I once found a letter which just said: 'Dear Mummy, Dear Mummy, Yesterday we ate some lovely truffles, love from William.' William was a little Italian prince who lived four hundred years ago.
    • p. 2.
  • If you want to do anything new you must first make sure you know what people have tried before.
    • p. 90.
  • Even though I came from a Jewish home myself, it never entered my head that such horrors might be repeated in my own lifetime.
    • p. 276.

Quotes about Gombrich

  • [About The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich] It's the introductory bible to our history. And I love it because it is for everyone. The fact that he writes in such beautiful prose that anyone can understand, you want to — you have heard of a term such as the Renaissance or the Baroque, and you can look that up in Gombrich. But he doesn't include any woman artist. He only includes one in his 16th edition, which is crazy. And the fact that I loved this book growing up, I wanted to write — if he was going to leave that women, I thought I'd leave out men.
  • Women have been artists for millennia, since the cave paintings. And yet Gombrich and Janson, their first editions didn’t include a single woman artist. So it’s actually down to who has been able to tell the story of art history.
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