Tag Archives: E.H. Gombrich

Number 8 {The Story of Art}

Number 8. Jackson Pollock. 1949.

“[I]n the past, an artist’s handling of paint, the energy of his brushstrokes or the subtlety of his touch, had been prized, but generally in the larger context of the effect thus achieved… Here then was an aspect of painting that still appeared to be unexplored—the sheer handling of paint regardless of any ulterior motive or purpose… Most of all it was the American artist Jackson Pollock who aroused interest with his novel ways of applying paint… Becoming impatient of conventional methods, he put his canvas on the floor and dripped, poured or threw his paint to form surprising configurations… The resulting tangle of lines satisfies two opposing standards of twentieth-century art: the longing for childlike simplicity and spontaneity that evokes the memory of childish scrawls at the time of life before children even start to form images and, at the opposite end, the sophisticated interest in the problems of ‘pure painting.’”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 28: The Triumph of Modernism,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

Wheat Field with Cypresses {The Story of Art}

Wheat Field with Cypresses. Vincent van Gogh. 1889.

“It is clear that Van Gogh was not mainly concerned with correct representation. He used colors and forms to convey what he felt about the things he painted, and what he wished others to feel. He did not care much for what he called ‘stereoscopic reality,’ that is to say, the photographically exact picture of nature. He would exaggerate and even change the appearance of things if this suited his aim… [He] took the momentous step of deliberately abandoning the aim of painting as an ‘imitation of nature’… Van Gogh felt that by surrendering to visual impressions, and by exploring nothing but the optical qualities of light and color, art was in danger of losing that intensity and passion through which alone the artist can express his feeling to his fellow men.”

E.H. Gombrich, “Chapter 26: In Search of New Standards,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

The Boulevard des Italiens {The Story of Art}

Boulevard des Italiens. Camille Pissarro. 1897.

“The people who first visited the Impressionist exhibition obviously poked their noses into the pictures and saw nothing but a confusion of casual brushstrokes…  It took some time before the public learned that to appreciate an Impressionist painting one has to step back a few yards, and enjoy the miracle of seeing these puzzling patches suddenly fall into place and come to life before our eyes. To achieve this miracle, and to transfer the actual visual experience of the painter to the beholder, was the true aim of Impressionists.

“The feeling of a new freedom and new power which these artists had must have been truly exhilarating; it must have compensated them for much of the derision and hostility they encountered. Suddenly the whole world offered fit subjects to the painter’s brush. Wherever he discovered a beautiful combination of tones, an interesting configuration of colors and forms, a satisfying and gay patch of sunlight and colored shades, he could set down his easel and try to transfer his impression on to the canvas… The artist was responsible to no one but his own sensibilities for what he painted and how he painted it. Looking back at this struggle it is perhaps less surprising that these views of young artists encountered resistance than that they were so soon to be taken for granted. For bitter as was the fight and as hard as it was for the artists concerned, the triumph of Impressionism was complete… The struggle of the Impressionists became the treasured legend of all innovators in art, who could always point to the conspicuous failure of the public to recognize novel methods. In a sense this notorious failure was as important in the history of art as was the ultimate victory of the Impressionist program.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 25: Permanent Revolution,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

Marat Assassinated {The Story of Art}

Marat Assassinated. Jacques Louis David. 1793.

“We have reached the really modern times which dawned when the French Revolution of 1789 put an end to may assumptions that had been taken for granted for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Just as the Great Revolution has its roots in the Age of Reason, so have the changes in man’s ideas about art… In the past, the subject-matter of paintings had been very much taken for granted… All this changed very rapidly during the period of the French Revolution. Suddenly artists felt free to choose their subjects anything… that appealed to the imagination and aroused interest… The French revolutionaries loved to think of themselves as Greeks and Romans reborn, and their painting, no less than their architecture, reflected this taste for what was called Roman grandeur. The leading artist of this neo-classical style was the painter Jacques Louis David, who was the ‘official artist’ of the Revolutionary Government… These people felt they were living in historic times, and that the events of their own years were just as worthy of the painter’s attention as the episodes of Greek and Roman history.When one of the leaders of the French Revolution, Marat, was killed in his bath by a fanatical young woman, David painted him as a martyr who had died for his cause… He had learned from the study of Greek and Roman sculpture how to model the muscles and sinews of the body, and give it the appearance of noble beauty; he had also learned from classical art to leave out all details which are not essential to the main effect, and to aim at simplicity.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 23: The Break in Tradition,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

The Prayer before Meal {The Story of Art}

The Prayer Before Meal. Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. 1740.

“In the eighteenth century, English institutions and English taste became the admired models for all people in Europe who longed for the rule of reason. For in England art had not been used to enhance the power and glory of god-like rulers… [The] aristocratic dream-world began to recede. Painters began to look at the life of the ordinary men and women of their time to draw moving or amusing episodes which could be spun out into a story. The greatest of these was Jean Siméon Chardin… [The Prayer before Meal is] one of his charming paintings—a simple room with a woman setting dinner on the table and asking two children to say grace. Chardin liked these quiet glimpses of the life of ordinary people… [H]e feels and preserves the poetry of a domestic scene, without looking for striking effects or pointed allusions. Even his color is calm and restrained… [I]f we study them in the original, we soon discover in them an unobtrusive mastery in the subtle gradation of tones and the seemingly artless arrangement of the scene that makes him one of the most lovable painters of the eighteenth century.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 23: The Age of Reason,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

Melk Monastery {The Story of Art}

Melk Monastery (interior of church). Prandtauer, Beduzzi and Muggenast. 1738.

“Even Bernini or Borromini in their most exuberant moods would never have gone quite so far [as the designers of Melk Monastery]. [W]e must imagine what it meant for a simple Austrian peasant to leave his farmhouse and enter this strange wonderland. There are clouds everywhere, with angels making music and gesticulating in the bliss of Paradise… everything seems to sway to and fro in the rhythm of jubilation. Nothing is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ in such a church—it is not meant to be. It is intended to give us a foretaste of the glory of Paradise. Perhaps it is not everybody’s idea of Paradise, but when you are in the midst of it all it envelopes you and stops all questionings. you feel you are in a world where our rules and standards simply do not apply.

“One can understand that north of the Alps, no less than in Italy, the individual arts were swept into this orgy of decoration and lost much of their independent importance.”

Ernst H Gombrich, “Chapter 22: Power and Glory: The Catholic North,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

Il Gesù Ceiling {The Story of Art}

Il Gesù Ceiling. Giovanni Battista Gaulli. 1683.

“[The painted decorations of Baroque churches can only be judged in the settings for which they were made.] [Giovanni Battista Gaulli] wants to give us the illusion that the vault of the church has opened that we may look straight into the glories of Heaven… The crowded scene seems to burst the frame of the ceiling, which brims over with clouds carrying saints and sinners right down into the church. In letting the picture thus break the frame, the artists wants to confuse and overwhelm us so that we no longer know what is real and what illusion. A painting like this has no meaning outside the place for which it was made. Perhaps it is no coincidence, therefore,that, after the development of the full Baroque style, in which all artists collaborated in the achievement of one effect. painting and sculpture as independent arts declined in Italy and throughout Catholic Europe.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 21: Power and Glory: Italy,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

The Reconciliation of David and Absalom {The Story of Art}

The Reconciliation of David and Absalom. Rembrandt van Rijn. 1642.

“Like Shakespeare, [Rembrandt] seems to have been able to get into the skin of all types of men, and to know how they would behave in any given situation. It is this gift that makes Rembrandt’s illustrations of biblical stories so different from anything that had been done before. As a devout Protestant, Rembrandt must have read the Bible again and again. He entered into the spirit of its episodes, and attempted to visualize exactly what the situation would have been like, and how people would have borne themselves at such a moment.
“Rembrandt needs hardly any gestures or movements express the inner meaning of the scene. He is never theatrical. [This painting] shows one of the paintings in which he visualized [an] incident from the Bible which had hardly ever been illustrated before—the reconciliation between King David and his wicked son Absalom… What could be more moving than the gesture of the young prince in his proud array, burying his face on his father’s breast, or King David in his quiet and sorrowful acceptance of his son’s submission? Thou we do not see Absalom’s face, we feel what he must feel.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 20: The Mirror of Nature,” The Story of Art, 15th edition

Head of a Child {Story of Art}

Head of a Child. Peter Paul Rubens. 1615.

“[T]hat was the great secret of Ruben’s art—his magic skill in making anything alive, intensely and joyfully alive. We can best gauge and admire this mastery of his in some of the simple drawings and paintings done for his own pleasure. ['Head of a Child'] shows the head of a little girl, probably Rubens’s daughter. There are no tricks of composition here, no splendid robes or streams of light, but a simple en face portrait of a child. And yet it seems to breathe and palpitate like living flesh. Compared with this, the portraits of earlier centuries seem somehow remote and unreal—however great they may be as works of art. It is vain to try to analyze how Rubens achieved this impression of gay vitality, but it surely had something to do with the bold and delicate touches of light with which he indicated the moisture of the lips and the modeling of the face and hair. To an even greater degree than Titian before him, he used the brush as his main instrument. His paintings are no longer drawing carefully modeled in color—they are produced by ‘painterly’ means, and that enhances the impression of life and vigor.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 19: Vision and Visions,” The Story of Art, 5th edition

St. George and the Dragon {Story of Art}

St. George and the Dragon. Tintoretto. 1560.

“[Tintoretto's] painting of St. George’s fight with the dragon, in London, shows how the weird light and the broken tones add to the feeling of tension and excitement. We feel the drama has just reached its climax. The princess seems to be rushing right out of the picture towards us while the hero is removed, against all rules, far into the background of the scene…

Vasari, a great Florentine critic and biographer of the period… thought the work was marred by careless execution and eccentric taste. He was puzzled by the lack of ‘finish’ Tintoretto gave his work. ‘His sketches,’ he says, ‘are so crude that his pencil strokes show more force than judgment and seem to have been made by chance.’ It is a reproach which from that time onwards has often been made against modern artists. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising, for these great innovators in art have often concentrated on the essential things and refused to worry about technical perfection in the usual sense. In periods like that of Tintoretto, technical excellence had reached such a high standard that anyone with some mechanical aptitude could master some of its tricks. A man like Tintoretto wanted to show things in a new light, he wanted to explore new ways of representing the legends and myths of the past. He considered his painting complete when he had conveyed his vision of the legendary scene. A smooth and careful finish did not interest him, for it did not serve his purpose. On the contrary—it might have distracted our attention from the dramatic happenings of the picture. So he left it at that and left people wondering.”

Ernst H. Gombrich, “Chapter 18: A Crisis of Art,” The Story of Art, 15th edition