Three Favorite Quotes: Gombrich, Kandinsky, Ruskin

The end of the quarter is here. I taught my last lecture this morning. Per custom, I shared with my students my favorite quote about art. This quote is from Gombrich’s well-known art history text, The Story of Art. Gombrich discusses how one never stops learning about art and how works of art are inexhaustible. I have found these things to be true in my own experience and career. And personally, I find it exciting that there are always more things to learn about art. In fact, one of the reasons I love being a professor is that I am continually introduced to new perspectives and ideas about art by my students.

Anyhow, this evening I realized with dismay that I have never shared this quote by Gombrich on my blog! I’ve included it below, along with two other quotes that I love.

E. H Gombrich

“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.” – E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art

Photograph of Wassily Kandinsky, c. 1913 or earlier. Image courtesy Wikipedia

“Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.” – Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art1

A colored engraving of John Ruskin, from "The Poetry of Architecture" publication, 1838. Image courtesy Wikipedia

“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.” – John Ruskin

What about you? What are your favorite quotes about art? Why?

1 Wassily Kandinsky, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” 1911. Another variation of above translation is available online (accessed 3 June 2012):


"Priceless" by Robert K. Wittman

I recently finished reading Robert K. Wittman’s book Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. I had waited several weeks (months?) to get my hands on a library copy of this book, and became even more anxious after reading this great review of the book on Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books.

The wait paid off, though. Not only is this book entertaining and informative, but it also gives a really interesting perspective on art. As an undercover FBI agent, Wittman has to be informed about the historical significance of the art in his cases, but it is also clear that he views art as objects and historical artifacts. There definitely is nothing wrong with this perspective, and it is a logical perspective for Wittman (since he’s interested in recovering a physical object that has been stolen).

Anyhow, it was interesting to think about Wittman’s apparent “art as object” perspective, since art historians sometimes forget that a work of art is, in its essence, an object: art is paint on a canvas, a block of marble, or metal. I think art historians often “mysticize” or elevate works of art to the point that the objects are exempt from their actual physical properties. Gombrich, for example, tried to humanize art by comparing it to the complexity of “real human beings” (see here). In some ways, I don’t have issue with this perspective either, but it’s interesting to think about how art historians sometimes divorce themselves from the physicality of the art they discuss. But I digress. The point is: it was interesting to see Wittman approach art from a different (more practical?) perspective than I usually encounter among art historians and critics.

Although I would have enjoyed reading more about the historical background for some of the art pieces, Wittman provided a decent amount of information. (Also on a side note, Wittman also works to recover historical artifacts, such as an original copy of the Bill of Rights. These cases are also interesting, but I assumed beforehand that I would only be reading about stolen fine art.)

I especially was interested in reading about the theft of Norman Rockwell’s Spirit of ’76 (1976, shown right).1 This painting was stolen from a gallery in 1978 and was never recovered. The FBI closed the case a few years after the theft, but the case resurfaced in the mid-to-late 1990s, when it became known that the painting had was in the possession of an art dealer in Rio de Janeiro. Wittman was deeply involved in this case by the time of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, the interest in Rockwell and Americana surged after 9/11, due to the rise of patriotism in the American people. Therefore, a whole new dimension and meaning was added to this case, given the 9/11 happenings and interest in Rockwell. And, even more interestingly, Rockwell’s Spirit of ’76 includes an image of the “Twin Towers” (shown in the bottom right corner of the painting). In fact, the inclusion of the “Twin Towers” helped give impetus to finishing this case and recover the artwork from Brazil: officials realized it would be a great public relations move.2

I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes art crime. I think Americans will find the cases especially interesting and meaningful, since Wittman recovered many objects that are significant to American history. However, there are several European pieces that Wittman also recovers/mentions. Really, though, I think that this book would appeal to most people who are interested in art and art crime.

1 I can’t help but add that Rockwell’s composition was inspired by Archibald Willard’s classic Spirit of ’76 (“Yankee Doodle,” the linked version dates c. 1875)

2 Robert K. Wittman, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 174.


Original Intent

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about if art should be displayed and conserved to follow the “artist’s original intent.” The phrase “original intent” is used a lot by conservators, specifically in terms of describing how the conservator aims to preserve and restore exactly what the artist originally created. However, Steven W. Dykstra argues in his article The Artist’s Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation (found online here) that this term is ambiguous. There are several different definitions of the word “intent.” For example, the original intent of the artist could refer to the artist’s aims for a work of art, or it could refer to the artistic outcome (which may or may not be the original artistic aim). In addition, “intent” could refer to biographical motives – the artist could be seeking fame, emotional catharsis, or the satisfaction of patrons by creating a work of art.1 Often, we don’t even know what any of the possible intents of the artist may have been.

The art historian Gombrich discussed original intent in connection with a controversy that happened at the National Gallery. Before an exhibition in 1947, conservator Ruhemann and his team used new positivist scientific methods to clean some paintings. There was a mixed reaction to the results of the cleaning. Gombrich and his followers felt that a scientifically driven method for cleaning did not allow for artistic or historical consideration.2 Ruhemann, however, felt that conservation techniques naturally followed artists’ intentions as a guiding principle.3 Gombrich disagreed (which I think ties into the ambiguity of the word “intent”). In an indirect reference to the cleaning of Titian’s painting Virgin and Child with Infant Saint John and a Female Saint or Donor (c. 1532, shown above), Gombrich mentioned, “One should have thought it is common ground that Titian is dead and that we cannot ask him what his intention was.”4 To finally retalliate to Gombrich’s accusations, Ruhemann’s followers came up with a mocking (and clever!) pun, accusing Gombrich’s camp of having a fascination with “dirty” pictures.5

What do you think about the phrase “original intent”? Can conservators (or connoisseurs, for that matter) determine the original intent of an artist? Is it important to try and learn about or follow the intent of the artist, whatever it may be? Does the artist’s intent even matter? (Postmodernists likely would argue “no” to that last question, but I’m not sure how I feel about that.)

I guess I’m thinking a lot about this lately because of my last post, where I complained that reproductions of Monet’s water lily paintings are used as decoration in college girls’ bathrooms. I still think that’s inappropriate; I would never do it. But now I’m starting to wonder what Monet’s specific “intent” may have been.

1 Steven W. Dykstra, “The Artist’s Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 35, no. 3 (Autumn-Winter 1996) : 205.

2 Ibid., 202.

2 Ibid., 201.

3 Ernst Gombrich, “Dark Varnishes, Variations on a Theme from Pliny,” The Burlington Magazine 104 (1962): 54.

4 Sarah Walden, The Ravished Image, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 118. This book specifically deals with the Gombrich and Ruhemann debate.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.