UC Berkeley News
Berkeleyan

Berkeleyan

Obituary
Michael Baxandall

| 11 September 2008

Michael Baxandall, an acclaimed art historian, author, and professor emeritus of art history, died in London on Aug. 12. He was 74.

Baxandall is considered a transformative figure whose writings moved the discipline of art history from one of connoisseurship to one encompassing the material and economic realities of the artist’s workshop, relationships between rhetoric and visual expression, and how the eye and brain affect experience of the visual world.

He taught at Berkeley from 1986 until his retirement in 1996, a decade that colleagues said coincided with the Department of Art History’s emergence as one of the most highly regarded in the nation.

Baxandall was born Aug. 18, 1933, in Cardiff, Wales. His father was director of the National Museum of Wales, a curator at the Manchester Art Gallery, and director of the Scottish National Gallery. His paternal grandfather served as curator at the Science Museum in London. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge University in 1954, then attended the University of Pavia in Italy and the University of Munich in Germany. He also was a junior research fellow at the Warburg Institute at the University of London, where he worked with the acclaimed art historian Ernst Gombrich. He later worked to catalogue German sculpture at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Baxandall did not complete his doctoral dissertation, but published his research in his first book, Giotto and the Orators (1971), which dealt with the relationship between rhetoric and visual art in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Among his other books was Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972), in which he introduced the concept of the “Period Eye,” which became influential beyond the study of art history. He showed that both painters and their mercantile and aristocratic patrons shared visual skills that were not specific to looking at pictures, but were valued in the larger society. How this cognitive style related to pictorial style formed the core of this little but highly acclaimed book.

In The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980), which won the Mitchell Prize in Art History, Baxandall expanded on Painting and Experience to assess the lives and practices of artists and merchants in Central Europe and how the works of art they created and patronized served as what he called “lenses bearing on their own circumstances.” In Patterns of Intention (1985), Baxandall focused on factors that shaped the mental lives of various artists. Baxandall first explored Berkeley when he was chosen as an Una’s Lecturer in the Humanities in 1982.

Baxandall’s interests were broadly analytic and firmly tethered to the specific effects of context and experience on the mentality of the artist and his audience. This was an approach he shared with Svetlana Alpers, another of Berkeley’s discipline-changing art historians and now a professor emerita, who became his close intellectual collaborator for the rest of his life. They co-authored Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, about 18th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The 1994 book was widely acclaimed for its analyses of the phenomenology of drawing and invention.

Baxandall’s former students remember his profound influence.

“As graduate students, we tended to turn over his responses to our papers and questions in our minds for hours after leaving his office,” said Evelyn Lincoln, a former Ph.D. student of Baxandall who is now an associate professor of the history of art and architecture at Brown University. “Often this was because it was hard to work out what he had actually said: He spoke quietly, often in single declarative words or short phrases rather than whole sentences. As in his writing, those single words were deceptively simple statements, and so a conversation with Baxandall, no matter how short, could be depended on to change one’s perspective about one’s work in productive ways.”

Robin Adéle Greeley, a former Baxandall student at Berkeley and now an associate professor of Latin American art history at the University of Connecticut, said his students were in awe of him.

“In addition to watching his own mind at work, our greatest privilege as his students was the manner in which he pushed us to reach beyond what we thought possible in both intellectual adventure and moral courage,” Greeley said. “One of his great abilities was to present us with precisely the right tantalizing fragment of insight such that we would ourselves do the work of scrambling up to the next level of intellectual enlightenment,” she added. “We scrambled a lot, and found it exhilarating.”

Baxandall is survived by his wife, Kay, of London; two children, Lucy and Thomas; and two grandchildren.