Michael Baxandall, 1933-2008

September 11, 2008

Michael Baxandall, widely considered one of the finest postwar art historians, died on 12 August at the age of 74. He was born in Cardiff on 18 August 1933 into a family steeped in the world of museums. His grandfather had been keeper of scientific instruments at London's Science Museum, and his father was to become director of the Scottish National Galleries.

Professor Baxandall attended Manchester Grammar School and then went on to read English at Downing College, Cambridge, under F.R. Leavis. This gave him a grounding in detailed textual analysis that was to influence his whole career. After studying art history in Germany and Italy, he returned to England in 1957 and took up a post in the photographic department of the Warburg Institute, the academic home with which he was most closely associated. Despite an interlude when he followed family tradition and worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was to remain his main base until 1986.

His first major work was Giotto and the Orators (1971). "He asked questions that hadn't been asked before," said Charles Hope, current director of the Warburg Institute. "He turned attention away from traditional art historical concerns and was interested in how people talked about art in the past, which is always constrained by the language in which they were writing and its stylistic conventions ... His work is partly a corrective against art historians who emoted about style and so on, which he regarded as too subjective, not historically based and perhaps self-indulgent."

Professor Baxandall's next work, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (1972), takes the argument further by exploring the many constraints acting on Renaissance artists. It was also in that book that he developed his influential notion of "the period eye", which shapes the way people in different eras perceive pictures. He was later to extend his interest into more general issues of perception, in books such as The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980), Shadows and Enlightenment (1994) and Words for Pictures (2003).

Although he was appointed professor of the history of the Classical tradition in 1971 and became a member of the British Academy in 1972, Professor Baxandall spent increasing amounts of time in America and became professor of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley from 1987 until he retired in 1996. His later years were dogged by a struggle with Parkinson's disease.

Professor Hope remembers him as something of an "intellectual loner" who "didn't like the plumminess of many art historians", though also as "a wonderful lecturer. You never knew what he was going to say, but it was always something startling and new." He is survived by his wife Kay, daughter Lucy and son Tom.


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