Rudolf Arnheim, Founder of the Psychology of Art, Dies

Rudolf Arnheim, legendary psychology faculty member from 1943 to 1968, died on June 9 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the age of 102. Revered by his colleagues and students, Arnheim was a pioneer in his discipline and the founder of the academic field of the Psychology of Art.

Author of nine books, all of them seminal, Arnheim influenced generations of students, artists, and psychologists from the time he began writing and teaching his theories. Adherents consider his belief that the study of perception and thinking could illuminate art and that psychologists could learn something about perception and thinking from the careful study of art and art making to be genius.

Arnheim’s work influenced not only psychologists, but also art historians, art educators, graphic designers, architects, painters, color theorists, and art critics. He was an internationally known lecturer and his works, considered to be classics, have been translated into many languages.

“His ideas have an essential place in my course on the psychology of the creative process,” said Charlotte Doyle, a current Sarah Lawrence faculty member. “Arnheim insisted that the creative process in art is a search for meaning. One of my favorite quotes comes from a book he wrote on Picasso’s Guernica: ‘Picasso did not deposit in Guernica what he thought about the world; rather…he endeavor(ed) to understand the world through the making of Guernica.’”

 Arnheim began teaching the psychology of art in his seminars at Sarah Lawrence, where he began an academic career that continued throughout his life. After Sarah Lawrence he was professor of the Psychology of Art at Harvard University and later a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. In an oral history conducted in 2002, he said: “Sarah Lawrence taught me to be a teacher… I learned to teach by the responses that came from my students’ faces.”

An émigré from Germany, Arnheim had studied psychology, especially Gestalt psychology, at the University of Berlin, receiving his Ph.D. in 1928. He was an editor at Die Weltbuner, a politically leftwing weekly. Prior to coming to the U.S., he was an editor for the International Institute for Educational Film of the League of Nations in Rome and a translator for the Overseas Service of the BBC. Among his many honors and awards was a Guggenheim in 1942-43 and a Fulbright in 1959-60. In 1985 Arnheim received Sarah Lawrence College’s first Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.