RUDOLF ARNHEIM is born in Berlin, Germany, on July 15. His father, Georg Arnheim, is the owner of a small piano factory; his mother is Betty (née Gutherz) Arnheim. He is the first-born of four children, and the only son.

World War I begins.

Kaiser Wilhelm abdicates. Street fighting breaks out in Berlin as various political factions attempt to gain control of the government. One night, as young Arnheim is sleeping, a stray bullet crashes through the window of his parents’ home.

After completing his secondary education, and despite his father’s urging that he should take over the piano factory, he enrolls at the University of Berlin, where his major fields of study are philosophy and psychology, with additional emphases in the histories of art and music.

He completes the doctoral studies program at the Psychological Institute at the University of Berlin, the experimental laboratories for which were located in the abandoned Imperial Palace. His major professor (his Doktorvater) is Max Wertheimer, the founder of Gestalt psychology. He also works with Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Lewin. Among his fellow students are Karl Duncker, Kurt Gottschaldt and Wolfgang Metzger. His doctoral dissertation, titled Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen zum Zusdrucksproblem (Experimental-psychological investigations into problems of expression), is a study (in his own words) of “the expression of human faces and of handwriting and the correspondence between the two.”

As early as 1925, he begins to write film reviews for various magazines, and, in 1927, while still a student, he also works as an editor for Die Weltbühne, a progressive journal. On one assignment, he writes an article about the experience of visiting the new Dessau Bauhaus building for the first time. By the time he earns his PhD in 1928, he is “little fed up with academics,” and decides instead to earn his living as journalist and film critic. Four years later, he publishes his first book, titled Film als Kunst (Film as Art), in which he argues that film images are (and should always aspire to be) vastly different from reality.

Adolf Hitler comes to power as Chancellor of the Third Reich. Because of Arnheim’s Jewish ancestry, sales of his book are forbidden. He decides to accept an offer to emigrate to Italy, where he works for the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations) in its Institute for the Educational Film. There, he is a member of a team that compiles an encyclopedia of film history and theory.

Arnheim and his first wife, Annette (née Siecke) Arnheim, give birth to their first and only child, Anna, who dies just six years later of Hodgkin’s disease.

Arnheim continues to live in Italy for six years. While there, he writes a second book, in which he looks at the medium of radio in the way that he had looked at film. The resulting book is translated by British art theorist Herbert Read, and is published in England as Radio: The Art of Sound. 

When Italian racial policies are changed to reflect those of Nazi Germany, Arnheim considers emigrating. World War II begins. He moves to London, where he accepts a position with BBC Radio, working as a wartime simultaneous translator.

Arnheim emigrates to the U.S., arriving at New York harbor on an ocean steamer in the fall of 1940. He arrives with only ten dollars in his pocket, but receives assistance from others who have emigrated earlier, including his former professor, Max Wertheimer, who is on the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research. In the period that follows, he too joins the faculty at the New School, and is also granted a research fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, to work with the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University.

He is awarded a two-year fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, to research the visual arts in relation to perceptual psychology.

Arnheim accepts a teaching position in the psychology department at Sarah Lawrence College, an undergraduate women’s college, where he remains on the faculty for twenty-five years.

Having received a second Rockefeller Fellowship, he takes a leave from teaching and completes the writing of his pioneering book about Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. He marries his second wife, née Mary Frame. 

The first edition of Art and Visual Perception (with its familiar blue cover, and a small logo-like woodcut by Hans Arp) is published by the University of California Press.

Over the next fifteen years, Arnheim’s research intensifies. Separated by intervals of only 3 or 4 years, he publishes three new, widely-praised influential books, including Picasso’s Guernica (1962), Toward a Psychology of Art (1966), and Visual Thinking (1969).  

Arnheim, his wife and stepdaughter (Margaret) spend a year in Japan, where (supported by a Fulbright Fellowship) he teaches while also learning about Asian attitudes toward aesthetics. He becomes acquainted with Soetsu Yanagi, author of The Unknown Craftsman, and with Japanese potter Shoji Hamada.

At age 65, Arnheim is widely regarded as the leading authority on art and perception. He is approached by Harvard University, which creates the position for him of Professor of the Psychology of Art in the the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. He remains on the Harvard faculty until his retirement in 1974. 

Publishes Entropy and Art.

Having retired from teaching, he and Mary move to Ann Arbor, site of the University of Michigan, to the region in which she had grown up. For nearly ten additional years, on a limited basis, Arnheim continues in the role of Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. In addition, despite his advancing years, the rate of his writing increases (books, essays and correspondence), with the result that he publishes as many books after his retirement as he did in the seventy years prior. 

He is elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Publishes The Dynamics of Architectural Form.

Publishes The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts.

Delivers informal lecture (transcribed and later published in booklet form) on “My Life in the Art World” at the School of Art, University of Michigan.

Publishes New Essays on the Psychology of Art.

Publishes extracts from his journals, titled Parables of Sun Light.

Publishes Thoughts on Art Education.

Publishes To the Rescue of Art.

Release of a video-documentary titled Rudolf Arnheim: A Life in Art (60 mins.), produced by former students Jose Sanchez-H. and Tina Michelle Dasko (available from Gypsycat Productions, 550 Orange Avenue, Suite 339, Long Beach CA 90802). 

Publishes The Split and the Structure.

Publishes Film Essays and Criticism. Also published is Leslie Van Duzer and Kent Kleinman, eds., Rudolf Arnheim: Revealing Vision.

Mary Arnheim dies.

Celebrates his 100th birthday.

Dies on June 9, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

•   •   • gestalt psychologist, art and film theorist, author and professor this website was compiled and constructed by
Roy R. Behrens © copyright 2006 all rights reserved
Rudolf Arnheim
a chronology of his life
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