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Leo Steinberg

Leo Steinberg Chart


Leo Steinberg is one the 20th century's foremost historians and scholars on the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo and other Italian Renaissance artists. Throughout his career, Steinberg has paid particularly close attention to the depiction of Christ in art, and in the process caused much controversy and debate. In addition to his scholarly work of Renaissance art, Steinberg is also a significant authority on 20th-century modern art, including the paintings and sculptures of Picasso, Jasper Johns's Flag series, and Willem de Kooning's Woman series. His scholarly work has consistently placed art and artists in a historical context, yet he is known for his less than formal approach to criticism by often using a first-person narrative in his essays. This style has personalized art criticism, making it experiential for readers and museumgoers.

Key Ideas

Steinberg famously said that "Anything anybody can do, painting does better..", indicating his profound love and reverence for the visual arts' ability to not just reflect life, but to become life itself.
Steinberg believed that the greatest difference between modern painting and that of the Old Masters was almost entirely to do with the viewer's subjective experience of the artwork.
Steinberg defied the assertion made by fellow critic Harold Rosenberg that the Abstract Expressionists were "Action Painters," who formed spontaneous events on the canvas. He believed that artists like de Kooning and Kline were far more deliberate in their efforts, and were far more concerned with creating good art than simply living on the canvas.



Born in Moscow to German-Jewish parents, the family later moved to Berlin, where Steinberg spent most of his childhood, between the years 1923 and 1933.

Early years

From 1936-40, Steinberg studied sculpture and painting at the Slade School in London.

After World War II, he emigrated to New York City and began work as a freelance writer and German-English translator. Steinberg's career in the New York art world was launched when, in 1951, he delivered a lecture series at the 92nd Street Y entitled An Introduction to Art and Practical Esthetics. He has said the purpose of these talks was "to provoke an unprejudiced response to various and contradictory art forms."

As a freelance writer in 1950s, his essays found a home in many of the avant-garde, politically leftist publications that were popular at the time, including Partisan Review and Artforum. In particular, Steinberg was quite taken with the art works of Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, who were both causing quite a bit of controversy in the New York art world.

Middle years

In 1955, Steinberg began writing a number of insightful reviews in Arts magazine about contemporary modern artists. He wrote for the very first Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, Willem de Kooning's Woman paintings at the Martha Jackson Gallery, and for the sculptor Julio Gonzalez's retrospective at MoMA, the first U.S. exhibition of metal sculpture work.

In 1960, he earned his Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Steinberg taught art history and life drawing at Hunter College, the City University of New York (CUNY), from 1962 until 1975. While at Hunter, Steinberg was instrumental in developing the curriculum for CUNY's graduate program in art history, which was launched in 1971.

Although best known for his scholarly work on Renaissance art, Steinberg wrote two career-defining essays in 1972 on modern art. The first was an in-depth examination of Picasso's famous 1907 portrait Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, entitled The Philosophical Brothel, and the second was a harsh critique of formalist art criticism, entitled Reflections on the State of Art Criticism.

Since the 1970s, Steinberg has held a steady stream of professorships and lecturing posts at various universities, including Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia and Harvard. He has also lectured extensively at museums and galleries around the country.

In 1983, Steinberg became the first ever art critic to receive the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters.

Late Period

After working as a Visiting Professor of Art History at the University of Texas, in 2002 Steinberg donated his private collection of 3,200 prints to the University's College of Fine Arts, valued at approximately $3.5 million. The collection includes prints by Rembrandt, Matisse, Goya, Picasso and Johns, although the majority comprises prints from 16th to 18th century artists such as Michelangelo and Agostino Veneziano.


As an historian of both Renaissance and Modern art, Steinberg has covered a broad range of subjects in the art world. His scrutiny and eye for detail established Steinberg as a foremost authority on some of history's most prized paintings and prints, dating back nearly a half millennia. He studied the most minute of details in paintings because he believed, above all else, that great artists were master tradesmen who applied time-tested techniques to their canvases, with slow and deliberate action. Despite Steinberg's broad range of topics and thirst for historical context, he is anything but a traditional formalist. In fact, his criticism has been something of a maverick for art historians and critics alike.

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