Obituary: Michael Baxandall

Influential art historian noted for his perspicacity and scholarly approach

Michael Baxandall, who has died aged 74, was an art historian of extraordinary perceptive and analytical powers whose writings on painting and sculpture are as important as they are original.

Baxandall was born in Cardiff, where his father was a keeper at the National museum. The family moved to Manchester in 1945 when his father became director of the City art gallery and Michael attended Manchester grammar school. He went on to Cambridge to read English at Downing College with FR Leavis. His close attention to text was to be fundamental to his scholarly and intellectual approach. His own words were always chosen with precision; he cultivated a style that was elevated yet simple, bold in its very reticence, and at times teasing in its apparent clarity.

It was only after leaving Cambridge that Baxandall decided to study art history, which he did largely in Italy and Germany. On his return to England, in 1957, he was, to his delight, offered a job as assistant in the photographic collection of the Warburg Institute at London University. The interdisciplinary atmosphere that characterised its community of cultural and intellectual historians suited his temperament - it was only grudgingly that he ever accepted the restrictive label of art historian. It was at the Institute too that he met Kay Simon whom he married in 1963.

Already, in 1958, he began formulating a thesis topic on concepts of decorum and restraint in the Italian Renaissance and, in 1959, he was awarded a two-year fellowship at the Warburg to work on this, under the direction of Ernst Gombrich. He began investigating how humanist literature on art was shaped by the traditions of classical rhetoric. Although this research never resulted in a PhD, it provided material for his acclaimed first book, Giotto and the Orators (1971), which acutely highlighted the limitations as well as the achievements of Renaissance discourse on art.

In 1961 Baxandall was appointed to a post in the Victoria and Albert museum's sculpture department. There he worked closely with the then assistant to the director, Terence Hodgkinson, learning about materials and how they affect artists' possibilities, as well as the appearance of the works produced.

When he returned to the Warburg in 1965, as a lecturer in renaissance studies, he came with a new interest in the social and practical aspects of the production of art, and the evidence for this in documents of the period. The course on the Renaissance which he taught to undergraduates exploited this experience and bore fruit in the bestselling Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972). Lucid and provocative, this "primer in the social history of pictorial style", as he called it, continues to interest countless readers in early Renaissance pictures and the society in which they were created.

It was this book that introduced the concept of "the period eye"; Baxandall's idea was that at different times and places, certain features of the knowledge and culture of viewers attuned them to aspects of images which are not naturally picked up today, but which the historian, with the help of texts and contexts, can elucidate and recover. The notion was further refined in relation to sculpture in The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980), in which, for example, the scrolls of Nuremberg calligraphy were related to stylistic elements. This book, which evolved from the Slade lectures at Oxford in 1974, was awarded the Mitchell prize for the history of art.

In Limewood Sculptors, the period eye was, however, subtly inflected with criticism of a more timeless sort. One remarkable section of the book resulted from a day-long contemplation of Tilman Riemenschneider's Holy Blood altarpiece, still in its original position in St Jakobskirche in Rothenburg; Baxandall reports how the "cycle of transformation" as the sun runs its course focuses the viewer's attention differently on details of the complex scenes. The ability of great artists to take account of modes of human perception, as well as circumstances of viewing, was to become a major theme of Baxandall's later work.

At the same time, he came to reflect more and more on the difficulties of the historian's task. These issues, articulated in Patterns of Intention (1986), were encouraged by his friendship and then collaboration and close association with Svetlana Alpers. Together they wrote Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994), an intriguing mix not only of art criticism and art history but of the styles of two contrasting personalities. Their account of changing perceptions of Tiepolo's magnificent ceiling at Würzburg as the viewer climbs the grand staircase is a passage which in itself justifies the book's title.

By the time these latter works were published, Baxandall was an academic celebrity. He had been given a London University chair in 1981 and been elected to the British Academy in 1982; he had also held a visiting professorship at Cornell University in New York state and a fellowship in Berlin, and been awarded prizes by the University of Hamburg and the MacArthur Foundation (both 1988). Since 1986 he had held a part-time post at the University of California, Berkeley, initially in combination with his job at the Warburg Institute. Thereafter, until his retirement in 1996, he spent part of the year in California. But he retained old habits of thought along with old ties and loyalties. The work of Gombrich on perception remained an important point of reference as he himself became increasingly interested in modern as well as historical theories about visual attention, especially primary focus and peripheral vision. The most important publication of his later years, however, was Shadows and the Enlightenment (1995), in its persuasive juxtaposition of scientific analyses of shadows with the pictorial practice of 18th-century artists, notably the quiet, but "in some ways slyly showy" Chardin. These words might almost describe the work of the author himself, and some of his most evocative prose, in this book and in Patterns of Intention, was devoted to characterising the decorous restraint of the great French painter.

Baxandall's last years were lived under the shadow of Parkinson's disease. He had never relished large gatherings and with the progression of illness, he tended to avoid any encounters in public places. His last book, Words for Pictures (2003), a collection of essays that returned to the subject of art and humanism, also included a long piece on Piero della Francesca's Resurrection. It provided a close reading of the fresco, using insights gained from psychological theories of perception.

In a famous passage in Patterns of Intention, Baxandall lamented the widespread and unthinking use by art historians of the word "influence", to account for stylistic similarity. It is all the more significant that, in the preface to Words for Pictures, he observed that Gombrich was the art historian by whom he had been "the most influenced, of choice". And many art historians, old and young, have chosen to be influenced by Michael Baxandall; his argument for the relationship of rhetoric and art, his penetrating dissection of the language of criticism, his concept of the period eye and his late work on the science of perception have all spawned not merely followers but whole fields of research. Baxandall had one of the most fruitful minds ever to enter the field of art history.

He is survived by Kay, daughter Lucy and son Tom.

· Michael David Kighley Baxandall, art historian, born August 18 1933; died August 12 2008

Elizabeth McGrath

The GuardianTramp

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