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Viktor Lowenfeld (1903–1960)

Early Career and Influences, Lowenfeld's American Career, Influence on Art Education

Viktor Lowenfeld, professor of art education at the Pennsylvania State University, helped to define and develop the field of art education in the United States. His life and career have been a continuing topic of study in the field.

Early Career and Influences

Lowenfeld was born in Linz, Austria, of Jewish parents. He taught art in the elementary schools in Vienna while attending the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, which he found "very dry and academic." Lowenfeld then transferred to the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, which he likened to a "Vienna Bauhaus." He studied sculpture under Edward Steinberg, who required that his students blindfold themselves when working with clay. Lowenfeld visited the Institute for the Blind to validate or disprove Steinberg's approach. He also studied at the University in Vienna in art history and psychology, graduating in 1928. While still engaged in his studies, he became a member of the staff at the Institute for the Blind.

Sigmund Freud read an article about Lowenfeld's work with the blind and visited him at the institute. As a result, Lowenfeld became more seriously involved in research as a scientific venture. His ideas on the therapeutic uses of creative activity in the arts resulted in several books. The first was titled Die Entstehung der Plastik (The genesis of sculpturing, 1932), which was based on his doctoral dissertation. The second was titled Plastiche Arbeiten Blinder (Sculptures of the blind, 1934). A third, though initially written in German, became his first English publication, The Nature of Creative Activity (1939).

Lowenfeld's American Career

With the German invasion of Austria in 1938, Lowenfeld and his family fled to England, later settling in the United States, where he met Victor D'Amico, who was director of education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. D'Amico took credit for introducing Lowenfeld into the circles of American art education. During World War II Lowenfeld taught psychology at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Having experienced racial prejudice at the hands of the Nazis, he was acutely aware of the racism experienced by his African-American students at Hampton. Though his field was psychology, Lowenfeld was directly responsible for establishing the art department at Hampton. A number of his Hampton students became prominent artists, including John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, and Samela Lewis. In 1945 Lowenfeld was invited to teach summer courses at Pennsylvania State College (now the Pennsylvania State University) and, in the following year, was invited to become chairman of art education, a position he held until his death in 1960. Several of his Hampton students followed him to Pennsylvania State College to continue their studies.

In 1947 Creative and Mental Growth was published and became the single most influential textbook in art education during the latter half of the twentieth century, having gone through seven editions. This text was widely adopted in courses for prospective elementary school teachers throughout the United States, a time when teacher education programs were undergoing rapid expansion in response to the shortage of teachers that followed World War II. This book describes the characteristics of child art at each stage of development and prescribes appropriate types of art media and activities for each age. Its strong psychological orientation provides a scientific basis for creative expression and the practices that cultivate it.

Lowenfeld's views of child art were grounded in constructs drawn from two sources. One was the psychoanalytic school of psychology in which evidence of aesthetic, social, physical, intellectual, and emotional growth is reflected in the art of children. The second was the concept of stages of growth in art, which originated in German and Austrian sources. The stages consisted of (1) scribble–uncontrolled, controlled, naming of scribble: two to four years; (2) preschematic: four to six years; (3) schematic: seven to nine years; (4) dawning realism/gang age: nine to eleven years; (5) pseudorealistic/age of reasoning: eleven to thirteen years; and (6) period of decision/crisis of adolescence: fourteen years and older.

Lowenfeld did not claim to originate these stages but adapted them from earlier sources. He also identified two expressive types of individuals that arise with the onset of adolescence. The first is the haptic type, which is primarily concerned with bodily sensations and subjective experiences in which individuals are emotionally involved. By contrast, the visual type usually approaches the world from the standpoint of appearances. Such students feel more like spectators than participants. Lowenfeld suggested that each creative type needed a different instructional approach.

He saw the free expression of children in artistic media as necessary for the healthy growth of the individual. Emotional or mental disturbance results when children are thwarted, either by a loss of self-confidence or by the imposition of adult concepts of so-called good art.

Concern for mental health had social consequences as well. In the second edition of Creative and Mental Growth (1952) he injected a personal note:

"Having experienced the devastating effect of rigid dogmatism and disrespect for individual differences, I know that force does not solve problems and that the basis for human relationships is usually created in the homes and kindergartens. I feel strongly that without the imposed discipline common in German family lives and schools the acceptance of totalitarianism would have been impossible." (p. ix)

Lowenfeld never regarded child art as an end in itself. He was critical of his former teacher Franz Cizek, who emphasized the aesthetic aspects of child art as the sole purpose for art education. This "is much against our philosophy, and I believe also against the needs of our time." The goal of education "is not the art itself, or the aesthetic product, or the aesthetic experience, but rather the child who grows up more creatively and sensitively and applies his experience in the arts to whatever life situations may be applicable" (Michael, p. xix).

Influence on Art Education

A number of students were drawn to Lowenfeld both through his text Creative and Mental Growth, and through extensive lectures and presentations given at state and national conferences throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. Many came to the Pennsylvania State University to study, and by 1960 its graduate program had become the largest one in art education in the United States. Lowenfeld wrote about the similarity of creativity in the arts with that of the sciences, suggesting that general creativeness might transfer from the arts. A number of doctoral dissertations were inspired by these views on the psychological importance of creativity cultivated in the arts for creative abilities in general.

Although revered by numerous students, Lowenfeld was not without his critics. D'Amico felt that Lowenfeld had over-psychologized art education and that too many future teachers were pursuing psychological research rather than deepening their powers of creative expression. In addition, with the onset of the curriculum reform movement that was spurred by Soviet space achievements, such as the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the importance of discipline-oriented forms of study began to challenge Lowenfeld's ideas about creativity as the central purpose of art education.


D'AMICO, VICTOR. 1958. "Coming Events Cast Shadows: A Reappraisal of Art Education." School Arts 57 (1):5–19.

HOLLINGSWORTH, C. 1988. "Viktor Lowenfeld and the Racial Landscape of Hampton Institute During His Tenure from 1939 to 1946." Ph.D. diss., the Pennsylvania State University.

LANIER, VINCENT. 1963. "Schizmogenesis in Contemporary Art Education." Studies in Art Education 5 (1):10–19.

LOWENFELD, VIKTOR. 1939. The Nature of Creative Activity. New York: Harcourt Brace.

LOWENFELD, VIKTOR. 1947. Creative and Mental Growth. New York: Macmillan.

LOWENFELD, VIKTOR. 1952. Creative and Mental Growth, 2nd edition. New York: Macmillan.

MICHAEL, JOHN A., ed. 1982. The Lowenfeld Lectures. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

SAUNDERS, ROBERT. 2001. "Lowenfeld at Penn State: A Remembrance." In Exploring the Legends: Guideposts to the Future, ed. Sylvia K. Corwin. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.

SMITH, P. 1983. "An Analysis of the Writings and Teachings of Viktor Lowenfeld in Art Education in America." Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University.


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