Early Modern Period: Art Historical Interpretations

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EARLY MODERN PERIOD: ART HISTORICAL INTERPRETATIONS. The practice of critical evaluation in early modern art rests upon the foundations of biography, rhetoric, and poetics. Giorgio Vasari (15111574), Italian writer and artist, launched Renaissance art history with his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (first edition, 1550), a compendium of biographical sketches. The language of rhetoric and poetics established the terms for writing about literature and the visual arts with the appearance of Cicero's De oratore (On speaking), the first book published in Italy, and Aristotle's Poetics, translated into Italian with extensive commentaries in 1576 by the critic Lodovico Castelvetro. While promoting an evolutionary model of generations of artists perfecting mimesis and approaching an ideal, Vasari wrote about individual genius, remarkable accomplishments, and Tuscan excellence and eloquence. The language of rhetoric and literature gave authors a vocabulary for appraising invention, composition, narrative, and style in the visual arts.


By the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, a reaction arose against both the poetic and rhetorical traditions, especially as they were used by the Italians, while the biographical tradition retained its hold on readers' expectations if not imaginations. The Franco-Italian debate that flared between the French writers Dominique Bouhours and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux on the one hand, and Gian Gioseffo Orsi, the Italian intellectual and member of the Arcadian Academy, on the other, signaled both an attack on the Italians, their emphasis on conceits and baroque language, and an attempt on the part of the French to seize the leadership in culture, language, literature, and the visual arts from the Italians, whose hegemony in these areas had been unquestioned and untested for centuries. The result of this quarrel was to give greater currency to a new term in artistic evaluationtaste.

Good taste (buon gusto, bon gouût) carried much of the weight that rhetorical terms had borne in the previous several centuries. The touting of buon gusto by the leading Italian intellectuals of the early eighteenth century had the effect of anathematizing the baroque and the Jesuit emphasis on the emotive image. Suddenly, the posthumous reputations of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini, and Pietro da Cortona were discounted, and the baroque style lost its prestige and luster. Spanish painters of the seventeenth century suffered a similar fate.

The birth of the word "baroque" (perhaps deriving from the Portuguese barroco 'an irregularly shaped pearl' and the so-called ragione baroco, a tendentious syllogistic form), describing a style in the visual arts, occurred at about the time that the baroque was banished. The third edition of the Dictionnaire de l'académie (1740) condemned the baroque style as ill-proportioned, bizarre, and irregular. The wide currency of the word "taste" in the eighteenth century generally conveyed values that were supportive of Renaissance art, but that depreciated "excess" fancy and invention. The short Essay on Taste by Voltaire (16941778) articulated this position (and by implication a dismissal of the Jesuit baroque style) when explaining how artists avoid the simplicity of nature and choose "uncommon paths."

Johann Joachim Winckelmann's original and innovative Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke (1755; Reflections on the imitation of Greek works) and his Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764; History of ancient art) caused a radical shift in the concept of good taste. He wrote that good taste had its origins under a "Greek sky." The German art historian accomplished several things with this statement: One was to redirect his contemporaries' attention away from the art of Rome to that of Greece, which had been largely inaccessible to Europeans in the eighteenth century; the second "paradigm shift" that he prompted was to situate the visual arts within a culture. Winckelmann felt that it was only in Greece during the golden age that artists enjoyed the Freiheit, 'freedom', to create ideal art based on mythological subjects. In short, he made the first move in what is now called historicism. In this same text, he also initiated what was, in effect, a call to arms against the baroque (which he despised) and in favor of classicism, a concept that just then was in the process of formulation. He peddled the memorable phrase edel Einfalt und stille Grösse, 'noble simplicity and quiet grandeur', which meant, of course, that the Renaissance style would soon wear the mantle of classicism, whereas the baroque, nearly dead anyhow, was to receive another nail in its coffin. Because of Winckelmann's text on ancient art, his position as commissioner of antiquities in Rome, and the development of archaeological techniques in the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, neoclassicism became the primary artistic style of the second half of the eighteenth century.


The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) inherited from Winckelmann a love for the classical style and a philosophical penchant for historicism. He also devised a historical scheme that gave to early modern painting both a place in history and a distinctive capacity to convey the spirit of an age. Although Hegel's aesthetics are notoriously complex, one can make a few observations that are pertinent to the reception and interpretation of early modern art. First of all, Hegel (like Vasari before him) enunciated a teleological scheme (one in which history is working toward a goal), although his did not cover just a few generations; rather, he believed that the "worldspirit" found its beginning in the earliest stages of Mediterranean history and spiraled through millennia, revealing itself with ever greater clarity. Works of art, which are symptoms of their times, follow inevitably the progress of the "spirit." The prototype for Hegel's first stage is architecture (symbolic), followed by sculpture (classic), and culminating in painting and music as phenomena of the Romantic stage. Hegel owed much to Winckelmann in his appreciation of classical beauty, which expressed itself best in sculpture. But painting, because of its reduced materiality, allowed the "spirit" to shine through with greater brilliance. Although Hegel did not single out either Renaissance or baroque painting, one can assume by implication that baroque religious painting, because of its shadows and search for the ineffable, fits his scheme perfectly. Hegel also validated painting of every period because of its necessary historical role. One may love the classical style, but owing to the dictates of history, one must accept every style as appropriate to its time and place.

The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (18181897) fell under the sway of Hegel's periodization but abandoned his assertion of historical progress. His Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860; Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy) treated Italian art of the fifteenth through the seventeenth century as part and parcel of Italian culture and values, the unique product of individual creativity married to cultural norms, with visual schemes inherited from antiquity. For all his love of the classical style, now firmly identified and associated with Italian Early and High Renaissance painting, sculpture, and architecture, Burckhardt understood and valued the energies of the baroque. Although he interpreted visual art as a function or product of culture (for Burckhardt, art could have no existence outside of history), he nonetheless had such esteem for beauty in all its manifestations that he felt the history of art could be studied and taught on its own terms, as its own discipline. He also saw that artistic styles had certain quintessential qualities, calling Renaissance the "organic style" and baroque the "spatial style." It remained for Heinrich Wölfflin (18641945), his student and successor as professor of history at the University of Basel, to describe and elaborate upon the organic and spatial as the "linear" and "painterly."

Wölfflin created a huge stir in the discipline of art history with his publication in 1915 of the Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of art history), which addressed both the psychology of style and the ways in which it gives expression to the individual artist as well as the nation and the age. But his main concern was with the deeply rooted visual schemes and modes of perception that he found distinguished sixteenth-from seventeenth-century European art. Baroque artists created masses and patches of color and form, whereas High Renaissance artists were more like draftsmen in their concern with surfaces, outlines, linear perspective, and the careful parallels in a sequence of planes. Vision has its own history, as he asserted, and the archetypes that undergird that particular history he called the linear and the painterly. Primarily because he wanted to see Renaissance and baroque styles as part of a Zeitgeist, 'spirit of an age', Wölfflin generally avoided the recognition that there is something original, general, and universal about these forms. And yet it soon became apparent to other art historians and critics that one could find these forms in many historical periods, from the Shang dynasty and its bronzes, to the Hellenistic period and its sculpture, and as Wölfflin himself pointed out, the late Gothic style in architecture.

Svetlana Alpers's article "Describe or Narrate: A Problem in Pictorial Representation" proposes another prototype for seventeenth-century Italian and Dutch painting (the analysis of "description" developed in this article led to her The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century [1983]). Alpers writes about a method of description that figures prominently in Dutch baroque painting (and in Caravaggio's work) and that is at odds with the methods used to create energy, movement, and narration typical of the istoria (history painting) in Italian painting. The Dutch, she argues, did not inherit the Albertian tradition of narrative painting, and therefore tended to show scenes of suspended action, ones that do not suggest events leading up to the moment depicted, nor that which succeeds it. As a demonstration of its archetypal nature, Alpers also detects the descriptive approach operating in nineteenth-century French realism.

The literary critic and art historian Norman Bryson's use of the terms "discourse" and "figure" provides us with yet another gambit in what at first glance may appear to be an archetypal analysis of early modern art. He takes as his point of departure a distinction similar to Alpers's; that is, using semiotics, he differentiates between a textual meaning on the one hand and a tendency toward pure imagery on the other (which is fairly similar to narration versus description). Because of the strong tradition of history painting in the early modern period, one's attention is necessarily drawn to texts that subtend the images. There are visual elements, just the same, in Renaissance and baroque painting that exceed the requirements of the stories and biblical passages on which these images are based. Unlike medieval art, Bryson argues, early modern imagery owes allegiance to both the text (discourse) and its own autonomy (figure). The sign is split, and it is linear perspective that, first of all, divides the signifier from the signified, the figural from the discursive. But Bryson also argues that early modern painting uses the figural to create the effect of a putative (although not true) realism, and this effect of realism has a tendency to hide the ideological element in visual representation.

Bryson takes his literary education and training in semiotics into the halls of art history and asserts that the only way to make sense of eighteenth-century French art (and he may as well have included Italian art of the same period) is to forget about archetypes of style and to concentrate instead on how the discursive and figural do battle with one another. And at the same time, they help, in their various permutations and combinations, give evidence to the artistic and ideological concerns of their times.

The tendency in the study of early modern art history (and indeed much of art history, for that matter) to associate styles with periods has led to sometimes unfortunate results, as in the naming of such categories as high baroque, high baroque classicism, baroque classicism, archaizing classicism, crypto-Romanticism, and so forth. And perhaps the other approach of focusing on genres and media of artlandscape, portrait, still life, painting, sculpture, architecturetends to fracture the ages and ignore some of their unifying elements.

Similarly, the traditional reliance upon monographic studiesVasari's biographical approachhas lost favor with scholars and, perhaps more important, publishers. Museum exhibitions that are thematically organized and somewhat eclectic in the kinds of objects that they bring together nonetheless have had a powerful impact (museum catalogues often sell better than more theoretically oriented texts) on the study of early modern art history in recent years. Bryson's call for greater attention to the semiotics of art (and especially early modern art) has not been heeded by art history's rank and file.

See also Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Vasari, Giorgio ; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim .


Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago, 1983.

Bryson, Norman. Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime. Cambridge, U.K., 1981.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy. Translated by S. G. C. Middlemore. London, 1892.

Hegel, Georg. The Philosophy of Fine Art. Translated by F. P. B. Osmaston. London, 1920.

Panofsky, Erwin. Idea: A Concept in Art Theory. Translated by Joseph J. S. Peake. Columbia, S.C., 1968.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Translated by G. du C. de Vere. 10 vols. London, 1996.

Voltaire. "Essay on Taste." Supplement to Alexander Gerard, Essay on Taste. Edinburgh and London, 1759.

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. History of Ancient Art. Translated by G. Henry Lodge. 4 vols., 18491872. New York, 1968.

. Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. Translated by Elfriede Heyer and Roger C. Norton. La Salle, Ill., 1987.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. Translated by M. D. Hottinger. New York, 1950.

Vernon Hyde Minor

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Early Modern Period: Art Historical Interpretations

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Early Modern Period: Art Historical Interpretations