Winckelmann, Johann Joachim (1717–1768)

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WINCKELMANN, JOHANN JOACHIM (17171768), German art historian, archaeologist, and philosopher of aesthetics, and one of the leading proponents of neoclassicism. Winckelmann is regarded as the first modern historian of art for his systematic treatment of ancient art as an expression of historical conditions, rather than as a tradition of artistic skills and ideas passed from one generation of artists to the next, which was the arthistorical approach practiced by Giorgio Vasari (15111574), Karl van Mander (15481606), and Giovanni Pietro Bellori (16131696) in their Lives of artists.

Winckelmann was born on 9 December 1717 in Stendal, a town between Hannover and Berlin. The son of an impoverished cobbler, he sought, as a young man, to better his conditions through devotion to academic study, and fell in love with the literature of classical antiquity. In hopes of securing a measure of financial security, and on the advice of his father, Winckelmann pursued a course of study in theology, mathematics, and medicine, as well as Greek and Latin, at the Universities of Jena and Halle. At Halle, Winckelmann was a student of Alexander Baumgarten (17141762), the founder of modern aesthetics, and developed his own philosophy of beauty, involving the direct experience of beautiful objects, in reaction to Baumgarten's rather cold (in Winckelmann's own opinion) philosophical formalism.

Not finding theology or medicine his calling, Winckelmann left the university and continued to pursue the study of ancient literature and contemporary aesthetics privately, while serving in various positions as a tutor and schoolteacher. A student tutored by him, F. W. Peter Lamprecht, became one of the great loves of his life and followed him to Seehausen after Winckelmann accepted a position as a teacher of Classics there in 1743. In 1748 Winckelmann left Seehausen to work as a librarian and researcher for Count Heinrich von Bünau in Nöthnitz, near Dresden. Lamprecht did not follow, although Winckelmann would continue to lavish his affections upon his former student in private correspondence for years to come. In 1754 he moved to Dresden to work as librarian to Cardinal Passionei, a position that afforded him access to works of literature, art objects, and contemporary cultural debate previously unavailable to him in the provinces where he had been raised and schooled. It was during this period in Dresden that Winckelmann wrote what would, in retrospect, count as the manifesto for the rest of his scholarly life: the brief but powerful and influential essay Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755; Reflections on the imitation of the painting and sculpture of ancient Greeks). The essay took up a long-running debate in eighteenth-century European intellectual circles, called "The Battle of the Books" in London and the "Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes" in Paris, about which culture was superiorancient or modernand why. Winckelmann argued that ancient art was clearly superior and that, for the moderns, the only art worth making is the imitation of the art of the ancients, but added (in a rhetorical flourish typical of Winckelmann's style of argument) that the art of the ancients is so superior to the moderns that it is inimitable. He therefore counseled his artistic contemporaries that, since they are doomed to the ineradicable falseness of painting and sculpture in modern times, they should imitate that which is inimitable. Winckelmann reinforces his valuation of the impossible imitability of the Greeks by being the first art historian to discriminate between Greek originals and their inferior Roman copies.

Winckelmann's Reflections were quickly translated into several languages and found a wide audience. In 1755, with his intellectual reputation established, Winckelmann, encouraged by a group of Jesuit dignitaries visiting Dresden, moved to Rome, where he would be able to pursue his studies and personal inclinations more freely. By 1763, with Cardinal Alessandro Albani (16921779), the Vatican's chief librarian and a leading patron of the arts, as his sponsor and confidant, Winckelmann became papal antiquary, a position that included escorting visiting dignitaries through Rome's art and antiquities collections. In Rome, Winckelmann set to work on his most important book, Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764; The history of ancient art), an ambitious, multivolume account of the art of antiquity in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, written in a style that mixes the sentimental with the clinical and the platonic. Winckelmann narrated the course of each of these cultures as a kind of life cycle showing "the origin, progress, change and downfall of art, together with the different styles of nations, periods and artists," and drew for his studies upon the concentrations of collections of antique art and artifacts in Rome. Elaborating on the thesis first offered in his Reflections, he argued that the felicitous cultural situation of ancient Greeceincluding political freedoms and unfettered opportunities to view and appreciate the naked bodycould not be repeated in modern times. Following a logic reminiscent of the Socratic doctrines of love and beauty, he lamented the passing of Greek art and the beautiful male bodies that inspired it, but found consolation in the historian's ambition to know about it.

Winckelmann met with an untimely death at the hands of an unemployed cook and thief, Francesco Arcangeli, in a hotel in Trieste on 8 June, 1768, while on a diplomatic mission. The motive for the murder was never determined, although speculation about this and other details of Winckelmann's very public private life has inspired numerous literary treatments and plays.

See also Ancients and Moderns ; Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Dresden ; Early Modern Period: Art Historical Interpretations ; Neoclassicism ; Rome, Art in ; Sculpture .


Primary Sources

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim. History of Ancient Art. Translated by G. Henry Lodge. Boston, 1849; reprinted New York, 1969. Translation of Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764).

. Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture. Translated by Elfriede Heyer and Roger C. Norton. La Salle, Ill., 1987. Translation of Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755).

Secondary Sources

Fried, Michael. "Antiquity Now: Reading Winckelmann on Imitation." October 37 (1986): 8797.

Leppmann, Wolfgang. Winckelmann. New York, 1970.

Morrison, Jeffrey. Winckelmann and the Notion of Aesthetic Education. Oxford and New York, 1996.

Parker, Kevin. "Winckelmann, Historical Difference and the Problem of the Boy." Eighteenth-Century Studies 25, no. 4 (1992): 523544.

Potts, Alex. Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History. New Haven and London, 1994; reprinted, 2000.

Kevin Parker

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

views updated Jun 08 2018

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

The German archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) redefined archeology as a history of ancient art. His high regard for Greek art greatly influenced German classical literature and stimulated classicism.

The only son of a cobbler, Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born on Dec. 9, 1717, in Stendal, Prussia, and grew up in modest circumstances. From 1738 he studied theology and medicine, then taught in Salzwedel from 1743 to 1748, and from 1748 until 1754 he was librarian for the Count of Bühnau in Nöthnitz near Dresden. Here, in addition to his historical studies, he turned to the fine arts and prepared a description of the paintings in the Dresden Gallery.

In 1754-1755 Winckelmann studied art in Dresden with the painter Adam Friedrich Oeser and came in contact with Italian artists. A result of his studies was his essay "Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture," in which he portrayed an idealized picture of Greek art and saw its spirit as "noble simplicity and silent greatness." Since Greek art was to him the highest artistic achievement, he advocated its imitation by all later cultures. The contemporary, baroque art was to be dismissed since it had grown too remote from the Greek simplicity.

Winckelmann's essay received great acclaim and prepared his way to Rome, where he went in 1755 after becoming a Catholic. In Italy, which he called the land of humanity, he fulfilled his human and intellectual purpose. The southern freedom of mores and ideas recalled his ideal Greece and enabled him to pursue the cult of male beauty which he found embodied in Greek art. Thus Winckelmann devoted his "Dissertation on the Ability to Appreciate the Beautiful in Art and Its Instruction" to his young friend Reinhold von Berg.

As equal, Winckelmann met with Roman scholars and clerics, even lived for a time in the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo. His special friends were the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs and Cardinal Alessandro Albani, in whose palace he lived before moving with him into a newly built villa in the Via Salaria. On the outfitting of this villa with antique sculptures, Winckelmann had a decided influence.

In 1763 Winckelmann was named prefect of Roman antiquities, and he worked also in the Vatican library. In his studies he combined historical awareness with vivid feeling for the present; in his writings he was at once scholar and poet. His descriptions of the statues in the Vatican's Belvedere (only the descriptions of the Apollo and of the Torso were finished) are in their enthusiastic language genial prose poems.

Winckelmann included these descriptions in his major work, History of the Art of Antiquity (1764), the first historical overview of the entire ancient art, born of profound knowledge of the sources and his personal views. His thorough erudition is also apparent in his catalog of the gem collection of Baron Stosch (1758) and in publications on unknown antiques. Winckelmann published lively reports on the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which he got to know on three journeys, and he wrote also about ancient architecture and allegories in art.

Most of Winckelmann's writings appeared in German, and he never relinquished his bonds with Germany. In 1765 he almost became the librarian of Frederick the Great in Berlin. But as Winckelmann traveled to Germany in April 1768, his love of Rome proved the stronger; beset with deep melancholy he interrupted his journey in Regensburg, traveled to Vienna where he was honored by Empress Maria Theresa, and arrived in Trieste in June. There he met a former-convict cook who robbed and killed him on June 8, 1768.

Further Reading

Wolfgang Leppmann, Winckelmann (1970), is the first biography in English; it provides interesting material on life and education in 18th-century Germany, the first excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the attitude and policy of the papacy. More specialized are two studies by Henry C. Hatfield: Winckelmann and His German Critics, 1755-1781 (1943) and Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature (1964). □

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

views updated May 17 2018

Winckelmann, Johann Joachim (1717–68). German art-historian and archaeologist. He settled in Rome, became librarian to Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692–1779), and established himself as a scholar and antiquarian, advising on the acquisition of the Cardinal's great collection of Antique sculpture (many items of which are now in the Glyptothek, Munich). He was an important influence on Neo-Classicism, and especially on the Greek Revival. His two great books, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755—published in English in 1765 as Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks) and Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of Ancient Art—1764), proclaimed the superiority of Greek art and subjected it to analysis. His art-historical method and his interpretation of Classical Antiquity informed education, especially in Germany, well into the present century. His notion of the best of Classical art imbued with ‘noble simplicity and calm grandeur’ became deeply embedded in Western thought, and he influenced many artists and architects, notably the painter Anton Raffael Mengs (1728–79—whose ceiling fresco, Parnassus, in the Villa Albani, Rome (1761), was one of the key works of Neo-Classicism), Schinkel, and von Klenze.


Chilvers, Osborne, & Farr (eds.) (1988);
Gaehtgens (1986);
Jane Turner (1996);
W&M (1987)

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

views updated Jun 11 2018

Johann Joachim Winckelmann


German scholar considered the father of art history and modern archaeology. Winckelmann was the first scholar to study works of art in context. His methodology and systematic classification of artistic styles explored geographical, social, and political circumstances to trace the history and explain the meaning of art objects. His scholarly methods profoundly impacted the development of classical archaeology. Winckelmann's idealized vision of Ancient Greece greatly influenced the development of European neoclassical fine arts and literature.

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