Panofsky, Erwin

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PANOFSKY, ERWIN (1892–1968), U.S. art historian. Born in Hanover, Germany, he studied at universities in Berlin, Munich, and Breslau, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg in 1914. He taught at the University of Hamburg from 1926 to 1933. After the Nazis achieved power in Germany, Panofsky was dismissed from his position and fled to the U.S. in 1934. Despite this traumatic period, Panofsky never publicly addressed his Jewish identity, and instead promulgated a liberal humanism in his writing about art. His scholarship on Jan van Eyck describes a particular German contribution to art history, perhaps arising from a need for an exile to identify a period in German history unsullied by the Nazis. Beginning in 1935, he was a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, at the same time that Albert Einstein taught there. He remained at Princeton for the remainder of his life. He wrote on art from the medieval, Baroque, and Renaissance periods and developed the study of iconology in art history, that is, the manner in which theme, style, and symbol intersect in an image. His differentiation of iconography, that is, the descriptive aspects of a work of art, from iconology, a deeper level of interpretation which involves situating the image in a wider social, institutional, and cultural context, still defines the purview of modern art history. Panofsky is best known for his publications Studies in Iconology (1939); Albrecht Durer (1943); Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), with Dora Panofsky; Pandora's Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol (1956); and Meaning in the Visual Arts (1957). He also wrote in 1934 a still widely read interpretation of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding. Panofsky's "Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures" (1937) is regarded as a classic film commentary. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy; he received the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America in 1962.


D. Kuspit, "Taking Refuge in Humanism: The Troubling Views of Erwin Panofsky," in: The Forward (Aug. 2, 1996); C. Landauer, "Erwin Panofsky and the Renascence of the Renaissance," in: Renaissance Quarterly (June 1994).

[Nancy Buchwald (2nd ed.)]