Winckelmann: The Antique & The Birth of Art History

Laocoon c. 50-20 BCE, discovered 1506 CE marble Vatican Museums, Rome

c. 50-20 BCE, discovered 1506 CE
Vatican Museums, Rome

“The physical pain and the nobility of soul are distributed with equal strength over the entire body and are, as it were, held in balance with one another. Laocoon suffers, but he suffer ike Sophocles’ Philoctetes; his pain touches our very souls, but we wish that we could bear misery like this great man.”  —Winckelmann, Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, 1755

Many refer to Johann Joachim Winckelmann as the father of Art History, the first to lay out a progression of art and art movements in a way that analyzes both the art as well as its cultural context—something that we still do to this day. His archeological work in the excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii (around 1762) had an extreme impact on his own writing as well as the world at large—it undoubtedly is intimately connected to the conception of the Neoclassical movement, a movement that was interested in the revival of antique ideas and themes, which directly follows these excavations in the late 18th century.

In 1755 Winckelmann wrote Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, where he speaks to Greek ideals in painting and sculpture, and boldly claims that, “The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients.” This admiration and interest in Antiquity continues—in 1764 he published The History of Ancient Art—which to this day continues to be called the first example of modern Art Historical theory. In this works he strives to break down the rise and downfall of art—suggesting a progression of Antique art.

“This selection of the most beautiful parts and their harmonious union in one figure produced ideal beauty—which is therefore no metaphysical abstraction; so that the ideal is not found in every part of the human figure taken separately, but can be ascribed to it only as a whole; for beauties as great as any of those which art has ever produced can be found singly in nature, but, in the entire figure nature must yield the palm to art.”  —Winckelmann, The History of Ancient Art, 1764

Jacques-Louis David
The Oath of the Horatii
Oil on Canvas
Musée du Louvre, Paris

And check this out—the French Rococo movement was happening at the same time as the birth of Neoclassicism and the rise of Winckelmannian-aesthetics… interesting, right? Easy to see how Winckelmann seemed to have a certain distain for the art-making of his day, preferring the Antique instead.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard
The Swing
Oil on Canvas
Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom


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