Birth of the Field of Art History

The birth of the field of art history is largely due to Winckelmann (1717–68), a German art historian called “The Father of Art History and Archaeology.” He was the first scholar to write a history of art rather than artist biographies and wrote The History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764. His book impacted the field of art history because Winckelmann redefined this field, contrasting the differences of ancient and modern cultures. Therefore, his text is seen as foundational during a time when art history was becoming an established discipline.

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Winckelmann

The objects he focuses on are Greek sculptures, which he molds as the cultural ideal and foundation of antiquity that seemed at odds with modern perspectives. As an eloquent writer, Winckelmann analyzes these ancient sculptures. Of course, he is a product of his time, reflecting the Enlightenment concern of the progress and decline in ancient and contemporary culture.

Winckelmann’s writing differs from earlier writings about ancient art. First, his writing is ambitious because he was concerned with art history in relation to external circumstances. His writing contributed to not only the wealthy buying masterpieces but also the less wealthy pilgrimaging for aesthetic education in Italy.

Second, his text emphasized on analyzing the visual and style. This approach would influence later art historians attempting to understand the aesthetic qualities of artworks depending on the social and cultural circumstances of the time when they were created. Winckelmann sought to distinguish true Greek art versus Roman and modern copies. However, now some of these are seen as Greco-Roman copies.

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Apollo Belvedere statue

For example, the Apollo Belvedere statue, claimed by Winckelmann to be the finest surviving examples of the Greek ideal, is actually Roman. Therefore, art of antiquity was seen as part of the history and the development of various styles.

Although Winckelmann stands out as a unique figure in the birth of the field of art history, other figures from 1650 through 1830 also impacted this emerging field. Fellow German scholar and writer Lessing also loved antiquity.

Lessing critiques Winckelmann’s analysis of the sculpture Laocoon and his sons created around 25 BCE and argues his own thoughts, which presents “entering the conversation” about a specific artwork from the beginning of art history. Although both Lessing and Winckelmann have Neoclassical and Platonic tendencies, their theories present unique German perspectives because of the events occurring in Germany and the country’s separate states. By looking back to antiquity, these German scholars paved the way for the future of art history as a field of study.

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Laocoon and his sons statue

Both Kant and Burke became central figures in the history of art during the Romantic period. Kant, a German philosopher, reflects the culmination of the debate of Beauty and Taste in the eighteenth century as well as the target for later perceptions of aesthetics. Kant’s concept of the artist genius—who could express, enrich, and communicate understanding and experience in such a way that normal discourse could not—would continue throughout the Romantic period. The Irish-born British statesman and writer Edmund Burke acknowledged the aesthetic value of art, which was based not from imitation or idealization alone but also from emotions. Also, he explored the sublime, the impressions of awe and how tranquility was shadowed with horror. As a result, Burke expanded the art cannon of what could be considered to have Beauty.

The Earl of Shaftsbury, Reynolds, and Diderot influenced the birth of the history of art, as well. As the “Father of Aesthetics,” the Earl of Shaftsbury considered aesthetics as a separate branch of human experience that presented an interrelationship of morality and beauty. He believed that the development of an interest in fine arts would result in the improvement of the general level of British morality and politeness. Therefore, in order to develop interest in art, creating a history of art would be necessary.

Reynolds argued that studying great ancient art was more important than natural talent. Once again, in order to study art from the past, a history of art would be needed.

Lastly, from 1759 to 1781, Diderot wrote critical writings about the Salon exhibitions organized by the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. In his writings, Diderot takes his reader beyond mere description and judgment in order to discuss art as well as truth, nature, and morality. Thus, Diderot’s writings present a study of art, its history, and the questions that we continue to ask today.

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Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture

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