Article abstract: Winckelmann’s studies of ancient Greek art profoundly influenced the development of the European neoclassical period in the late eighteenth century. His work helped to shape the areas of literature, the fine arts, art history, and classical archaeology.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann was born the son of a poor shoemaker, Martin Winckelmann, in a rural village of the Mark Brandenburg, in what was then Prussia. He was an extremely intelligent and academically gifted child and was thus able to attend a formal Latin school. In 1735, he went to Berlin to study at a high school. The young Winckelmann was graduated and in 1737 registered in the department of theology at the University of Halle. His interests, however, were in the study of classical antiquity. He left after two years and worked as a private tutor until 1741, when he entered the University of Jena. After finishing at Jena, he taught school in Prussia.
From the early days of his childhood study of classical Greek and Latin at the local Latin school, Winckelmann was intensely dedicated to the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature, art, and civilization. In 1754, he entered the court of Augustus III, a great collector of artworks. At this time, Winckelmann wrote an essay on ancient art that would become a major influence on succeeding generations of scholars and writers, his Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1755; Reflections on the Paintings and Sculpture of the Greeks, 1765). Winckelmann was awarded a pension by the Prussian monarch because of this essay. It serves, in part, as a study leading to Winckelmann’s later monumental history of classical art, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764, 1776; History of Ancient Art, 1849-1873), and therefore deserves some detailed discussion of its major themes and insights.
Winckelmann clearly favors the art of the ancient world. The Greek sense of taste, he contends, is unparalleled, and the only path to greatness for the modern world is to imitate the artistic production of the ancients. His essay seeks to characterize the major distinctive features of Greek art. He begins his examination with a discussion of art and nature in the ancient world and sets it in comparison to the depiction of nature by modern painters. Greek artists portrayed nature in its purest and most beautiful form. This portrayal is most apparent in their representations of the human form. The human body is presented in its most ideal form, at the height of the perfection of its youth and beauty. The Greek style reflects the Greek’s societal and cultural standards, their love of physical activity, and their competitive games that glorified the body. Disease and other maladies of modern society, Winckelmann claims, were not present in Greek society. He clearly prefers the artistic idealization of the human form in ancient art to the more realistic representations of the body that predominate in postclassical art.
In the second section, Winckelmann discusses the aesthetic dimension of contour, a domain in which the ancients excelled. Their figures exhibit the noblest contours, again in contrast to those found in the works of more modern artists such as Peter Paul Rubens. Winckelmann praises the sculptured figures found at Herculaneum. The brief third section deals with the artistic issue of drapery, or the way in which the human form is enveloped in garments. Again, he claims that the Greeks were far superior to the moderns in the way they depicted clothing and robes in their art.
The fourth and final section of the essay deals with the overall Greek sense of aesthetic expression. Winckelmann’s characterization of ancient art in this section as exhibiting a “noble simplicity and sedate grandeur” ( edel Einfalt und stille Grösse) was to become the most influential and frequently quoted description of the Greeks. German neoclassicist writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, for example, were to make this concept of aesthetic value the ideal of much of their literary production. Winckelmann discusses the Laocoön statue, one of the most famous examples of Greek (actually Hellenistic) art, which is based on a story from the legend of the siege of Troy. Laocoön and his two sons had set out to warn the Trojans of the Greek plot but were killed by a serpent sent by Apollo. The statue portrays the three figures, enveloped by the huge serpent, being crushed to death. Winckelmann notes, however,...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)