Winckelmann on Greek Art: ‘Become Great, Imitate the Greeks’

Ancient Grek art
Johann Joachim Winckelmann wrote the first book on Greek art praising it as the highest achievement in the ancient world. A statue dedicated to him in Stendal, Germany. Credit: Dguentel Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann admired ancient Greek art, and his book in 1764 laid the foundations of the art history discipline.

Winckelmann (1717-1768) is the author of the seminal work The History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764. The book on Greek and Roman antiquity was influential in that it shifted the notion of Classicism as a source of virtue and good taste to the study of developments in sculpture from the pre-Classical era to the 5th century BC magnificent statues of Phidias and Polycleitus among others.

According to the German scholar, the progression of art styles was closely linked with the times. The works of Phidias and Polycleitus mentioned above were not only products of artistic inspiration but were closely related to the time frame they were created: Pericles’ Golden Age of Athens. This was a time when Athens was prosperous, external dangers had been eliminated, and the republic operated smoothly.

This conception of a cultural-historical model of art history owes much to Winckelmann’s work. He placed Classicism in a historical frame and turned a timeless ideal into a modern discipline. By tracing the development of classical Greek art, he outlined the progress of Greek civilization.

Winckelmann’s writing exhibits a strong emotional response to the artworks, placing great emphasis on the presentation of physical beauty. In that respect, he considers Greek and Roman art to be the supreme achievement of culture, hence his historical quote, a sentence from an essay he wrote: “The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.” This was a phrase that would label him as one of the first philhellenes.

Winckelmann won the admiration of Goethe

Born in poverty, the son of a humble cobbler, Johann Joachim Winckelmann was far away from the world of art. It was a privilege reserved only for the aristocracy. He had reached the age of thirty before he began to raise himself from his social handicap, thanks to a scholarship he had received.

He studied theology at the University of Halle and medicine at the University of Jena in Germany to become a private tutor and schoolmaster in the small town of Seehausen near his birthplace, Stendhal. His turn of luck came when, at thirty years of age, he attained a position as the librarian to Count von Bunau, a prominent figure at the Saxon court. In his new position, Winckelmann was able to immerse himself in Classical studies after he came into contact with Greek art.

In 1755, Winckelmann relocated to Rome, where he spent most of his life and wrote his book. It was in 1759 that he worked as a secretary to Cardinal Albani, the owner of a large personal collection of ancient art. Cardinal Albani allowed him to live in his palace and make use of his enormous library. He alternately worked as the librarian of the Vatican and president of Antiquities.

It was in Cardinal Albani’s library that his passion to delve into the world of Greek antiquity, the epics of Homer, philosophers, sculptors, and the Athenian democratic institutions was sparked. He lived an ascetic life, sleeping only four hours every night so that he had ample time to study.

His continuous study and determination made him the most important antiquarian of his time, praised by all, including poet, author, art expert, and philhellene Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe wrote about him: “Winckelmann is like Columbus, not yet having discovered the new world but inspired by a premonition of what is to come. One learns nothing new when reading his work, but one becomes a new man!”

His fame as an expert antiquarian and art scholar made its way throughout Europe. He became the prototype of a Classicist, and his work elevated him to mythical status.

Winckelmann’s praise of ancient Greek art

The History of the Art of Antiquity (Original title in German, Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums) is based on Winckelmann’s conclusive idea that ancient Greek art is emblematic of the achievement of a human ideal in beauty and virtue and pointed the way forward to reforming the present.

The German scholar divided ancient Greek art into four distinct periods. The first was the “straight and hard” phase, comprising mostly sculptures from the Archaic period (c. 800-480 BC, before Phidias). Α good example of that phase was the different Kouros statues. The second was the “grand and square” phase with sculptures from the early Classical period, such as those of Phidias and Polycleitus. A good example of this is the gold and ivory statue of Athena.

The third, from the late Classical period, was called the “beautiful and flowing” stage,  including works by the sculptor Praxiteles, an excellent example being Hermes and the infant Dionysus. The last stage was roughly works made after the third stage, considered by Winckelmann to be merely imitative and therefore inferior.

Despite never having traveled to Greece himself, Winckelmann’s love of Greek art and ancient Greece was so fluently expressed in the book that its impact on scholars of his time was profound. Scholars and travelers who had never been to Greece began looking at  Greece and its art through his terms. His idealization of Greece in his literary works was so influential that he became a venerated figure.

Aside from his idealization of ancient Greece and its art, the way in which Winckelmann classified Greek artwork was invaluable to the study thereof. He transformed the field from complete chaos into an orderly and respected progression.

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