Winckelmann’s impact on Neoclassicism

Johann_Joachim_Winckelmann_(Raphael_Mengs_after_1755)Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was a scholar with wide interests. He studied most different scientific disciplines, and only in his manhood he began to study art by applying all kinds of scientific knowledge and methods.

First he was studying theology in the University of Halle , but then he bumped in books written by broad-minded English and French writers. He was normally listen Baumgarten’s classes about art, but Baumgarten approach as aesthetic did not satisfied Winckelmann. He thought that Baumgarten’s approach was boring, and empty which art categorize by some ahead composed schema, and not by analyzing.After listening Baumgarten’s  classes he thought that it would be good to study mathematics, medicine and physics.

In 1740s he became librarian with chancellor Ludewik where he gained knowledge about researching humanities, but after that he  once again with the intention of becoming a physician, in 1740 attended medical classes at Jena.   From 1743 to 1748, he was the deputy headmaster of the gymnasium of Seehausen in the Altmark but Winckelmann felt that work with children was not his true calling. In his free time he was reading Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Xenophon, Teocrito, Plaut, Propertius, Aristophanes, Euripides etc. Then, he marked his new goal: knowing historical science which resulted by reading French and English history as well as his observations on methods in 18th century historiography. He was studying Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian and English language.

WinckelmannUnsatisfied with his job and life he went to Saxonia where he in 1748s began to work in Count Heinrich von Bünau’s library. The library contained some 40,000 volumes. Winckelmann there was reading Pope, Petrarch, Milton etc. In this library he was introduced with new methods of history, but the most impact on him was Voltaire’s book about Louis XVI. This book was innovating in a sense that Voltair did not wrote about wars and politics, but about culture and historical cours and not about historical individuals. Winckelmann’s major duty was to assist von Bünau in writing a book on the Holy Roman Empire and help collect material for it. During this period he made several visits to the collection of antiquities at Dresden, but his description of its best paintings was left unfinished. The treasures there, nevertheless, awakened in Winckelmann an intense interest in art, which was deepened by his association with various artists, particularly the painter Adam Friedrich Oeser  (1717-1799) — Goethe’s future friend and influence — who encouraged Winckelmann in his aesthetic studies. At the same time his friend was painter Riedel who was inspector of Dresden’s gallery.

Winkelman’s friends  were painters who were nucleus of incoming neoclassicism, and especially Raphael Mengs (1728-1779).Winkelmann was writing some texts of major importance for neoclassicism (1755 to 1764).

His first short text was  Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture). In this text he defined his investigation goal: detecting ancient archetype of art and forming contemporary taste on that foundation.  He was analyzing Greek taste of art and their believes about beauty in literature and arts. In that time he made his famous sentences: “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” and the definitive assertion, “The one way for us to become great, perhaps inimitable, is by imitating the ancients.” The work was warmly admired not only for the ideas it contained, but for its literary style. It made Winckelmann famous, and was reprinted several times and soon translated into French. In England, Winckelmann’s views stirred discussion in the 1760s and 1770s, although it was limited to artistic circles:Henry Fuseli’s   translation of Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks was published in 1765, but the text did not find enough readers to warrant a second edition.

In 1751, the papal nuncio and Winckelmann’s future employer, Alberico Archinto, visited Nöthnitz, and in 1754 Winckelmann joined the Roman Catholic Church. Goethe concluded that Winckelmann was a pagan, but his conversion ultimately opened the doors of the papal library to him. On the strength of the Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke, August III, king of Poland and elector of Saxony, granted him a pension of 200 thalers , so that he could continue his studies in Rome.

Winckelmann arrived in Rome in November 1755. Originally, Winckelmann planned to stay in Italy only two years with the help of the grant from Dresden, but the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) changed his plans. He was named librarian to Cardinal Passionei  , who was impressed by Winckelmann’s beautiful Greek writing. Winckelmann also became librarian to Chardinal Archinto , and received much kindness from Cardinal Passionei. After their deaths, Winckelmann was hired as librarian in the house of Alessandro Cardinal Albani , who was forming his magnificent collection of antiquities in the villa at Porta Salaria. With the aid of his new friend and lover, the painter Anton Raphael Mengs  (1728-79), with whom he first lived in Rome, Winckelmann devoted himself to the study of Roman antiquities and gradually acquired an unrivalled knowledge of ancient art. Winckelmann’s method of careful observation allowed him to identify Roman copies of Greek art, something that was unusual at that time—Roman culture was considered the ultimate achievement of Antiquity. His friend Mengs became the channel through which Winkelmann’s ideas were realized in art and spread around Europe.

His first task in Rome was to describe the statues in the Cortile del Belvedere  —the Apollo Belvedere the Laocoön , the so-called Antinous, and the Belvedere Torso—which represented to him the “utmost perfection of ancient sculpture.” When he was analyzing the Torso he tried to reconstruct primary look. That made him to question about restoration of art. Then he wrote about problems and different types of art. He paid attention on artist effort and talent, beauty of  art and spectator understanding of art. (in Errinerung über die Betradhtung der Werke der Kunst).

Material reflection of archetype was grazia (Von der Grazie in Werken der Kunst). He was analyzing in which shapes grazia iz shown and in that way he allowed himself to follow one special element in art and his changes through art styles.

In 1764 he wrote Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (“The History of Ancient Art”). Here he defined his approach to art and divided in two parts: art in wider sense (as appearance in Etruscan art, Egyptian art etc.) and art in relation with external impact (here he analyze only Greek art). With this book he became the first writer on the subject to sort out a proper chronological development.

Winckelmann coditicated aims of epoch to create great art. He applied history method when analyzing ancient art and than divided phases of ancient art: archaic, sublime, epoch of beauty, imitation, decadency.

Ideals of neoclassicism were sculpture of Apollo and Laocoön. Winckelmann stated that of all works of antiquity the statue of Apollo Belvedere is the highest ideal of art. It was the idealized beauty of the nude body. Winkelmann linked nude body with the beneficence of the Greek climate. Height and attitude of Apollo Belvedere suggest god grandeur. Aesthetic pleasure and scholarly erudition expressed by Winckelmann and his contemporaries in their response to ancient sculpture are only part of significance og Greek and Roman art for the 18th century. Winckelmann has made a passing reference to the use of nude models in modern academies or art schools, and just as the study of nude has been of fundamental importance for the Greek and Roman artist, so it was again with rebirth of classical art.

The Laocoön was as famous as Apollo. The group portraits Laocoön a Trojan prince and priest, together with his two sons who were killed on the beach by serpents that had risen from the sea. The creator of Laocoön avoid exaggeration in both posture and expression and that is what Winckelmann preferred. Here we can see Winckelmann believes when he sad ’noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ (look at the mouth, muscle, etc.).

Noble simplicity and quiet grandeur were at the heart of Winckelmann’s interpretation of ancient art, and interpretation shared both by other writers and by observes in the second half of 18th century. These two characteristics were central to Neoclassicism art, most notably in painting, drawing and sculpture.

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