Greatest Art Critics Series
Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Biography of German Neoclassical Historian, Archeologist and Critic.

The Parthenon (447-422) Athens
Symbol of Greek art & culture which
was so admired by the classical
scholar and art critic Winckelmann.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68)


Who Was Johann Joachim Winckelmann?
Further Resources

Art Criticism: Resources
- Art Evaluation
- How to Appreciate Paintings
- How to Appreciate Sculpture

Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97)
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)
Kenneth Clark (1903-83)

Who Was Johann Winckelmann?

A highly influential German art historian and archeologist, Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a great admirer of Greek art and culture, especially Greek architecture and Greek sculpture. Although Hellenistic in outlook, he never visited Greece and his knowledge of Greek statues was based entirely on Roman copies, making him an inadvertent admirer of Roman sculpture. Through his research and his two famous books - Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (1755), and History of the Art of Antiquity (1764) - Wincklemann was the greatest single instigator of the 18th century Neoclassical art movement, which sought to revive the order, gravitas and reason of Greek and Roman art. Winckelmann himself was influenced by the reawakening interest in Roman architecture and artifacts of classical antiquity, generated by the excavation from 1738 onwards, of the buried Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, and by the writings of Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741), Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), and the Comte de Caylus. A scholar of ancient art, including the writings of Vitruvius, Winckelmann was noted in particular for his erudite analysis of the stylistic development of Greek statuary, and for his detailed observations on the study of art history, all of which exerted a significant influence on the new science of archeology, and neoclassical artists such as Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79) and Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), as well as Neoclassical sculptors such as Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Through his friendship with architects like Robert Adam (1728-92) he also influenced Neoclassical architecture both in Britain and on the Continent.




Born in Stendal, Prussia, the son of a cobbler, he attended the Koellnische Gymnasium in Berlin during which time he was deeply influenced by his study of Greek language and culture. In 1738 he studied theology at the University of Halle - where he also attended lectures by the philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-62), inventor of the term "aesthetics" - and in 1741-2, medicine at the University of Jena. However, it wasn't until 1748, when he obtained the post of librarian at the 40,000-volume library of Count Heinrich von Bunau at Nothnitz, that he had the opportunity of immersing himself in the world of Greek art. It was here that he wrote his first major book: Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (1755) (Gedanken uber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in Malerei und Bildhauerkunst). The work made Winckelmann famous - it was translated into English in 1765 by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) - and led Augustus III, king of Poland and elector of Saxony, to grant him a pension thus enabling him to further his studies in Rome. As a result, in 1755, he went to Rome, where he quickly encountered copies of important Greek statues such as the Apollo Belvedere (c.330 BCE) by Leochares, the anonymous Belvedere Torso (2nd century BCE), and Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE) by Hagesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.

He originally planned to remain in the Italian capital for just two years, but following the outbreak of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), he decided to stay longer. As it happened, he soon obtained the post of librarian to Cardinal Passionei, and also to Cardinal Archinto. After their deaths, in 1758, he became librarian to Cardinal Albani, who was in the process of asembling one of the great private collections of classical antiquities at his villa at Porta Salaria. This position gave Winckelmann unrivalled access to the art treasures of Rome and the Vatican, and provided him with significant status as an art critic and consultant to influential visitors on the Grand Tour of Europe. His works - including Description des pierres gravees du feu Baron de Stosch (1760), and Anmerkungen uber die Baukunst der Alten (1762) - gained him a wide readership and established him as a major commentator on the cultural artifacts of classical antiquity.

In 1758 and 1762, Winckelmann travelled to Naples to observe the archeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 1763, with the support of Cardinal Albani, he was appointed Papal Prefect of Antiquities to Pope Clement XIII and librarian of the Vatican. Then, in 1764, he published his second intellectual masterpiece: The History of the Art of Antiquity (Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums, which provided a comprehensive, clear chronological account of all antique art, including Ancient Egyptian architecture (c.3,000 BCE - 200 CE) and Etruscan art (c.700-90 BCE), as well as the history of Greek art and of Greece. It was the first treatise of its type on the evolution of classical fine art, and the first to explain the art of a people and what constitutes ideal beauty. Indeed, one of Winckelmann's fundamental points is that the purpose of art is to create beauty, and that this can be realized only when everything (content, composition, execution) is subordinated to it. Although rather antiquated when examined today, Winckelmann's book provided the study of art history with its foundations and methodology.

In 1768, when returning to Rome from a visit to Austria and Germany, Winckelmann was murdered in Trieste. Despite the arrest and execution of his killer, the motive for the murder remains unknown.


One of the greatest art critics of his day, Winckelmann was an influential champion of classicism and a pioneer of high quality writing about classical art. His books and essays were the first to illuminate the chronology and intellectual significance of Greek art, and were instrumental in stimulating the emergence of Neoclassical sculpture, painting and architecture. See also the lesser-known Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30). In addition, in a series of open letters, such as Report on the Latest Discoveries at Herculaneum (Nachrichten von den neuesten Herculanischen Entdeckungen) - his trenchant analysis and criticism of the blunders committed by treasure-seekers and other amateurs in the excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii, helped to safeguard these archeological investigations from further damage. For this beneficial intervention, he is sometimes called the "Father of Modern Archeology".

Further Resources on Classical Art

- Parthenon Temple (built 447-422)
- Altar of Zeus at Pergamon (c.166-156 BCE)
- Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE)
- Greek Pottery (c.7000 BCE onwards)
- Venus de Milo (c.130-100 BCE)

• For more about classical art critics, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.