Heinrich Wölfflin

Heinrich Wölfflin

Heinrich Wölfflin (21 June 1864, Winterthur 19 July 1945, Zurich) was a Swiss art historian, whose objective classifying principles ("painterly" vs. "linear" and the like) were influential in the development of formal analysis in art history in the early 20th century. He taught at Basel, Berlin and Munich in the generation that raised German art history to pre-eminence. His three great books, still consulted, are Renaissance und Barock (1888), Die Klassische Kunst (1898, "Classic Art"), and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1915, "Principles of Art History").

Origins and career

Wölfflin was born in Winterthur, Switzerland, and is buried there. His father, Eduard Wölfflin, was a professor of classical philology who taught at Munich University and helped found and organize the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. Wölfflin studied art history and history with Jakob Burckhardt at the University of Basel, philosophy with Wilhelm Dilthey at Berlin University, and art history and philosophy at Munich University where his father had taught. He received his degree from Munich University in 1886 in philosophy, although he was already on a course to study the newly minted discipline of art history. Wölfflin's principal mentor, and the chair of his doctoral committee at the University of Munich, where Wölfflin got his doctoral degree was the renowned professor of archaeology, Heinrich Brunn.[1] Greatly influenced by his mentors, particularly neo-Kantian Johannes Volkelt (Der Symbolbegriff) and Heinrich Brunn, his dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (1886) attempted to show that architecture had a basis in form through the empathetic response of human form. It is considered now to be one of the founding texts of the emerging discipline of art history, although it was barely noted when it was published.

After graduating in 1886, Wölfflin published the result of a years' travel and study in Italy, as his Renaissance und Barock (1888), the book that evaluated the pathological "Baroque" as a new stylistic category and a serious area of study. For Wölfflin, the 16th-century art now described as "Mannerist" was part of the Baroque aesthetic, one that Burckhardt before him as well as most French and English-speaking scholars for a generation after him dismissed as degenerate. On the death of Jacob Burckhardt in 1897 Wöllflin succeeded him in the Art History Chair at Basel. He is credited with having introduced the teaching method of using twin parallel projectors in the delivery of art-history lectures, so that images could be compared when magic lanterns became less dangerous. Sir Ernst Gombrich recalled being inspired by him, as well as Erwin Panofsky. Wölfflin taught at Berlin University from 1901 to 1912, Munich University from 1912 to 1924 and Zurich University from 1924 until his retirement.

Principles of Art History

In Principles of Art History, Wölfflin formulated five pairs of opposed or contrary precepts in the form and style of art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which demonstrated a shift in the nature of artistic vision between the two periods. These were:

  1. From linear (draughstmanly, plastic, relating to contour in projected ideation of objects) to painterly (malerisch: tactile, observing patches or systems of relative light and of non-local colour within shade, making shadow and light integral, and allowing them to replace or supersede the dominance of contours as fixed boundaries.)
  2. From plane to recession: (from the 'Will to the plane', which orders the picture in strata parallel to the picture plane, to planes made inapparent by emphasising the forward and backward relations and engaging the spectator in recessions.)
  3. From closed (tectonic) form to open (a-tectonic) form (The closed or tectonic form is the composition which is a self-contained entity which everywhere points back to itself, the typical form of ceremonial style as the revelation of law, generally within predominantly vertical and horizontal oppositions; the open or atectonic form compresses energies and angles or lines of motion which everywhere reach out beyond the composition, and override the horizontal and vertical structure, though naturally bound together by hidden rules which allow the composition to be self-contained.)
  4. From multiplicity to unity: ('Classic art achieves its unity by making the parts independent as free members, and the baroque abolishes the uniform independence of the parts in favour of a more unified total motive. In the former case, co-ordination of the accents; in the latter, subordination.' The multiple details of the former are each uniquely contemplated: the multiplicity of the latter serves to diminish the dominance of line, and to enhance the unification of the multifarious whole.)
  5. From absolute clarity to relative clarity of the subject: (i.e. from exhaustive revelation of the form of the subject, to a pictorial representation which deliberately evades objective clearness in order to deliver a perfect rendering of information or pictorial appearance obtained by other painterly means.

Wölfflin was following in the footsteps of Vasari, among others, in devising a method for distinguishing the development in style over time. He applied this method to Trecento, Quattrocento and Cinquecento art in Classic Art (1899), then developed it further in The Principles of Art History (1915). Wolfflin's Principles of Art History has recently become more influential among art historians and philosophers of art. The most important journal for aesthetics and philosophy of art, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, published a special issue commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Principles of Art History in 2015, edited by Bence Nanay.[2]


  1. Mark Jarzombek, The Psychologizing of Modernity. (Note: this latter reference is incorrect as is much of the documentation inJarzombek's book. The chair of Wölfflin's committee was not Brunn, but his philosophy mentor. Brunn was NOT on the committee). (Cambridge University press) 2000,p. 47; See also: Joan Hart's Dissertation 1981 for an extended analysis of Woelfflin's dissertation where the correct documentation can be found.
  2. http://aesthetics-online.org/?page=symposia

Sources and editions

Joan Hart, "Heuristic Constructs and Ideal Types: The Wölfflin/Weber Connection," in German Art History and Scientific Thought: Beyond Formalism (ed.s Mitchell B. Frank and Daniel Adler), Surrey,UK: Ashgate, 2012, pp. 57-72.

External links

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