The Art Museum in the 19th Century. J. J. Winckelmann’s Influence on the Establishing of the Classical Paradigm of the Art Museum

Essay, 2008

14 Pages



The essay discusses the German philologist, archaeologist and historian J.J. Winckelmann’s theoretical influence on the conception of the Classical museum model as defined and established by the Louvre within the nineteenth-century in Paris. From its initiation, the Louvre would furnish an example for the Metropolitan and for scores of galleries around the world to replicate. This would include the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and the Ancient Iran Museum in Tehran. Winckelmann’s historicism would encourage the implementation of new ideas and practices related to the meaning and connoisseurship of art and aesthetics in Western Europe within nineteenth-century gallery systems as they began to develop new practices for displaying art in which the singling out of specific cultures within an historic hierarchical context would become prominent. (McClellan, 3-4). The essay discusses how Winckelmann’s ideas would inspire a curatorial system and condition of representation of art for the Louvre as the Classical museum paradigm established in the nineteenth-century.

In Book 1 of The History of Ancient Art: ‘The Origins of Art and the Causes of its Difference among Different Nations’ J. J. Winckelmann had brought to light the unique character of each culture from the past based upon the idea that history flowed in cycles of growth and decay. He had set this out in order to understand specific various cultures through individual scrutiny. Central to his forming an understanding of the art of this past had been his process of categorising artworks by dividing them up into a hierarchy of ‘period styles’ rather than as a sequence of artists. Through this, Winckelmann would conceive “ … the history of ancient art as an organic process, dividing it into four periods, each with its own style”. (Hugh Honour, Neo-Classicism (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 59). This would comprise his ‘Life-Cycle’ theory or ‘Cycle of Culture’ theory, which was defined as to proceed from the early or archaic style (before Phidias), through the sublime or grand (Phidias and his contemporaries), the beautiful (Praxiteles to Lysippas); and the long period of imitative style which lasted until the fall of the Roman Empire. (Hugh Honour, Neo-Classicism (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968, 59). (His creation of a history of Greek art and a system of chronological classification in art history in this way resulted in an artistic tradition that still reigns today).

During the late-eighteenth-century, Winckelmann’s ideas on art would influence the Classical or traditional art museum proto-typical framework of the nineteenth-century. While the theoretical implications within the Enlightenment period of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theories had encouraged much of the late eighteenth-century art cognoscenti within Western Europe to think differently about beauty in relation to art, the rigid classicism and hierarchising contained within Winckelmann’s theories would be influential for the invention of a system of curatorship that strongly would shape the institutional framework of the Louvre as the first real public art museum. From the nineteenth-century the Louvre would furnish an example for the Metropolitan and for scores of galleries around the world to replicate. Winckelmann’s importance for the proto-typical nineteenth-century art museum model would stem from his interest in the beauty of ancient Greek civilisation and in classifying art by hierarchy. Preceding his ideas, art galleries had “… juxtaposed works by different artists and of different genres” (Nancy Einreinhofer, The American Art Museum, Elitism and Democracy (London and Washington: Leicester University Press, 1997), 21-2) which had been based upon the idea that “… a painting contained the four elements of colour, design, composition, and expression and that one could best study painting by comparing each individual element”. (Nancy Einreinhofer, The American Art Museum, Elitism and Democracy (London and Washington: Leicester University Press, 1997), 21-2). After Winckelmann, however, during the nineteenth-century, this method was replaced by a system of hanging paintings which could reveal the “… historical evolution within national schools”. (McClellan, 3).

During his lifetime, Winckelmann had felt that the art of Classical Greece had established an eternal benchmark for ‘ideal beauty’, which was based upon the physical attributes of its own race and believed that the “… decline of modern art was such that it doomed the contemporary artist to inferiority”. (Alex Potts, “Political Attitudes and the Rise of Historicism in Art Theory,” Art History (June, 1978): 194) In his History of Ancient Art (1764), called the first modern art historical text because it “framed” the subjects of history and aesthetics “heteronomously” (Kevin Parker, “Winckelmann, Historical Difference, and the Problem of the Boy,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 25.4 (1992): 525) Winckelmann had stressed that the art of his time was inferior in beauty and perfection to the art of the past and held that if one could position a love of Classical antiquity (particularly Greek sculpture) above all else they would ennoble themselves and improve society. Although his writings on the art of classical antiquity had been part of a long tradition of studying the Classical past which stretched back to the Renaissance, before Winckelmann, “… each generation did not accept identical aspects of the classical past; each selected only that part relevant to its own ideas”. (David Irwin, Winckelmann Writings on Art (London and New York: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1972), 11). In contrast, Winckelmann, however, gazed back at the past and took it as a whole. This had encouraged created a new way to look at art.

In the mid-eighteenth-century, it had been quite common for speculative philosophical discussions regarding the patterns of artistic development to take place. These were normally held by philosophers and were not usually related to the connoisseurship of art and painting. Winckelmann’s role and achievement for the nineteenth-century was to unite the two. (Alex Potts, “Winckelmann’s Construction of History,” Art History, 5.4 (1982): 377-407).

By the late eighteenth-century, Winckelmann’s view on the history of art would filter into Western European cultural theory, and:

… began to achieve … widespread currency in the late 1780s. It then became enshrined in two major ‘standard’ publications on the visual arts, F.W.B. von Ramdohr’s Uber Mahlerei und Bildhauerkunst in Rom of 1787, and Watelet and Levesque’s Dictionnaire des Arts de Peinture, Sculpture et Gravure of 1788-91, incorporated in the Encyclopedie Methodique. (Potts, “Political Attitudes,” 194)

Winckelmann’s view on the beauty of the ancient Greek world gave birth to a discussion on the rise and fall of art within an historical framework, which became cited as a ‘reliable index’ for the broader cultural debates that would consist of many shades of estimation of the different levels of artistic perfection existing within Western European culture and society. In relation to this, the validity of Winckelmann’s ‘LifeCycle’ theory was debated and the question was raised regarding whether contemporary developments in European art and culture could gainsay his theory as civilisation attempted to transform itself from its antique origins. From around this time, in Western Europe a decisive shift for museum and gallery presentation would occur as galleries previously organised to reveal the wealth of “princely rule” became occluded or “superseded”, (McClellan, 3-4.) and within Vienna’s Imperial Gallery, its ornate baroque gallery was transformed into the first historical survey museum, as all work belonging to an individual artist was demarcated and distinguished from other artists in the group accordingly. (McClellan, 4.) Within this, artworks through their juxtapositioning, were classified and displayed by “style” and “national school”. (McClellan, 4.) Paintings belonging to different schools would be separated from each other as new aesthetic categories would be based on a new hierarchical order. This curatorial practice in the gallery would begin to take shape within the foremost centres for public art display such as the Louvre in Paris, which would incorporate into its methods for displaying art the essence behind Winckelmann’s life-cycle theory by taking the idea of hierarchy and historical classification as a way to position its collection of art from collapsed (or vanished) civilisations of the world with newfound resonance.


In accord with Winckelmann’s love of Classical antiquity, the Louvre’s would ‘affect’ a sober classicism which could preserve and uphold the values of ancient Greece and Rome, which, for the French would be associated with Classical beauty, truth and “… to the creation or restoration of a static and harmonious society…”.( Honour, 13.) As a result, neo-classicism, as Blaney-Brown would point out “… and its values of logic, harmony and proportion…” (David Blaney Brown, Romanticism (London: Phaidon Press, 2001), 9.) in France, from the late eighteenth-century would find its perfect expression in the Louvre which, as Honour states, “… had been founded on unfaltering principles, a dream of classic perfection…”. (Honour, 13.) Curatorially, by focusing on unique historical periods of art through its methods for displaying art the Louvre would attempt to reveal that each culture has its own distinct character. It would do this by constituting linearly, in a chronological and sequential series of rational progressions, Winckelmann’s Life-Cycle theory, - (that had charted art’s history from a state of healthy youthfulness towards maturity, decadence, old age and death) to display its artworks from all over the world as a series of hierarchical and progressive accomplishments. This new and extremely influential curatorial practice would parallel Winckelmann’s rationalist discussions on the hierarchy of cultures and period styles brought forward by his predilection for Hellenic Classicism. As a result, after Winckelmann, within the Louvre’s neo-classical ceremonial architecture, Classical art would be situated at the beginning of its display narrative of artworks. In this context, the placing of artworks in a sequential order that could comparatively present human achievement as an historical development of period styles of art Classical art at the start of the hierarchy (as a benchmark of quality) would be used to tell of the evolution of artistic accomplishments of various civilisations throughout the world. By situating Classical art at the beginning of its curatorial narrative the Louvre would define the Classical structure of the nineteenth-century or traditional art museum model. Upon entry to the Louvre, visitors would have to pass Classical Greek sculpture before finding French sculpture at the other end of the Louvre’s narrative of art, that is, at the other end of the gallery. (Gabriele Bartz and Eberhard Konig’s Art and Architecture: Louvre, Cologne, Konemann Verlagesellschaft, 2005.) As a result of employing the exhibition space of the museum as the symbol of ‘Western culture’ in this way, the Louvre would construct its narratives of legitimacy. Yet against this new paradigm for art display, many, particularly in the nineteenth-century, had opposed it.

Rather than support the Museum’s imbrication of ancient cultures, a number of artists and writers had envisaged a creative and spiritual freedom derived more from the data of human practical experience than from a history of art, which had positioned Classical art so prominently which, for them, would exist as an historical limitation. Pparticularly within the arts a widespread rejection of the new institutionalised forms of authority would occur. Theories and prescriptive doctrines such as Winckelmann’s, (which had nominated that art’s history be a history of styles rather than of artists) had existed as anathema for those not wishing to be judged by the standards of a supposedly superior race enforced by the institution. As a notable dissident of the idea of the nineteenthcentury museum as defined by the Louvre, French writer Quatremere de Quincy would intransigently develop his criticism and analysis of its imbrication of Classical art. Quatremere in particular, castigating the Louvre as existing as a paradigm of alienated art in his Les Considerations morales sur la destination des ouvrages de l’art (1815), had condemned the Louvre’s iconographic nationalism through the imbrication of Classical statues.(Jean-Louis Deotte, “Rome, the Archetypal Museum, and the Louvre, the Negation of Division,” in Donald Preziosi and Clare Farago (eds.), Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 51-65. For him, these would epitomise barbarity as they functioned to displace and dislodge the archetypal open-air museum of ancient Rome which would possess the “universal knowledge” belonging only to antiquity. For Quatremere, the continuity of Rome as the archetypal art museum had been broken down by the Louvre’s displacement of the treasures of antiquity, which had existed previously in its vastness as the ‘universal knowledge’ of the world. (Jean-Louis Deotte, 56-59.) This was seen as problematic due to the Louvre’s system of hierarchy/classification or “continuity” which would present art as a “complete series” in itself. (Jean-Louis Deotte, 54.)

Regardless, in the years immediately following the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars, an ever-increasing quantity of people from abroad visited France. Many of them would have almost certainly have come to Paris to visit its cultural institutions of which the Louvre would exist as a dominant attraction for those with a connoisseurial desire to experience much of the world’s art, culture and civilisation.(Theodore Zeldin ‘France 1848-1945’ Intellect and Pride, Oxford University Press, 1980, 86.)


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The Art Museum in the 19th Century. J. J. Winckelmann’s Influence on the Establishing of the Classical Paradigm of the Art Museum
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Art, Museums, Curatorship, History, Philosophy
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PhD, BA Hons. Cyrus Manasseh (Author), 2008, The Art Museum in the 19th Century. J. J. Winckelmann’s Influence on the Establishing of the Classical Paradigm of the Art Museum, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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