Historian of medieval and Renaissance art; among the key group of German art historians to recast the conception of the middle ages in their scholarship. The son of a salesman, Beenken studied in Freiburg and Munich, the latter where he wrote his dissertation under Heinrich Wölfflin on the topic of Enlightenment sculpture, Die allgemeine Gestaltungsproblem in der Baukunst des deutschen Klassizismus (1920). Afterward he turned his attention toward German sculpture of the Middle Ages. His habilitation Die Rottweiler: eine deutsche Bildhauerschule des 14. Jahrhunderts was written in Leipzig under Wilhelm Pinder in 1922. In 1924 he published Romanische Skulptur in Deutschland (11. und 12. Jahrhundert) his epic on Romanesque sculpture. An anticipated volume on the thirteenth century never appeared. A stipend at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence in 1925 allowed him to research Florentine architecture of the 11th century, as well as Masaccio, the brothers van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. The youngest lecturer in Leipzig (1927-1948), closely allied with Professors Leo Bruhn (1884-1957) and Theodor Hetzer he was made Ordinarius in 1932. In the mid-1930s, Beenken and Erwin Panofsky entered into a celebrated debate between the methods of connoisseurship and iconography as the most reliable way of interpretation and to determine authenticity. The battleground was the Ghent Altarpiece and the opening salvos came when Panofsky attacked Beenken's 1933 analysis of the van Eyck work. The controversy ranged in print (see bibliography, below) until 1938. Beenken returned to medieval art with his book Meister von Naumburg in 1939. At the same time, Beenken's research turned increasing to 19th-Century art, but his reputation in this area was thwarted by events. In 1943-1944 he finished a work on conception of buildings in the German Romantic era, Schöpferische Bauideen der deutschen Romantik, but was not published until 1952. His Das neunzehnte Jahrhundert in der deutschen Kunst (German Art and the Nineteenth Century), 1944, was overshadowed by the World War II and afterward by Hans Sedlmayr's conceptual book Verlust der Mitte of 1948. After the war, he moved to the Technical College of Aachen in 1949. He died during a study abroad in 1952. A portion of his archive is at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. Beenken ranks among the great German medievalists, whose members include Pinder, Richard Hamann, Panofsky, and Hans Jantzen. His heritage was that of the early art historians, such as Aloïs Riegl, Wölfflin and August Schmarsow, who used stylistic analysis to find spiritual meanings in art. He believed the "cultural sciences" could produce an overall historical image. In a memorial volume for the Harvard medievalist A. Kingsley Porter, Beenken argued for an internal logic of meaning derived from the shape of artworks. He expanded the term "style," connecting it to peoples and cultures. Initially Beenken hoped that National Socialism would solve this problems that Capitalism and individualism had created for post-medieval art and society. However, Beenken later stated openly his hopes for Germany's defeat; as victors, he declared, the Nazis would have been irresponsible.
Beenken, Hermann Theodor
[Ghent Altarpiece debate:] (Beenken) "Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Genter Altars, Hubert und Jan van Eyck." Wallraf-Richartz Jahrbuch (1933-34): 176-132.; (Beenken) "The Ghent van Eyck Re-examined." Burlington Magazine 63 (1933): 64-72; (Panofsky) "The Friedsam Annunciation and the Problem of the Ghent Altarpiece." Art Bulletin 18 (1935): 432-73; (Beenken) "Der Stand des Hubert van Eyck Problems: Fragen um den genter Altar." Oud Holland 53 no. 1 (1936): 7-33; (Beenken) "The Annunciation of Petrus Cristus in the Metropolitan Museum and the Problem of Hubert van Eyck." Art Bulletin 19 (June 1937): 220-41, (reply by Erwin Panofsky) "Once More the Friedsam Annunciation and the Problem of the Ghent Altarpiece." Art Bulletin 20 (December 1938): 419-42; [other Beenken literature:] "Portrait of Perugino by Raphael." The Burlington Magazine 66 (March 1935): 142; Romanische Skulptur in Deutschland (11. und 12. Jahrhundert). Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1924; Bildwerke des bamberger Doms aus dem 13. Jahrhundert. Leipzig: H. Schmidt & C. Günther, 1934; Hubert und Jan van Eyck. Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1941; Der Meister von Naumburg. Berlin: Rembrandt-Verlag, 1939; Das neunzehnte Jahrhundert in der deutschen Kunst: Aufgaben und Gehalte Versuch einer Rechenschaft. Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1944; Schöpferische Bauideen der deutschen Romantik. Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1952.
Wölfflin, Heinrich. Heinrich Wölfflin, 1864-1945: Autobiographie, Tagebücher und Briefe. Joseph Ganter, ed. Basel: Schwabe & Co., 1982, p. 489; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. 2nd. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007, pp. 18-2.