Architect and seminal architectural historian for the Baroque. Gurlitt hailed from an illustrious creative family of assimilated Jews. He was named for his great uncle, the well-known composer [Gustav] Cornelius Gurlitt (1820-1901). His father was Louis Gurlitt (1812-1879), a Danish/German landscape painter and his mother Elisabeth Lewald (Gurlitt), sister of the writer Fanny Lewald (1811-1889). The conductor and composer Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972) was also a relative. The younger Gurlitt was initially apprenticed to a carpenter before studying architecture at the Berliner Bauakademie and between 1869-1872 at the Polytechnikum in Stuttgart were he studied esthetics, under Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-1887) and art history under Wilhelm Lübke. He became a practicing architect in 1871. However he abandoned this to study art history, under Anton Springer in Leipzig. After seeing the Baroque architecture in Dresden, he realized how poor contemporary sources for Baroque art were. Appreciation for the baroque was at a low ebb; the style was almost universally regarded as decadent since the enlightenment writings of Francesco Milizia. He toured Prague and Berlin studying additional examples of art of the period. Gurlitt joined the staff of the Dresden Kunstgewerbemuseum in 1879. Alwin Schultz commissioned Gurlitt to write the Baroque sections for the updating of Geschichte der bildenden Künste (History of the Pictorial Arts) left unfinished at the death of Karl Julius Ferdinand Schnaase. In 1883 Gurlitt began publishing his survey of Baroque decorative arts in Germany, Das barock- und rococo-Ornament Deutschlands. To study the original Baroque examples, Gurlitt traveled to Italy where even there scholars greeted him with suspicion. The humble draughtsman he employed to make renderings refused to work on the art of that period. Even Lübke, his former teacher, cautioned him not to squander his time on "Baroque folly." Beginning in 1886, Gurlitt began publishing his survey of Baroque art (Low Countries, France and England in 1886, Italy in 1887, and Germany in 1889) as part of the Geschichte der Baukunst series begun by Franz Kugler, a series in the process of being revised as Geschichte der neuren Baukunst. Gurlitt lectured at the Technische Hochschule (Technical University) Charlottenburg [Berlin] beginning in 1889. In 1893 he succeeded the late Richard Steche as associate professor professor of history at the practical arts. Commensurate with his duties was the continuation of the inventory of the monuments of Saxony. He was promoted to full professor in 1899 where the following year he expanded the program to allow architectural students to achieve Ph.D's. similar to his own situation. As such, Gurlitt supervised the doctoral thesis of one of the most eminent architect/architectural historians, Hermann Muthesius.
From 1902 Gurlitt lectured on urban planning, among the first at technical universities. As an editor of Stadtbaukunst alter und neuer Zeit (Urban architecture in previous and modern times) he helped get Frühlicht, a radical architectural magazine by the architectural visionary Bruno Taut (1880-1938), published. Gurlitt initially embraced Nazi ideology with the rise of Hitler in 1933. However, the government declared him of Jewish ancestry. An investigation after his death in 1938 determine this to be false and he was buried in the Johannisfriedhof (cemetery) in Dresden. Gurlitt wrote over 90 books and hundreds of articles on all aspects of architecture, art, urban planning and politics. A street in south Dresden is named after him. His brother, Fritz Gurlitt (1854-1893), was a Berlin gallery dealer who represented Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880), among others.
Gurlitt's work marks the beginning of a reevaluation of the Baroque and Rococo in art history. A full treatment of the period came with August Schmarsow in 1887, whose book Barock und Rokoko covered the entire spectrum of baroque art and not just architecture. Even after Gurlitt's publications on the Baroque, the twenty-four year old Heinrich Wölfflin in his study, Renaissance und Barock, 1888, had condemned the full Baroque style (Watkin). Aloïs Riegl began lecturing on the Baroque in 1894 and 1895, though he criticized Gurlitt's studies for avoiding historical background and for defining the term "Baroque" insufficiently. Gurlitt's ideas reject the classicism standard Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) and other architects Schinkel espoused. In his memoirs, Gurlitt wrote that he had always considered himself more an architect than an architectural historian, confiding in Jahn's biographical profile that he feared becoming an academic. Like most pioneers, his appreciation had limitations; he found the work of the great baroque architect Borromini lacking in "intrinsic value." Other advisees of dissertations included Walther Leopold.