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Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

    Full Name: Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim

    Other Names:

    • Gotthold Lessing

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 22 January 1729

    Date Died: 15 February 1781

    Place Born: Kamenz, Saxony, Germany

    Place Died: Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): eighteenth century (dates CE) and Enlightenment (18th-century western movement)

    Career(s): art critics


    Enlightenment dramatist, critic and art writer; author of one of the most important 18th-century analysis of a Greek sculpture. Born in Kamenz, or Camenz, Upper Lusatia, Saxony, Germany Lessing’s father was a Lutheran clergy who educated his son personally during his early years. After Latin school in Kamenz, Lessing entered the school at St. Afra at Meissen at age twelve. He attended the University of Leipzig from 1746 to 1748 studying theology and the lectures in philology, archaeology and art of Johann Friedrich Christ and Johann August Ernesti (1707-1781). He moved to Berlin where he changed his course of study to medicine. Lessing became the literary critic for the Vossische Zeitung in 1751, a popular journal of Enlightenment ideas, which established himself as a writer. He brought out his first collected writings in 1753, Schriften, eventually running to six volumes by 1755. His Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend (1759-65), a series of critical essays written in the form of letters, emerged as an important art-critical work. In it, Lessing chastised the arts legislation of Joachim Christoph Gottsched (1700-1766), connecting him (unfairly) with Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) as part of rigid French classicism’s rules. Along with his friends, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), the publisher Christoph Friedrich Nicolai (1733-1811) and writer (and Prussian officer) E. C. von Kleist (1715-1759), Lessing emphasized the free spirit of the artist as opposed to the Academie‘s constrictive regulations. Lessing traveled throughout the German states until 1760, when the Prussian general Friedrich Bogislav von Tauentzien (1710-1791) hired him as his secretary in Breslau (modern Wrocław, Poland). The General introduced him to Prussian society and Lessing built a large personal library. He left the general’s service in 1765 in hopes of finding another librarian position in Dresden or Berlin, but none was forthcoming. The following year he wrote one of his most important works for art history, Laokoön: oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie, which Lessing intended to be the first of a larger esthetic theory on the arts. He moved to Hamburg in 1767 where he tried to found a national theater for the German states. His play Minna von Barnhelm appeared in 1767, the first German comedy revolving around contemporary German life. His Hamburgische Dramaturgie his commentary on the performances of the National Theatre and a relentless campaign against Gottsched, appeared between 1767-9. It is the first modern handbook for the dramatist, establishing German drama with a unique identity. In 1770 while on his way to Italy, he accepted the librarian position to the Prince of Brunswick at Wolfenbüttel. There he wrote his six-volume Zur Geschichte und Literatur (On History and Literature) 1773-77. Only in Wolfenbüttel did Lessing marry, Eva Konig, the widow of a Hamburg merchant. In 1778 she died in childbirth. His later works included Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts of 1780. While on a trip to Brunswick in 1781 he died suddenly. Lessing’s Laokoön is the first counter argument to the dominant Enlightenment history of classical art, Gedanken uber die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der malerey und Bilderkunst by Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Choosing a relatively minor classical work, the Laokoön (Rome, Vatican, Museo Pio-Clementino), Lessing contested Winckelmann’s assertion that Laocoön’s gentle expression of pain was emblematic of Greek Stoicism, Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” insisting rather that the expression was due to the moment that the sculptor had chosen to represent. The larger issue for Lessing was that art and poetry were subject to different rules, not the same Ut pictura poesis argument as Winckelmann had asserted. Though little of this notion is original to Lessing, it was he who made it popular. The painter and art lecturer Henry Fuseli mentioned Lessing’s work in his arts lectures and the French archaeologist Antoine Quatremère de Quincy was influenced by him. Herder, however, ever at odds with Lessing, insisted on a separate theory for sculpture as a tactile art, distinct from visual art in his Plastik of 1778 (written in 1768-70). Lessing appears to adumbrate modern semiotics when he argues that the sign a specific medium can represent is limited to its mode. Laocoön (i.e., the man represented) cannot cry out because sculpture’s mode is the static marble: poetry or drama is the only one which can directly represent Laocoön’s pain. While reading a medieval treatise on painting, Schedula diversarum artium by the monk Theophilus, Lessing discovered the mention of the technique of oil painting. His 1774 essay, “Vom Alter der Oelmalerey aus dem Theophilus Presbyter,” (The Early History of Oil Painting in Theophilus Presbyter) successfully discredited the myth, popular since Giorgio Vasari, that Jan van Eyck had invented oil painting. Despite Lessing’s findings, acceptance of this myth died hard. Johann Dominico Fiorillo in his 1803 work on painting, über das Alter der ölmahlerey, still insisted on the Vasari story of Jan van Eyck as the inventor.

    Selected Bibliography

    Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend. 4 vols. Berlin: F. Nicolai, 1759-1766; Laokoon: oder, über die grenzen der mahlerey und poesie … Mit beyläufigen erläuterungen verschiedener punkte der alten kunstgeschichte. “Erster theil.” Berlin: C. F. Voss, 1766; Hamburgische Dramaturgie. 2 vols. Hamburg: J. H. Cramer (of Bremen), 1767-68; Zur Geschichte und Litteratur: aus dem Schätzen der Herzoglichen Bibliothek zu Wolfenbüttel. 6 vols. Braunschweig: Waysenhaus, 1773-1781; [oil painting comment] Vom Alter der Oelmalerey aus dem Theophilus Presbyter. Braunschweig: Waysenhauss, 1774; Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts. Berlin: C. F. Voss und Sohn, 1780.


    May, Kurt. Lessings und Herders kunsttheoretische Gedanken in ihrem Zusammenhang. Berlin: E. Ebering, 1923; Gombrich. E. H. “Lessing.” Proceedings of the British Academy 43 (1957): 133-56; Allison, Henry E. Lessing and the Enlightenment: his Philosophy of Religion and its Relation to Eighteenth-century Thought. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966; Bieber, Margarete. Laocoon: The Influence of the Group Since its Rediscovery. 2nd ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967; Brown, F. Andrew. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. New York: Twayne, 1971; Ugrinsky, Alexej., ed. Lessing and the Enlightenment New York: Greenwood Press, 1986; Nisbet, H. B. “Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim.” Encyclopedia of Esthetics 3: 144-47; Albrecht, Wolfgang. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1997; [regarding Lessing’s comment on development of oil painting:] Pächt, Otto. Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting. London, Harvey Miller publishers, 1999, p. 12, and Brinkman, Pim. Het geheim van Van Eyck: aantekeningen bij de uitvinding van het olieverven. Zwolle: Waanders, 1993, pp. 121-133.


    "Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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