Skip to content

Panofsky, Erwin

    Image Credit: Institute of Advanced Study

    Full Name: Panofsky, Erwin

    Other Names:

    • "Pan"

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 30 March 1892

    Date Died: 14 March 1968

    Place Born: Hanover, Germany

    Place Died: Princeton, Mercer, NJ, USA

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): iconography

    Career(s): art historians


    Warburg Institute and Institute for Advanced Study art historian; major exponent of iconography to American scholars. Panofsky was the son of Arnold Panofsky (d. 1914) and Caecilie Solling (Panofsky), wealthy Jews whose fortune came from Silesian mining. He was raised in Berlin, receiving his Abitur in 1910 at the Joachimsthalsche Gymnasium. He spent the years 1910-1914 studying philosophy, philology and art history in Jura, Berlin (where he heard lectures of the art historian Margarete Bieber, who was filling in for Georg Loeschcke), and in Munich. While taking courses at Freiburg Universität, a slightly older student, Kurt Badt, took Panofsky to hear a lecture by the founder of the art history department, Wilhelm Vöge. Panofsky was at once enamored and wrote his dissertation under Vöge in 1914. His topic, Dürer’s artistic theory (Dürers Kunsttheorie: vornehmlich in ihrem Verhaltnis zur Kunsttheorie der Italiener) was published the following year in Berlin as Die Theoretische Kunstlehre Albrecht Dürers. Because of horse-riding accident, he was exempt from military service during World War I. Instead, he attended the seminars of the medievalist Adolph Goldschmidt in Berlin. He married Dorothea “Dora” Mosse (1885-1965), also an art historian from a wealthy family, in 1916. In 1920 his habilitation was accepted in Hamburg on the topic of Michelangelo, the manuscript only rediscovered in 2012. His habilitation in hand, Panofsky was called to chair the art history department of the newly established University of Hamburg in 1920. His first graduate student was Edgar Wind.

    The decade of the 1920s was one of brilliant writing. In Hamburg, Panofsky formed part of a group of cultural intellectuals. He developed an intimate intellectual circle with Fritz Saxl with whom he published a 1923 monograph on Dürer’s Melencholia I, Aby M. Warburg, and the philosopher and art theorist Ernst Cassirer, centered around Warburg’s Institute (see Warburg entry). Panofsky, a “young, witty, acerbic, conceited genius” according to one student, William Hecksher, developed an immediate student following. Two early papers, “Der Begriff des Kunstwollens,” (1920) and “Über das Verhaltnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie,” (1925) demonstrate Panofsky’s theoretical heritage to Cassirer and Aloïs Riegl. In 1924, his book Idea was published, a discussion of the ideas of the intellect vis-à-vis the imitations of the world of perception. His overt intelligence won him the first full professor of art history at Hamburg (ordentlicher Professor) in 1926. In 1927 he published Perspektive als symbolische Form, a dazzling blend of personal theoretics and wide-ranging knowledge of Renaissance art and thought, built around Cassirer’s neo-Kantian theories of “symbolic forms.” In the academic year 1931-1932, Panofsky paid a visit to the United States representing Warburg’s think tank, the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg and teaching at New York University. The Nazis’ assumption of power in Germany forced Jews out of academic positions; Panofsky returned to Germany in the summer of 1933 to supervise oral examinations and dissertations for his remaining students before permanently emigrated to the United States in 1934. He published his most famous article, an analysis of the Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck, in the Burlington Magazine the same year. After a year teacing at New York University, Panofsky became the first permanent professor of the School of Historical Studies of the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N. J., a private research center near Princeton University created so that Jewish scholars (primarily) could work near the University, but not as faculty.

    Panofsky’s move from Hamburg to the United States coincided with a methodological transformation. In Panofsky’s early career, he experimented with various approaches to his subject. By the time he had settled in Princeton, he had arrived at the “conviction that the methodological problems with which he had once grappled had been successfully resolved.” (Moxey, p. 93). In 1939 Panofsky published Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, book which, among other essays, argued for the distinction between iconology and iconography. His 1943 book on Albrecht Dürer, combined many of his published ideas on the artist together with a sharp intuitive eye to Dürer’s prints. Panofsky next issued a primary-source document and commentary on the Abbot Suger and the founding of the Gothic style, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis, in 1946. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism appeared in 1951, a book about Parisian architectural relationships with the principles of a scholastic summa. His 1947-1948 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard appeared as the 2-volume monograph on northern Renaissance art, Early Netherlandish Painting, in 1953. It was a detailed iconographical study demonstrating how works of visual realism could incorporate elaborate Christian symbolism convincingly. Among the book’s many revelations was the discovery that the famous Arnolfini double portrait by Jan van Eyck was a wedding document. Rensselaer W. Lee, chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University from 1956, convinced Panofsky to begin teaching regularly at the University as well.

    Panofsky’s work at the Institute for Advanced Study attracted other art historians to study with him. These included Heckscher in 1936, Louis Grodecki in 1951, J. G. van Gelder, 1953, and Léon M. J. Bob Delaissé in 1959. He presented Gottesman lectures at Uppsala University which appeared in 1960 as the book Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. The lectures posed the (now) generally accepted notion that smaller “renaissances” (re-births) of the classical happened periodically in medieval art and literature before the major one in Italy. He retired from the Institute emeritus in 1963 and was succeeded by Millard Meiss. Panofsky was immediately appointed Samuel Morse Professor of Fine Arts at New York University. His lectures there resulted in the 1964 book Tomb Sculpture. His wife, Dora, died in 1965 and the 73-year-old Panofsky married the 36-year-old art historian Gerda Soergel [Sörgel] (b.1929) the following year. Two years later he suffered a series of heart attacks and died. Panofsky’s posthumous literary output continued for twenty years. Gerda Panofsky-Soergel continued to update his Abbot Suger book. The six Wrightsman lectures he delivered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were issued as Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic in 1969. His collected essays appeared in 1995. A son, Wolfgang Panofsky (1919-2007), was a Manhattan-Project physicist and Nobel-Prize winner. Panofsky’s many students, in addition to Heckscher and Wind, included Hugo Buchthal, Edgar Breitenbach, Ingeborg Any Auerbach, Horst Woldemar Janson, Lotte Brand Foerster, Ursula Hoff, Robert A. Koch, and Walter W. Horn. His papers are housed at the Archives of American Art, Washgington, D. C. In 2012, his habilitation, thought to have been lost was discovered at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in files of the founding director, Ludwig H. Heydenreich.

    Though Panofsky is considered the “ur-iconologist,” his methodology was diverse and is difficult to summarize. Primarily a scholar of medieval and northern Renaissance art, he is most frequently associated with the concept of iconography, matching the subject-matter of works of art to a symbolic syntax of meaning drawn from literature and other art works. His work broadened into a theory of iconology; what Germain Bazin characterized as “the work of art as a ‘symptom'” (Bazin 217). However, Panofsky was a broad thinker (in the tradition of Cassirer) whose work evolved over a period of time. Another acknowledged debt was to Riegl, the Austrian art historian who espoused the notion of Kunstwollen. Panofsky’s notion of perspective as a metaphor in Renaissance art occupied his thinking for an extended period (and resulted in at least one full book). He contended that theories of proportion were generally too elaborate to be applied uniformly to actual works of art. Panofsky’s iconology did not preclude a sensitivity for formal considerations or style. The conceptual framework of any period, he wrote, is always subservient to the underlying the style of the art. His use of iconology as the principle tool of art analysis brought him critics. In 1946, van Gelder criticized Panofsky’s iconology as putting too much emphasis on the symbolic content of the work of art, neglecting its formal aspects and the work as a unity of form and content. Otto Pächt, the Vienna art historian, pointed out in a celebrated book review in 1956 using the case of the van Eyck Arnolfini and his Wife painting, that iconology would elucidate this important work very little. Indeed, Panofsky’s conclusions on this double portrait were essentially overturned in 1998 by Lorne Campbell. Panofsky himself had mixed feelings about the success of his method (Cassidy). A scholar who rejoiced in learning and his own mastery, he wrote at times to his medievalist colleagues in Latin (Hourihan).

    Selected Bibliography

    [correspondence:] Wuttke, Dieter, ed. Erwin Panofsky: Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968, eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden. 5 vols. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2001- ; [dissertation:] Dürers Kunsttheorie: vornehmlich in ihrem Verhaltnis zur Kunsttheorie der Italiener. Freiburg, 1914; [habilitation:] Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels. Hamburg, 1920, published, De Gruyter, 2014; “Der Begriff der Kunstwollens.” Zeitschrift für ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 14 (1920): 321-29; and Saxl, Fritz. Dürer’s “Melancholia I”: Eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchungen. Leipzig and Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1923; Die deutsche Plastik des elften bis dreizehnten Jahrhunderts. 2 vols. Munich: K. Wolff, 1924; Idea: Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der alteren Kunsttheorie Leipzig/Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1924; “Die Perspektive als symbolische Form.” Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1925/25: 258-330, published separately, Die Perspektive als symbolische Form. Leipzig and Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1927, English, Perspective as Symbolic Form. New York: Zone Books, 1991; Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffe in der neueren Kunst. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1930 [his first iconographical study]; and Saxl, Fritz. “Classical Mythology in Medieval Art.” Metropolitan Museum Studies 4 (1932-33): 228-80; “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.” Burlington Magazine 64 (1934): 117-27; Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939; [abstract of a paper delivered] “Traffic Accidents in the Relation between Texts and Pictures.” College Art Journal 1 (1942): 69; Albrecht Dürer. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943; “Renaissance and Renascences.” Kenyon Review 6 (1944): 201-36; Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946; Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Latrobe, PA: Archabbey Press, 1951; Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953; Meaning in the Visual Arts. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955; The Iconography of Correggio’s Camera di San Paolo. London, 1961; Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. 2 vols. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1960; “The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963): 273-88; Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini. Edited by Horst W. Janson. New York: Abrams, 1964; and Saxl, Fritz. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art. Edited for publication by Raymond Klibansky. London: Nelson, 1964; Problems in Titian, Mostly Iconographic. New York: New York University Press, 1969.


    [the literature on Panofsky is legion. In particular, see:] [review of Panofsky book] Pächt, Otto. “Panofsky’s ‘Early Netherlandish Painting’-I.” The Burlington Magazine 98, no. 637 (April 1956): 110-116; [regarding Panofsky’s years with Vöge:] Panofsky, Erwin. “Vorwort.” in, Bildhauer des Mittelalters: Gesammelte Studien von Wilhelm Vöge. Berlin: Gebrüder Mann, 1958. pp. ix-xxxii, English, Hassold, Ernest. “Wilhelm Vöge: A Biographical Memoir.” Art Journal 28 no. 1 (Fall 1968): 27-37; A Commerative Gathering for Erwin Panofsky at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in Association with the Institute for Advanced Study, March 21, 1968; Heckscher, William. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 28 (1969): 8; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, pp. 4, 18, 55-6, 61-2, 70 cited, 100-101, 51 n. 104, 62 n. 142; Dilly, Heinrich. Kunstgeschichte als Institution: Studien zur Geschichte einer Diziplin. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979, pp. 13-19; Podro, Michael. The Critical Historians of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 178-208; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 66-7, 73; Holly, Michael Ann. Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984; Wölfflin, Heinrich. Heinrich Wölfflin, 1864-1945: Autobiographie, Tagebücher und Briefe. Joseph Ganter, ed. 2nd ed. Basel: Schwabe & Co., 1984, p. 493, 501; Heckscher, William S. “Reminiscences of Lotte Brand Philip.” Tribute to Lotte Brand Philip: Art Historian and Detective. New York: Abaris Books, 1985, p. 9, mentioned; Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, pp. 216-225, 540; German Essays on Art History. Gert Schiff, ed. New York: Continuum, 1988, pp. lxi-lxv, 280; Cassierer, Panofsky, and Warburg: Symbol, Art and History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989; Cassady, Brenden, ed. Iconography at the Crossroads: Papers from the Colloquium Sponsored by the Index of Christian Art, Princeton University, 23-24 March 1990. Princeton, NJ: Index of Christian Art, Princeton University, 1993; Landauer, Carl. “Erwin Panofsky and the Renascence of the Renaissance.” Renaissance Quarterly 47 (Summer 1994): 255-281; Heckscher, William. “A Memoir of Erwin Panofsky,” in Panofsky, Erwin. Three Essays on Style. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 2, pp. 484-497; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 294-99; Moxey, Keith. “Perspective, Panofsky and the Philosophy of History.” Chapter IV of The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox and Power in Art History. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000, pp. 90-102; Wuttke, Dieter. “Einleitung: Erwin Panofskys Leben und Werke (1892 bis 1968).” Erwin Panofsky Korrespondez. vol. 1 Wiesband: Harrassowitz, 2001, pp. ix-xxxi; Hourihan, Colum. “They Stand on His Shoulders: Morey, Iconography and the Index of Christian Art.” in Hourihan, Colum, ed. Insights and Interpretations: Studies in Celebration of the Eighty-fifth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art. Princeton, NJ: Index of Christian Art/Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 11; Levine, Emily J., Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013;[obituaries:] “Erwin Panofsky, Versatile Art Historian and Princeton Institute Scholar, Dies.” New York Times March 16, 1968, p. 32; Wormald, Francis. “Prof Erwin Panofsky, Historian of art.” Times (London) April 2, 1968, p. 10.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Panofsky, Erwin." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: