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Schlegel, August Wilhelm

    Full Name: Schlegel, August Wilhelm

    Other Names:

    • August Schlegel

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 10 March 1772

    Date Died: 12 January 1829

    Place Born: Hanover, Germany

    Place Died: Bonn, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): art theory

    Career(s): educators


    Romantic theorist of art and literature; wrote an art history 1801-1802 and appointed to one of the early professorships of art history (1817). Schlegel was the son of Johann Adolph Schlegel, a Lutheran pastor with a minor literary career, and Christiane Erdmuthe Hübsch (Schlegel). His uncle was the dramatist Johann Elias Schlegel. The young Schlegel graduated from secondary school in Hannover before entering Georg-August-Universität zu Göttingen in 1786. He switched from theology to Classical philology, studying under Christian Gottlob Heyne (1729-1812), and aesthetics graduating in 1791. Schlegel’s interested was always literature, but among his early art writings was a discussion in the 1791 Akademie der schönen Redekünste, published by Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794), of Friedrich Schiller”s “Die Künstler” (The Artists, 1789). Exchanges with his younger brother, the eventual art writer Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel led to a sharpening of his critical acumen. After private tutoring and a failure to earn a diplomatic appointment, Schlegel married Caroline Michaelis Böhmer (1763-1809), whom he had known in Göttingen–and rescued from political imprisonment in Mainz in 1793–in 1795. The pair moved to Jena (at Schiller’s suggestion) in 1796, their home a centrum for Romantic intellectuals there. He contributed to Die Horen published by Schiller during 1795 through 1797. In 1798 he was appointed a visiting professor at the university in Jena (today the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität). He and his brother founded and edited the periodical Athenaeum: Eine Zeitschrift for the same years (through 1800). Here art criticism began to appear. Most important among these was a piece, coauthored with Caroline, “Die Gemälde,” a dialogue espousing an approach combining theory and history with poetic descriptions of works of art. Schlegel also authored an essay on John Flaxman’s outline illustrations, championing what he called their hieroglyphic simplicity and poetic potential. These essays were highly influential. Schlegel’s interest in religious art from the Renaissance, was the topic for his poem of 1800, Bund der Kirche mit den Künsten, espousing the reinvigoration of the arts through service to the Roman Catholic Church. Schlegel left the rather provincial Jena in 1800 and Caroline (divorced 1803–she marrying the philosopher F. W. J. Schelling,1775-1854) for Berlin. In 1801 he delivered his theories in a now more worked-out form as “the Berlin Lectures on Literature and Art” (“Vorlesungen über schöne Litteratur und Kunst” (1801-1802). He and the Romantic art writer Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) edited and contributed to the Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1802. Schlegel and his brother were participants in the famous soireés of Johanna Henrietta Schopenhauer in Weimar in the early years of the nineteenth century. In 1804 Madame de Staël offered him a stipend to join her household as her German literature advisor tutor to her children. He lived with the compound at Coppet, Madame de Staël’s estate near Lausanne, Switzerland. This allowed travel to Italy, Austria, France, and Geneva. In Rome, his essay on the German artistic community there (and particularly Gottlieb Schick), published 1805, raised their profile. Schlegel published his Über dramatische Kunst und Litteratur: Vorlesungen beginning in 1809 and it was quickly translated into French, English (1815), and Italian. The work established German literary theory and criticism as model for writers of the nineteenth century (Sauer). Schlegel followed Madame de Staël around Europe as she was forced to flee Napoleon’s rule. He moved to Stockholm to become secretary to Crown Prince Bernadotte of Sweden. He asserted the nobilizing “von” in his name from 1813, asserting the patent of nobility granted to the Schlegels by Emperor Ferdinand III in the seventeenth century. Schlegel received an appointment to the University in Berline, but his marriage to the 28-year-old Sophie Paulus, a professor’s daughter in Heidelberg. He negotiated an appointment instead at the newly-established university in Bonn in literature and art history in 1817. Schlegel concluded his career in Bonn, but without his wife who never left her parents’ home. By the time of his death, the Romantic impulse had been supplanted and Schlegel was largely forgotten. His Berlin Lectures were published posthumously in 1884. His papers are housed at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden. The Berlin Lectures posit an historical view of art, elevating the Middle Ages (and such ‘romantics’ as Shakespeare and Dante) as antidotes to the severe rationalism of post-Reformation Germany and French Enlightenment. His theories followed Baumgarten the text ending in mystical terminology. Schlegel, along with Marc-Antoine (Abbé) Laugier (1713-1769) in France and William Gilpin in England, were the first to reevaluate Gothic art, elevating it to a positive conception (Grodecki). A polymath, he is also credited as the founder of Sanskrit studies in Germany.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Schlegel, Caroline. “Die Gemählde.” Athenäum 2 no. 1 (1799): 39-151; “Über Zeichnungen zu Gedichten und John Flaxmans Umrisse.” Athenäum 2 no. 2 (1799): 193-246; “Schreiben an Goethe über einige Arbeiten in Rom lebender Künstler. Im Sommer 1805.” Intelligenzblatt der Allgemeinen Literature-Zeitung, Jena, (1805): 120-121; Kritische Schriften, 2 vols. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1828; August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s sämmtliche Werke 12 vols Leipzig: Weidmann, 1846-1847; A. W. Schlegels Vorlesungen über schöne litteratur und kunst. Heilbronn: Gebr. Henninger, 1884.


    Waetzoldt, Wilhelm. Deutsche Kunsthistoriker von Sandrart bis Rumohr. Berlin: Bruno Hessling, 1965, pp. 232-252; Pochat, Götz. “August Wilhelm Schlegel als Vorläufer einer hermeneutischen Kunstgeschichte.” Atti del XXIV congresso, comité international d’histoire de l’art. Problemi di metodo: Condizioni di esistenza di una storia dell’arte 1979, x, pp. 45-53; Kultermann, Udo. Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte: Der Weg einer Wissenschaft. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main and Vienna: Ullstein, 1981, pp. 147-148; Grodecki, Louis. “Definitions and Theories/Historical and Physical Circumstances.” Gothic Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977, p. 9; Sauer, Thomas G. “August Wilhelm von Schlegel.” German Writers in the Age of Goethe: Sturm und Drang to Classicism. James N. Hardin and Christoph E. Schweitzer, eds. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 346-50.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Schlegel, August Wilhelm." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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