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Wölfflin, Heinrich

    Full Name: Wölfflin, Heinrich

    Other Names:

    • Heinrich Wölfflin

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 21 June 1864

    Date Died: 19 July 1945

    Place Born: Winterthur, Zürich, Switzerland

    Place Died: Zürich, Switzerland

    Home Country/ies: Switzerland

    Subject Area(s): methodology


    Widely influential professor of art history, major exponent of formalist methodology. Wölfflin was the son of a Swiss classics scholar Eduard von Wölfflin (1831-1908) and Bertha Troll-Greuter (Wölfflin) (1839-1911). He initially studied philosophy at the university in Basel under Johannes Volkelt (1848-1930), but the lectures of cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt developed in him an enthusiasm for art history. Wölfflin continued study in philosophy at Berlin under the eminent Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), whose work exerted a strong influence on Wölfflin his whole life. He moved to Munich, where his father had an appointment, continuing to study philosophy and art history. In Munich, Wölfflin wrote his dissertation, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur in 1886, under Enrico Brunn. Even in this early period in his life, Wölfflin’s interest focused on the principles for analyzing works of art as much as the art itself.

    The two years after his dissertation were spent in Italy, resulting in his habilitationschrift and first book, Renaissance und Barock (1888). Wölfflin returned to Munich to lecture (as a Privatdozent) at the University of Munich. In 1893 he returned to Basel to succeed his mentor, Burckhardt. It was during this time that he wrote Klassische Kunst (1898) which was to become one of his most popular books. In 1901 Wölfflin was called to the prestigious University of Berlin to become Ordinarius professor of the University, succeeding the popular Herman Grimm. Wölfflin’s lectures exceeded Grimm’s in popularity, commanding the largest auditoriums available and reviewed in newspapers. He ran an art history institute in Berlin lead by the talented art historian/polymath Wilhelm Waetzoldt. Students to his lectures in Berlin included E. H. Gombrich (who was impressed with Wölfflin’s delivery style but not methodology). Wölfflin authored his only monograph on an individual artist, Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers (1905) during this time, partially to appease critics that this non-German art historian was teaching in Berlin.

    He met and became engaged to Adele Auguste (“Ada”) Bruhn (1885-1951), daughter of a wealthy factory owner and dancer. [Bruhn later broke the engagement in 1913 to marry the Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)]. The contrast of Berlin to the other universities where Wölfflin had taught, particularly the conservative climate of Imperial Prussia–and particularly Wilhelm II’s antagonism for modern art and “non-Germans”–eventually caused Wölfflin to resign his chair in 1910, along with Nationalgalerie art director Hugo von Tschudi. Wölfflin returned to Munich 1912, suceeding Berthold Riehl, revising his lecturing method to a Geheimrat (conversational) style as he termed it. Rudolf Wittkower, who attended these in Munich, described Wölfflin as an aloof teacher who delegated even his graduate seminars to assistants. Others who heard his courses included the theorist Walter Benjamin. Max Raphaël had his dissertation famously declined by Wölfflin because of its modern subject matter and social-history methodology.

    By 1924 the nationalism that was to increasingly envelope Germany compelled Wölfflin to return to his native Switzerland. He accepted a position at the University of Zürich, his Munich position filled by Adolph Goldschmidt. The Zürich years were marked by the publications of two works. Italien und das deutsche Formgefühl (Italy and the German Conception of Form) (1931) is a significant reworking of his Principles of Art History, rethinking art production in terms of the then prevalent notions of nationality. The second, Gedanken zur Kunstgeschichte (Thoughts on Art History) (1941), selected essays, were collected as war consumed most of Europe. Wölfflin supervised an amazing number of dissertations. His many students included Jakob Rosenberg, Frida Schottmüller, Hermann Theodor Beenken, Kurt Martin, Justus Bier, Ludwig Volkmann, August Liebmann Mayer, Grete Ring, Martin Weinberger, Carola Giedion-Welcker, and Albert Brinckmann among others; he supervised the habilitation of Paul Frankl. Neither Wölfflin nor any of his siblings married.

    Influence: In his own time Wölfflin was considered one of the greatest of art historians. The anonymous review of the English edition of Klassische Kunst (1903) in the Athenaeum, written by the British art historian Roger Fry, shows the enthusiasm with which his books were received. Bernard Berenson mused in the second edition to his Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1938), “would that our studies had more Wölfflins!” Wölfflin’s books, in contrast to the academic art-historical tomes of the time, were short and pithy, accounting for their popularity. Many of the students who received their Ph.D.’s under him went on to become the most eminent art historians of twentieth-century and ranged widely in the methodology they employed in their own work. Some of his Ph.D. students developed methodologies divergent from Wölfflin’s in their professional life: Frederick Antal, Ernst Heidrich, Frankl, Alfred Stange, Richard Krautheimer and Fritz Saxl; other students, such as Ludwig Volkmann and Rosenberg, retained the master’s methodology to the end. In the latter 20th century the prominence of social-history approaches to art as well as iconographic and post-structuralism relegated Wölfflin as a target for all that was wrong with current art history. Much of the criticism was well-founded; Wölfflin himself had worried that his formalism would be practiced by less talented art historians, with disastrous results. Wölfflin’s own writing, however, reflects an appreciation of historical circumstance and social context and less the “crassly formal” stylistic art histories which followed him. His profile was so significant during his lifetime that he saw books written about his research (Böckelmann, 1938).

    Methodology: Wölfflin began his art career by focusing on the psychology of artistic appreciation and never really strayed from this essential view. His dissertation on the psychological aspects to architectural appreciation is a synthesis of the major intellectual influences in his life: Burckhardt’s broad view of what constitutes an historical document, a psychological approach to historical hermeneutics Geisteswissenschaften of Dilthey and the visual comparison technique of Giovanni Morelli, to name but three. As a systematizer, he looked for a framework integrating empirical, psychological and visual elements. Art was a visual language, an independent mode of knowledge. Even art historians who differed greatly in their methodology, such as Erwin Panofsky adopted a hermeneutic framework as Wölfflin conspicuously did to hang their analysis. Wölfflin’s most significant contribution to art-historical methodology may be in his side-by-side comparison technique of images. Throughout his writings, he used comparison to demonstrate polarities in art. This technique remains a mainstay of art history classroom pedagogy.

    Selected Bibliography

    • [dissertation:] Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur. Munich, 1886;
    • [habilitation:] Renaissance und Barock. Eine Untersuchen über Wesen und Entstehung der Barockstil in Italien. Munich, 1888, published, Munich: T. Ackermann, 1888, English, Renaissance and Baroque. London: Collins, 1964;
    • Die klassische Kunst. Minuch: F. Bruckmann, 1899, English, Classic Art: An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance. New York: Phaidon, 1952, [first appearing as lecture, Prussian Academy, Dec. 7, 1911: “Das Problem des Stils in der bildenden Kunst.” Sitzungsberichte der Kgl. Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaft. (Jahrgang 1912): 572-78];
    • Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers. Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1905; Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neuren Kunst. Munich: F. Bruchmann, 1915, English, Principles of Art. New York: Dover, 1932;
    • Italien und das deutsche Formgefühl. Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1931, English, The Sense of Form in Art: An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance. New York: 1958; “‘Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriff.’ Eine Revision.” Logos: Internatinale Zeitschrift für Philosophie der Kultur 22 (1933): 210-18, republished in Gedanken zur Kunstgeschichte, (below) [note these important revisions of his Principles (1915) which, according to W. Eugene Kleinbauer, scholars have ignored (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, p, 27 n. 58)]; 
    • Gedanken zur Kunstgeschichte: Gedrucktes und Ungedrucktes. Basel: Schwabe, 1941;
    • Kleine Schriften [1886-1933]. Edited by Joseph Ganter. Basel: 1946;
    • Jacob Burckhardt und Heinrich Wölfflin: Briefwechsel und andere Dokumente ihrer Begegnung, 1882-1897. Edited by Joseph Ganter. Basel: 1948;
    • Heinrich Wölfflin, 1864-1945: Autobiographie, Tagebücher und Briefe. Edited by Joseph Ganter. Basel: Schwabe & Co., 1982.


    • [literature on Wölfflin is legion; specifically, see] Borenius, Tancred. Burlington Magazine 84 (June 1944): 133;
    • Strich, Fritz. Zu Heinrich Wölfflins Gedächtnis, Rede an der Basler Feier seines zehnten Todestages. Berlin: Francke, 1956 [recommended];
    • Rehm, Walter. Heinrich Wölfflin als Literarhistoriker. Munich: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften/Beck, 1960;
    • “Heinrich Wölfflins Basler Jahre und die Anfange der modernen Kunstwissenschaft.” Gestalten und Probleme aus der Geschichte der Universität Basel. Rektoratsprogram for the year 1960. Basel: 1960: 79-97;
    • 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. 7, 27-9 n. 58-62;
    • Ganter, Joseph. “Der Unterricht in Kunstgeschichte an der Universität Basel.” In Jahrbuch 1972/73 Schweiz. Instituts für Kunstwissenschaft. Zürich, 1976: 25-31;
    • German Essays on Art History. Gert Schiff, ed. New York: Continuum, 1988, pp. xxxvi-xxxviii, 282; Lurz, Meinhold. Heinrich Wölfflin: Biographie einer Kunsttheorie. Heidelberger Kunstgeschichtliche Abhandlungen, Neue Folge, Band 14. Worms: Werner’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1981;
    • [unpublished dissertation:] Hart, Joan Goldhammer. Heinrich Wölfflin: An Intellectual Biography. University of California, Berkeley, 1981 [recommended];
    • Podro, Michael. The Critical Historians of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 98-151; Brown, Marshall. “The Classic Is the Baroque: On the Principle of Wölfflin’s Art History.” Critical Inquiry 9 no. 2 (December 1982): 379-404;
    • Hart, Joan. “Reinterpreting Wölfflin: Neo-Kantianism and Hermeneutics.” Art Journal (1982): 292-300; Warnke, Martin. “On Heinrich Wölfflin”, Representations no. 27, 1989, pp. 172-87;
    • Podro, Michael. “Wölfflin, Heinrich.” The Dictionary of Art 33: 297-298; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 483-8; (mentioned);
    • Jennifer Montagu and Joseph Connors. “Rudolf Wittkower 1901-1971.” Introduction to Art and Architecture in Italy: 1600-1750. 6th edition, volume 1, Painting in Italy. Pelican History of Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, pp. ix;
    • Schwartz, Frederic J. “Cathedrals and Shoes: Concepts of Style in Wölfflin and Adorno.” New German Critique 76 (1999): 3-48; Hart, Joan. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 4: 472-6;
    • [obituaries:] Born, Wolfgang. “Tribute [obituary].” College Art Journal 5 (November 1945): 44-47; 
    • Böckelmann, Walter. “
    • [Historic Methodolgical Discussions:] Die Grundbegriffe der Kunstbetrachtung bei Wölfflin und Dvorák. Dresden: Druck und Verlag Buchdruckerei der Wilhelm und Bertha v. Baensch Stiftung, 1938;
    • Antal, Frederick. “Remarks on the Method of Art History.” Burlington Magazine 91 (February 1949): 49-52;
    • Hauser, Arnold. The Philosophy of Art History. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1963, pp. 119-147ff.;


    • Getty Center. “Führung durch die Pinakothek, [between 1912 and 1924].”  “Miscellaneous papers,”   
      “Miscellaneous papers from the libraries of the Wölffin circle,
      ca. 1924-1987.”

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Wölfflin, Heinrich." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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