The History of the Art of Antiquity

When Winckelmann’s History was published in 1764, the focus of excavating objects of antiquity was located almost exclusively in Italy. Thus Winckelmann’s project, which offered an ambitious survey of cultural history, found an eager audience in international circles comprised of Enlightenment intellectuals and cosmopolitan elites who were interested in ancient Rome and the sculpture of antiquity. His project, which discussed the traditions of the ancient Egyptians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans, was primarily devoted to reconstructing and eulogizing the history and aesthetics of the ancient Greeks. Therefore, the enormous popularity of Winckelmann’s endeavor capitalized both on Greek art’s acknowledged status within art theory of the time, as well as the social significance accorded to the activity of learning about and visiting sites of antiquity for the educated classes in Europe.1

Winckelmann’s proposition of a succession of styles in ancient art was virtually unprecedented. In arguing that style had developed in tandem with historical patterns, The History of the Art of Antiquity was seen as having invented a new kind of art history altogether.2 The only precedent for Winckelmann’s project was Vasari’s 1568 Lives of the Artists, which relied on the reportage of biographical fact in chronological succession more than it attempted a similar contextualization of style.  

The novelty of Winckelmann’s History also rested on its articulation of a progression of styles in Greek art. Before Winckelmann, studies of Greek art operated within a paradigm that allowed for two distinct phases of development: a crude, preliminary stage characterized by angularity and non-naturalism, which preceded the fully developed and beautiful life-like stage typified by the work of classical masters such as Phidias and Polycleitus of the 5th century BC. Differences in style within this latter, purportedly timeless category were attributed to the working methods of different artists, rather than to broader historical patterns. The History of the Art of Antiquity disrupted this model, showing that stylistic progression continued even after art entered the classic phase.3

Winckelmann defined four primary phases within Greek art: an “archaic” phase characterized by crudeness and simplicity, which underwent refinements to form the austere “high” phase and a sensuous “beautiful” phase, and from there on to a process of imitation and decline. Within this system, the high and beautiful phases were equally virtuous, yet totally incompatible types that constituted the highest achievement of the Greek ideal. The following section will discuss Winckelmann’s formulation of these two phases, as well as sculptures that he singled out as representative types of each.

1 Potts, Flesh and the Ideal, 16.

2 Alex Potts, preface to The History of the Art of Antiquity, by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), 1.

3 Potts, Flesh and the Ideal, 15

The History of the Art of Antiquity