Who Was Winckelmann?

“He had reached the age of thirty without once having been smiled upon by fate, yet within him lay the seeds and potential of an enviable destiny.”1

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Mere biographical fact contributes little more than a superficial understanding of Winckelmann’s life, providing narrow insight into how the antiquarian, famed in his own time for his scholarship, became a figure of fascination in the European art establishment as much for his life story as for his work.

Born into dire circumstances as the son of an impoverished cobbler, he rose to the highest ranks of scholarship and renown to become the most important antiquarian of his time. This was a stunning achievement—a resounding demonstration of the potential of passion, intellect, and determination to transcend the structural handicaps of poverty and class. Given his early poverty, Winckelmann would have been reliant upon inconsistent and rare sources of individual or institutional patronage.2 Sheer luck, perseverance, and above all, a single-minded dedication to the cause of Greek antiquity, characterize Winckelmann’s quest to establish himself as a scholar. His life story itself has thus inspired generations of Classicists, supporting the creation of a mythic persona that has shaped the literature around Winckelmann himself as well as the reception of his work. 

After studying theology and medicine in his native Germany, he became a private tutor and then a schoolmaster in the small town of Seehausen, near his birthplace Stendhal. At the age of 30, he found relief from an unsatisfying career as an educator when he attained a position as the librarian to Count von Bunau. The Count was a significant figure at the Saxon court, and Winckelmann’s new profession offered him the opportunity to immerse himself in classical learning and the scholarship of this time. It was here that he first came into contact with Greek art and developed the belief, which he would set out years later in Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (“The History of the Art of Antiquity”), that Greek art represented the achievement of a human ideal in beauty and in virtue, and pointed the way forward to reforming the present.  

1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Winckelmann,” in German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Winckelmann, Lessing, Hamann, Herder, Schiller and Goethe, ed. Hugh Barr Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 237. 

2 Harloe, Winckelmann and the Invention of Antiquity, 34