Madame de Staël: Winckelmann

Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. I, 258-264.

Johann Joachim Wincklemann was the man who in Germany brought about an entire revolution in the manner of considering the arts, and literature also as connected with the arts. I shall speak of him elsewhere under the relation of his influence on the arts; but his style certainly places him in the first rank of German writers.

This man, who at first knew antiquity only by books, was desirous of contemplating its noble remains. He felt himself attracted with ardour towards the south. We still frequently find in German imagination some traces of that love of the sun, that weariness of the north, which formerly drew so many northern nations into the countries of the south. A fine sky awakens sentiments similar to the love we bear to our country. When Winckelmann, after a long abode in Italy, returned to Germany, the sight of snow, of the pointed roofs which it covers, and of smoky houses, filled him with melancholy. He felt as if he could no longer enjoy the arts, when he no longer breathed the air which gave them birth.

What contemplative eloquence do we not discover in what he has written on the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon! His style is calm and majestic as the object of his consideration. He gives to the art of writing the imposing dignity of ancient monuments, and his description produces the same sensation as the statue itself. No one before him had united such exact and profound observation with admiration so animated; as it is thus, only, that we can comprehend the fine arts. The attention they excite must be awakened by love; and we must discover in the chef-d-oeuvres of genius, as we do in the features of a beloved object, a thousand charms, which are revealed to us by the sentiments they inspire.

Some poets, before Winckelmann, had studied Greek tragedies, with the purpose of adapting them to our theatres. Learned men were known, whose authority was equal to that of books; but no one had hitherto (to use the expression) rendered himself a pagan in order to penetrate antiquity. Winckelmann possesses the defects and advantages of a Grecian amateur; and we feel in his writings the adoration of beauty, such as it existed in a nation where it so often obtained the hours of apotheosis.

Imagination and learning equally lent their different lights to Winckelmann: before him it was thought that they mutually excluded each other. He has shewn us that to understand the ancients, one was as necessary as the others. We can give life to objects of art only by an intimate acquaintage with the country and with the epoch in which they existed. We are not interested by features which are indistinct. To animate recitals and fictions, where past ages are the theatre, learning must even assist the imagination, and render it, if possible, a spectator of what it is to paint, and a contemporary of what it relates.

Zadig guessed by some confused traces, some words half torn, at circumstances which he deduced from the slightest indications. It is thus, that through antiquity we must take learning for our guide: the vestiges which we perceive are interrupted, effaced, difficult to lay hold of; but by making use at once of imagination and study, we bring back time, and renew existence.

When we appeal to tribunals to decide on the truth of a fact, it is sometimes a slight circumstanced which makes it clear. Imagination is in this respect like a judge; a single word, a custom, an allusion found in the works of the ancients, serves it as a light, by which it arrives at the knowledge of perfect truth.

Winckelmann knew how to apply to his inspection of the monuments of the arts that spirit of judgment which leads us to the knowledge of men: he studied the physiognomy of the statue as he would have done that of a human being. He seized with great justness the slightest observations, from which he knew how to draw the most striking conclusions. A certain physiognomy, an emblematical attribute, a mode of drapery, may at once cast an unexpected light on the longest researches. The locks of Ceres are thrown back with a disorder that would be unsuitable to the character of Minerva; the loss of Proserpine has for ever troubled the mind of her mother.

Minos, the son and disciple of Jupiter, has in our medals the same features as his father; nevertheless, the calm majesty of the one, and the severe expression of the other, distinguish the sovereign of the gods from the judge of men. The Torso is a fragment of the stature of Hercules deified; of him, who received from Hebe the cup of immortality; while the Hercules Farnese yet possesses only the attributes of a mortal; each contour of the Torso, as energetic as this but more rounded, still characterizes the strength of the hero; but of the hero who, placed in heaven, is thenceforth freed from the rude labours of the earth.

All is symbolical in the arts, and natures herself under a thousand different appearances in those pictures, in that poetry, where immobility must indicate motion, where the inmost soul must be externally displayed, and where the existence of a moment must last to eternity.

Winckelmann has banished from the fine arts in Europe the mixture of ancient and modern taste. In Germany, his influence has been still more displayed in literature than in the arts. We shall, in what follows, be led to examine, whether the scrupulous imitation of the ancients is compatible with natural originality; or rather, whether we ought to sacrifice that originality in order to confine ourselves to the choice of subjects, in which poetry, like painting, having no model in existence, can represent only statues.

But this discussion is foreign to the merit of Wincklemann: in the fine arts, he has shown us what constituted taste among the ancients; it was for the moderns, in this respect, to feel what it suited them to adopt or to reject. When a man of genius succeeds in displaying secrets of an antique or foreign nature, he renders service by the impulse which he traces: the motion thus received becomes part of ourselves; and the greater the truth that accompanies it, the less servile is the imitation it inspires.

Winckelmann has developed the true principles, now admitted into the arts, of the nature of the ideal; of that perfect nature, of which the type is in our imagination, and does not exist elsewhere. The application of these principles to literature is singularly productive.

The poetic of all the arts is united under the same point of view in the writings of Wincklemann, and all have gained by it. Poetry has been better comprehended by the aid of sculpture, and sculpture by that of poetry; and we have been led by the arts of Greece to her philosophy. Those metaphysics which have ideas for their object originate with the Germans , as they did formerly with the Greeks, in the adoration of supreme beauty, which our souls alone can conceive and acknowledge. This supreme ideal beauty is a reminiscence of heaven, our original country; the sculptures of Phidias, the tragedies of Sophocles, and the doctrines of Plato, all agree to give us the same notion of it under different forms.

Next … Madame de Staël on … Goethe


Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768)
by Raphael Mengs after 1755