Erwin Panofsky

David Wagner

in Renaissance and Reformation

Published online January 2019 | e-ISBN: 9780195399301 | DOI:

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Erwin Panofsky (b. 1892–d. 1968) was a German art historian who, after immigrating to the United States in 1933, became one of the most influential figures in 20th-century art history. His method of reading works of art as historical documents and understanding their interpretation as intimately connected to the literary and philosophical currents of their times is called iconology. While his early writings reflect the theoretical problems of art historical analysis, his later writings aim more at applying than at justifying this procedure. Panofsky was born in Hanover. He went to high school in Berlin and subsequently studied art history at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, where he completed his doctorate in 1913 with a prize thesis on Albrecht Dürer’s art theory. He worked as a Privatdozent from 1920 at the University of Hamburg, where he was appointed to the chair of art history in 1926 after defending his thesis on formal principles in the works of Michelangelo and Raffael. In his Hamburg years two important influences on Panofsky’s thought stand out: On the one hand, the neo-Kantianism of Ernst Cassirer and on the other, Aby Warburg’s iconological project of the afterlife (Nachleben) of Antiquity in Western art. Cassirer’s neo-Kantianism contributed to Panofsky’s project to define principles by which one may evaluate the artwork’s transhistorical aesthetic values. Aby Warburg’s concern for the shifts of meaning caused by the artwork’s relation to historical discontinuities contributed to Panofsky’s insight that a purely stylistic interpretive system, as proposed, for example, by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin would not do. Panofsky’s focus on the complex historical embeddedness of an artwork’s content in relation to its formal aspects, a focus influenced by his 1920 reworking of art historian Alois Riegl’s concept of Kunstwollen, facilitated the success of his iconological method. Panofsky taught in Hamburg as full professor until 1933, when he and his Jewish colleagues were dismissed. The new Nazi law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service excluded non-Aryans from teaching at universities. In 1934 Panofsky immigrated to the United States, where he had already taught at New York University as a visiting professor for alternate terms since 1931. In 1935 he became professor of art history at the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. All of his later publications were written in English. Panofsky’s importance for art history rests as much on his groundbreaking work for this academic discipline as on his ability to popularize his research via public lectures and eloquent studies.

Article.  8068 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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