You are on page 1of 9

1

Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

An Analysis of Wölffin’s “Principles of Art History”

In this article, Wölffin’s reductionist perspective consists of his five formulated pairs of

dissimilar precepts in the form and style of High Renaissance and Baroque art, which

demonstrated a change in the nature of artistic vision between the two art periods. His method is

rooted in the dedicated observation of the formal qualities of individual works of art rather than

in theoretical conjecture. Wölffin explains his theory in a pattern of listing qualities of the High

Renaissance first and then compare them to the qualities of the Baroque. His repeated and

consistent use of this pattern enhances the readers understanding of his theories. The five

opposing principles are as follows with regard to interpreting transition from High Renaissance

art to Baroque art:

1. From Linear to Painterly


2. From the Plane to Recession
3. From a Closed Form to an Open Form
4. From Multiplicity to Unity
5. From Absolute Clearness to Relative Clarity1

His adversative categories provide the art historian with analytical tools with which he can grasp

and articulate fundamental stylistic distinctions between the Renaissance and the Baroque

periods in art.2

In looking at two works of art, one from High Renaissance and one from Baroque, it was

much easier to comprehend and utilize Wölffin’s theories. By juxtaposing Albrect Durer’s

Christ Bearing the Cross (Figure 1) and Paul Pontius’ (After Rubens) Jesus Stumbling Beneath

the Cross (Figure 2) each of the five pairs of precepts allow for a clear view of the differences

1
W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Writings on the Visual Arts (Toronto,
Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press), 164-165.
2
W. Eugene Kleinbauer, Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Writings on the Visual Arts (Toronto,
Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press), 164-165.
2
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

which places Durer’s work in the High Renaissance and places Pontius’ work in the Baroque

period. There is a drastic change from Durer’s order of strata parallel planes to Pontius’

unapparent planes rendered by the forward and back movement of the picture. Additionally in

the Durer image, the picture is meticulously constructed and a closed entity while Pontius’ image

is full of compressed energies from the twisted bodies, the mass of people with implied lines of

motion reaching beyond the composition all working toward one goal. Durer’s woodcut is rather

linear, while Pontius’ use of shadow and shading are an integral part of the composition giving it

a painterly quality. Durer’s organization of individual parts does not yield the unity Pontus

produced via subordination in his work. Durer’s extensive revelation of form of every subject is

replaced in the Baroque by a picturesque depiction, which intentionally evades objective clarity

so as to flawlessly render the information acquired by other painterly means.

After review of the aforementioned works of art, Wölffin’s theory was applied to The

Mystic Nativity (Figure 3) by Sandro Botticelli and the Nativity (Figure 4) by Josefa de Obidos to

experiment with his model. With regard to linear versus painterly, Botticelli’s work is quite

linear and modeled and does not utilize chiaroscuro as an integral part of the composition.

Obidos’ work utilized the shadow and the light with shades of color to create a painterly work of

art. Botticelli’s painting tends toward an order of parallel picture planes in layers while Obidos’

planes are imperceptible engaging viewer in the recessions. Many elements of Botticelli’s

composition are constructed to physically close in the painting. In addition, Botticelli uses

implied lines and gazes to guide the viewer’s attention toward the central theme of the painting.

In the Nativity by Obidos, she places a basket in the foreground as if it may break the pictorial

plane and enter into our space. Throughout the entire painting the figures seem to extend beyond

the composition. The independent parts of The Mystic Nativity fashion the story through a
3
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

coordination of all aspects of the image. Obidos painted movement in every direction, yet it is

bound together to create a cohesive purpose. Lastly, The Mystic Nativity must be understood

through revelation of the form of the subject to be aware of the meaning(s), however the Nativity

completely delivers the painting’s message without the viewer being overwhelmed by

contemplation. Through Wölffin’s five opposing principles it is clear that The Mystic Nativity

was not created during the Baroque era.

Wölffin’s methodology of formal analysis provides a base line for determining an art

work’s period in history. To fully understand a work of art numerous other perspectives should

also be taken into consideration. By considering factors such as the artist, the artists’ intent, the

history, the viewer, the original placement of the work, the techniques, and the materials utilized

creates a more enriched understanding and appreciation for a work of art than Wölffin’s theory

alone cannot produce.


4
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

Illustrations

Figure 1. Albrecht Durer (b. 1471,


Nürnberg, d. 1528,Nürnberg) 1509, Christ Bearing the Cross (Small Passion),British Museum,
Woodcut 12.6*9.9 cm3

3
Philip Reshep. Heinrich Wolffin, Principles of Art History
http://www.philipresheph.com/a424/gallery/course/wolfflin/ch2d.htm, September 8, 2008.
5
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

Figure 2. Paul Pontius (1603-1658), 1632,


Jesus Stumbling Beneath the Cross (after Rubens), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco,
Engraving 60.3*45.5 cm, Pontius engraved Rubens' sketch of The Road to Calvary c. 1632,
Berkeley Art Museum, University of California.4

4
Philip Reshep. Heinrich Wölffin, Principles of Art History,
http://www.philipresheph.com/a424/gallery/course/wolfflin/ch2d.htm, September 8, 2008.
6
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

Figure 3. Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-


1501, The Mystical Nativity, National Gallery, London, Tempera on Panel, 108.5 x 74.9 cm5

5
Manatee Community College. MCC Faculty. Renaissance Journal I,
http://faculty.mccfl.edu/frithl/HUM2230/Renaissance/journal.htm, September 8, 2008.
7
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

Figure 4. Josefa de
Obidos, c. 1669, Nativity, National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Oil on Screen, 150 x 184
cm6

6
Fsouza. Wikipedia, Josefa de Óbidos, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josefa_de_Óbidos (accessed September 8, 2008).
8
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

List of Illustrations

1. Albrecht Durer (b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528,


Nürnberg) 1509, Christ Bearing the Cross (Small
Passion),British Museum, Woodcut 12.6*9.9 cm

2. Paul Pontius (1603-1658), 1632, Jesus Stumbling


Beneath the Cross (after Rubens), Fine Arts Museums of San
Francisco, Engraving 60.3*45.5 cm, Pontius engraved
Rubens' sketch of The Road to Calvary c. 1632, Berkeley Art
Museum, University of California.

3. Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500-1501, The Mystical Nativity,


National Gallery, London, Tempera on Panel, 108.5 x 74.9 cm.
9
Jeniffer Harrison
Research Methods
Assignment 2

Bibliography

Fsouza. "Josefa de Óbidos." December 18,


2006.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josefa_de_Óbidos (accessed September 8, 2008).

Kleinbauer,W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History. An Anthology of


Twentieth-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of
Toronto Press.

MCC Faculty, "Renaissance Journal I."


http://faculty.mccfl.edu/frithl/HUM2230/Renaissance/journal.htm (accessed September
8, 2008).

Reshep, Philip. "Heinrich Wölffin, Principles of Art History."


http://www.philipresheph.com/a424/gallery/course/wolfflin/ch2d.htm (accessed
September 8, 2008).