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Methods in the History of Art: Formalism and the Origin of Art History

The Origin of Art History

Before getting into the topic at hand, it is important to ellucidate the origin of art history as a modern branch of academic practice. In most academic curricula, the teaching of art history begins with Renaissance artist and author Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), since he wrote one of the first coherent and comprehensive art historical texts. Vasari is most well known for his seminal book The Lives of the Artists, in which he gathered the biographies of many Renaissance artists and expounded a conception of art as a cyclical process. In his view, art from Greek antiquity set an ideal that only Renaissance art was able to reach again (Vasari, 2008), seeing Michelangelo's work as having finally returned to these aesthetic ideals set by art from antiquity.

Through a biographical approach, Vasari discussed the achievements of each artists in relation to their position in this cyclical process, offering in his work an incomparable insight into the lives of Renaissance artists that has proved essential in the study of Renaissance art. This aforementioned approach he used has maintained currency through centuries of art history as an early contribution to the discipline, however Vasari’s contribution is not art historical in a modern sense. He did, to an extent, give an account of art from the past but in a somewhat ahistorical way (Hatt & Klonk, 2006), giving that his work did not examine the significance of artworks in their own right, understood in their specific social and historical context, but rather judged them insofar as they achieved what was perceived as a timeless aesthetic ideal. It was later in 19th century Germany when a modern conception of art history was established.

Figure 1: Fragment of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (Michelangelo, 1511).

In the second half of the 18th century the German archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), often times considered as the father of art history as well, pioneered the idea that art was a reflection of particular societies and civilisations. In his book History of the Art of Antiquity from 1764, he argued that art from Antiquity was the result of a variety of factors such as society’s understanding of the role of the artist, climate, form of government and ways of thinking and perceiving. The also-German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) agreed that art was the product of particular societies with distinct cultural values and believed that no artwork produced in a specific period and culture should be judged according to the standards of a different one. The idea that art was historically and culturally embedded served to shed light on the similarities and differences between the art of different cultures, enabling the possibility of a history of art, as Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk (2006) put it, “a systematic social process extending through time”.

The ideas put forward by Winkleman and Herder were essential to understand art as a product specific to a time, culture and way of life, besides to reject the notion of universal aesthetic norms. Therefore, the type of art history that would emerge from these ideas would have to account for the development of art in historical terms, and also for the differences in art from different cultures. Interestingly enough, the first person to provide such a modern developmental account was not an art historian but German philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Suffice to say, for the time being, that Hegel’s art history traced the development of art from ancient to contemporary times as the product of human being’s self-realisation of the Absolute Idea or Geist—a universal spirit, the utmost ordering principle and its embodiment in the world. Humans’ ever-clearer grasp of the Absolute Idea was the motor of progress behind art’s development, which in turn, was the reflection of this increasing self-awareness (Hegel, 1998). According to Hegel, the Great Sphinx of Giza, for example, epitomised the stage of self-awareness the human mind had reached in relation to the Geist: "Out of the dull strength and power of the animal the human spirit tries to push itself forward, without coming to a perfect portrayal of its own freedom and animated shape, because it must still remain confused and associated with what other than itself" (Hegel, 1998).

Figure 2: The Great Sphinx of Giza, in Egypt (circa cent. XXVI BC).

Even though Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics presented the first history of art that made sense of the two main questions that characterise the emergence of modern art history, namely, (1) the logic behind artistic development through time and (2) the differences in art from different contemporary cultures, it was only a few years later, with the work of art historians Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) and Alois Riegl (1858-1905) that art history finally established itself as a fully fledged academic discipline. Their approach to art history has come to be known as formalism, starring the first chapter in the series instead of Hegel’s Aesthetics for twofold reasons. Firstly, Hegel resorted to an unverifiable metaphysical force to explain the logic behind art’s development, hence his specific account of art history could only be understood through concepts outside the bounds of art history. Secondly, he argued that in his time art ceased to be the main route for humans’ apprehension of the Absolute Spirit, and as such, art was relegated to a plane secondary to philosophy. He talks of this moment as the dissolution of art: "For us art counts no longer as the highest mode in which truth procures existence for itself” (Hegel, 1998). This meant that, according to his premises, there would be no possibility in the future to tell a coherent and cohesive story of art’s development. On the contrary, formalism entrenched the grounds to practice a self-sufficient art history, one that was not bound by a teleological end like Hegel’s was, and it is for these reasons that it will constitute the beginning of this series.

What is Formalism?

It is important to note that “formalism” is a term used in a variety of contexts referring to slightly different concepts. On one hand, there is formalism as a methodology aiming to explain the two aforementioned questions that characterise the emergence of a modern art history, a methodology focusing on the development of artistic form. However, there is also a current in the philosophy of art working under the same rubric that uses concept of artistic form to establish a comprehensive theory aiming to explain the essence of art, as we can see in Noël Carrol’s The Philosophy of Art (1999). Since this latter conception of formalism is not strictly speaking art historical, as it is an aesthetic theory, it will be the former type of formalism that the article will be focusing on.

As it was said before, formalism is an approach to the history of art that understood art to be a historically and culturally situated practice. Formalism—as shown by its two main proponents, namely, Wölfflin and Riegl—aimed to trace a history of art susceptible to the changes in art’s form, and for the differences of form in art from different cultures. Artistic form can be understood as a complementary half to content: if subject matter was subtracted from a work of art, what is left is artistic form or the part of the artwork relating to its material or empirical aspects such as dimension, volume, light or colour. Formalism’s aim is no feeble feat and thus early formalists resorted to a unifying concept or theory to explain artistic changes and differences. In a way similar to Hegel, who used the concept of the Absolute Idea, formalism turned to contemporary theories of vision in order to explain the culturally and historically specific development in art. Formalism contended that, through psychological theories of vision and attending to the way artworks each represent a moment in the development of vision, the specific “mode of imagination” or worldview in different cultures could be unearthed and the development of art explained. Art was though of as a gateway to the otherwise inaccessible modes of vision or imagination of past cultures. This is clearly exemplified in the preface of Wölfflin’s seminal work The Principles of Art History, where he states: “vision itself has a history, and the revelation of this visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history” (Wölfflin, 1995).

Figure 3: Portrait of Heinrich Wölfflin (n.d.).

Elsewhere he claims that “it is greatly to the interest of the historian of style first and foremost to recognise what mode of imaginative process he has before him in each individual case […] The mode of vision, or let us say, of imaginative beholding, is not from the outset and everywhere the same, but, like every manifestation of life, has its development […] Instead of asking ‘How do these works affect me, the modern man?’, the historian must realize what choice of formal possibilities the epoch had at its disposal” (Wölfflin, 1995). These excerpts show how deeply indebted formalism was to theories of vision. By looking at art form the past, the different stages in the development of vision could be inferred and in turn, this history of the development of vision and forms would lend a coherence and continuity to the history of art capable of explaining the changes over time and among cultures. In other words, they offered an account of the history of art as a history of vision (Hatt & Klonk, 2006). In this context, the concept of style was not used to signify the characteristic ways and appearances of an individual’s art, but rather, the concept of style alluded to the general expression of an age (Hatt & Klonk, 2006). The relationship between artistic forms and its determining factors is a complex one, so it is peremptory to look at Wölfflin and Riegl’s theories more closely to see their individual contributions to formalism.

Heinrich Wölfflin

Wölfflin’s best-known books are Renaissance and Baroque, Classic Art, and Principles of Art History, and throughout these, two elements remain constant. The first one that can be perceived is the separation of the descriptive language pertaining art’s formal elements as a set of oppositions that structure art from all periods, oppositions were given systematic and comprehensive attention in his Principles (Hatt & Klonk, 2006). They provided general descriptive terms that would capture the development of artistic vision across countries and ages and were structured as follows: linear versus painterly, plane versus recession, closed versus open, multiplicity versus unity, absolute versus relative clarity. Through this language Wölfflin elucidated the relationship of formal elements. For example, Wölfflin described the formal qualities of Velazquez's Rokeby Venus as recessional, painterly, open, unified and having relative clarity of subject.

Figure 4: "The Rokeby Venus" (Velázquez, 1647-51).

The second constant in his oeuvre was his conviction that art history should be built on psychological theories of vision and perception. In Classic Art, Wölfflin explained the shift from Italian Quatrocento to Cinquecento art as a development in vision, among other causes. Artistic vision, which is supposed to order the chaotic mass of sensory perception, was less capable of integrating a more significant variety of perceptual phenomena in the fifteenth century than it was in the sixteenth century. This improvement in artistic vision is what drove changes in art. However, pinpointing whatever drove the change in artistic vision is a significant difficulty Wölfflin came across and never quite resolved (Wolfflin, 2023).

Alois Riegl

Similar to Wölfflin’s concept of artistic vision was a central concept to the understanding of the work of Riegl: the notion of Kunstwollen. It has been translated as an aesthetic urge, will-to-form, or aesthetic intent; in Riegl’s account it is what becomes the driving force behind the development of artistic forms. In his work Late Roman art Industry (1995), he elaborated on this notion representing it as a dynamic drive which was directed at the artistic ordering of the perceptual world. Its concern was with the way subjects grasped the real world and presented this vision to themselves in art, thus Kunstwollen is inevitably tied to theories of vision and perception. In his earlier book Problems of Style (1992) he explained how ornamental motifs originated in nature but later developments generated from the forms themselves, following the changes internally ascribing to them the effect of the so called Kunstwollen.

Figure 5: Remains of an Antique Greek corinthian column in Ephesus, showing the acanthus motif (n.d.).


Although aiming to shed light to the similarities in Wölfflin and Riegl’s approach to art history as a way of getting a clear idea of the basic tenets of formalism, differences existed between their theories, some more significant than others. Moreover, both of their accounts of art history came across irresolvable tensions and difficulties. The histories of vision on which they rested their proposals for a comprehensive art history later became obsolete and their postulations were rendered implausible, perhaps also due to their circularity. Some socio-historic facts used to justify the appearance of certain artworks were inferred from the artworks themselves and not from actual historical research. Despite all the shortcomings in Riegl and Wölfflin’s theories, they set the example for a modern way of practicing art history; one attentive to the cultural and historical forces at work in art that did not, however, sacrifice the aim of telling a comprehensive story of development, one that elevated the discipline to a status it did not hold before.

Bibliographical References

Carroll, N. (1999). Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction. Psychology Press.

Hatt, M. and Klonk, C. (2006). Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods. Manchester University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1998). Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Oxford University Press on Demand.

Riegl, A. (1995). Late Roman Art Industry, 1901. In E. Fernie (Ed.), Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology, 116–126. Phaidon.

Riegl, A. (1992). Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament (E. M. Kain, Trans.). Princeton University Press.

Vasari, G. (2008). The Lives of the Artists. Oxford University Press.

Wölfflin, H. (1995). Principles of Art History, 1915. In E. Fernie (Ed.), Art History and Its Methods: A Critical Anthology (127–151). Phaidon.

Wölfflin, H. (2023). Classic Art The Great Masters of the Italian Renaissance. Phaidon Edition. Phaidon.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Telmo Ojanguren

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