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Erwin Panofsky ( 1892-1968 )

German-American art historian and essayist, whose famous books include The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) and Studies in Iconology (1939). Panofsky defined an artist as "one who is full of images." He was especially concerned with the iconography of the various periods he studied and interpreted works through the themes, symbols, and ideas inherent in the history of art.

"As I have said before, no one can be blamed for enjoying works of art ‘naïvely’ - for appraising and interpreting them according to his lights and not caring any further. But the humanist will look with suspicion upon what might be called ‘appreciationism.’ He who teaches innocent people to understand art without bothering about classical languages, boresome historical methods and dusty old documents, deprives naïveté of its charm without correcting its errors." (from Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1955)

Erwin Panofsky was born in Hanover as the son of Arnord and Caecilie (Solling) Panofsky. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Freiburg/Breslau, receiving his Ph.D. in 1914 from the University of Freiburg. In 1916 he married Dora Mosse, who was also an art historian. Panofsky worked at the Warburg Library before it moved to London. In 1924 appeared his early major work, "Idea": Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunstheorie, which dealt with the history of the neoplatonic theory of art. His career in art history took him to the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, where he taught from 1920 to 1933. During this period Panofsky started to develop the "iconological" approach to art history in his lectures and publications - iconography meant for him the mere identification of subject matter in art.

Panofsky's iconological interpretation is not far from Roland Barthes's later semiological system, in which the basic terms are sign, signifier, and signified. "And here is now another example: I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag... I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier." (from Mythologies, 1973)

Panofsky first visited the United States in 1931 upon the invitation of New York University. Panofsky was permitted to spend alternate terms in Hamburg and New York, but after the Nazis came to power and ousted all Jewish officials, he was forced to leave Germany. He held for a year concurrent lectureships at New York and Princeton universities, and in 1935 he was invited to join the newly constituted humanistic faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. After Dora's death in 1965, Panofsky married Gerda Soergel. Panofsky taught at Princeton till his death on March 14, 1968. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, and a number of other foreign academies. In 1962 he received the Haskins Medal of the Mediaeval Academy of America.

Most of Panofsky's later books were written in English. Studies in Iconology was based on the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr College. The Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard were published as Early Netherlandish Painting (1953). Among his other major contributions to art history are Pandora's Box (1956), written with his first wife Dora Mosse Panofsky, and