Alois Riegl

Last updated
Alois Riegl, ca. 1890 Alois Riegl.jpg
Alois Riegl, ca. 1890

Alois Riegl (14 January 1858, Linz – 17 June 1905, Vienna) was an Austrian art historian, and is considered a member of the Vienna School of Art History. He was one of the major figures in the establishment of art history as a self-sufficient academic discipline, and one of the most influential practitioners of formalism.

Linz Place in Upper Austria, Austria

Linz is the third-largest city of Austria and capital of the state of Upper Austria. It is in the north centre of Austria, approximately 30 kilometres south of the Czech border, on both sides of the River Danube. The population of the city is 204,846, and that of the Greater Linz conurbation is about 789,811.

Vienna Capital city and state in Austria

Vienna is the federal capital and largest city of Austria, and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primate city, with a population of about 1.9 million, and its cultural, economic, and political centre. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest German-speaking city in the world, and before the splitting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the city had 2 million inhabitants. Today, it has the second largest number of German speakers after Berlin. Vienna is host to many major international organizations, including the United Nations and OPEC. The city is located in the eastern part of Austria and is close to the borders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. These regions work together in a European Centrope border region. Along with nearby Bratislava, Vienna forms a metropolitan region with 3 million inhabitants. In 2001, the city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Austria Federal republic in Central Europe

Austria, officially the Republic of Austria, is a country of nearly 9 million people in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Hungary and Slovakia to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west. The territory of Austria covers 83,879 km2 (32,386 sq mi). The terrain is highly mountainous, lying within the Alps; only 32% of the country is below 500 m (1,640 ft), and its highest point is 3,798 m (12,461 ft). The majority of the population speaks local Bavarian dialects as their native language, and German in its standard form is the country's official language. Other local official languages are Hungarian, Burgenland Croatian, and Slovene.



Riegl studied at the University of Vienna, where he attended classes on philosophy and history taught by Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Max Büdinger, and Robert Zimmerman, and studied connoisseurship on the Morellian model with Moritz Thausing. His dissertation was a study of the Jakobskirche in Regensburg, while his habilitation, completed in 1889, addressed medieval calendar manuscripts.

University of Vienna public university located in Vienna, Austria

The University of Vienna is a public university located in Vienna, Austria. It was founded by Duke Rudolph IV in 1365 and is the oldest university in the German-speaking world. With its long and rich history, the University of Vienna has developed into one of the largest universities in Europe, and also one of the most renowned, especially in the Humanities. It is associated with 20 Nobel prize winners and has been the academic home to a large number of scholars of historical as well as of academic importance.

Franz Brentano Austrian philosopher

Franz Clemens Honoratus Hermann Brentano was an influential German philosopher, psychologist, and priest whose work strongly influenced not only students Edmund Husserl, Sigmund Freud, Tomáš Masaryk, Rudolf Steiner, Alexius Meinong, Carl Stumpf, Anton Marty, Kazimierz Twardowski, and Christian von Ehrenfels, but many others whose work would follow and make use of his original ideas and concepts.

Alexius Meinong Austrian philosopher

Alexius Meinong Ritter von Handschuchsheim was an Austrian philosopher, a realist known for his unique ontology. He also made contributions to philosophy of mind and theory of value.

In 1886 Riegl accepted a curatorial position at the k.k. Österreichisches Museum für Kunst und Industrie (today the Museum für angewandte Kunst) in Vienna, where he would work for the next ten years, eventually as director of the textile department. His first book, Altorientalische Teppiche (Antique oriental carpets) (1891), grew out of this experience.

The adjective kaiserlich-königlich, German for Imperial-Royal, was applied to the authorities and state institutions of the Austrian Empire until the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thereafter the abbreviation k. k. only applied to institutions of the so-called Cisleithania. Common institutions of both halves of the empire were described from 1867 to 1918 as kaiserlich und königlich/k. u. k.. Contrary to the regulations, the Common Army continued to use the abbreviation k. k. to describe itself until 1889.

Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna Design Museum in Stubenring , Vienna

The MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art is an arts and crafts museum located at Stubenring 5 in Vienna’s 1st district Innere Stadt. Besides its traditional orientation towards arts and crafts and design, the museum especially focuses on architecture and contemporary art.

Riegl's reputation as an innovative art historian, however, was established by his second book, Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Problems of style: foundations for a history of ornament) (1893). In this work Riegl sought to refute the materialist account of the origins of decorative motifs from, for example, the weaving of textiles, a theory that was associated with the followers of Gottfried Semper. Instead, Riegl attempted to describe a continuous and autonomous "history of ornament." To this end he followed certain ornamental motifs, such as the arabesque, from ancient near eastern through classical and up into early medieval and Islamic art, in the process developing the idea of a Kunstwollen (difficult to translate, although "will to art" is one possibility). Riegl seems to have conceived the Kunstwollen as a historically contingent tendency of an age or a nation that drove stylistic development without respect to mimetic or technological concerns. Its proper interpretation, however, has itself been a subject of scholarly debate for over a century.

<i>Stilfragen</i> book by Alois Riegl

Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik is a book on the history of ornament by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl. It was published in Berlin in 1893. The English translation renders the title as Problems of style: foundations for a history of ornament, although this has been criticized by some. It has been called "the one great book ever written about the history of ornament."

Gottfried Semper German architect

Gottfried Semper was a German architect, art critic, and professor of architecture, who designed and built the Semper Opera House in Dresden between 1838 and 1841. In 1849 he took part in the May Uprising in Dresden and was put on the government's wanted list. Semper fled first to Zürich and later to London. Later he returned to Germany after the 1862 amnesty granted to the revolutionaries.

Medieval art

The medieval art of the Western world covers a vast scope of time and place, over 1000 years of art in Europe, and at times the Middle East and North Africa. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists' crafts, and the artists themselves.

In 1894, on the basis of the Stilfragen, Riegl was awarded an extraordinarius position at the University of Vienna, where he began to lecture on Baroque art, a period that was at the time considered merely as the decadent end of the Renaissance. In the meantime he became increasingly preoccupied with the relationship between stylistic development and cultural history, a concern that may indicate the growing influence of Karl Schnaase's work on his thought. This concern is particularly evident in two manuscripts that he prepared during this time, but were published only after his death as the Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste (Historical grammar of the visual arts). In these manuscripts Riegl attempted to chart the entire history of western art as the record of a "contest with nature." This contest took different forms depending on the changing historical conceptions of nature by humans.

Baroque cultural movement, starting around 1600

The Baroque is a highly ornate and often extravagant style of architecture, music, painting, sculpture and other arts that flourished in Europe from the early 17th until the mid-18th century. It followed the Renaissance style and preceded the Rococo and Neoclassical styles. It was encouraged by the Catholic Church as a means to counter the simplicity and austerity of Protestant architecture, art and music, though Lutheran Baroque art developed in parts of Europe as well. The Baroque style used contrast, movement, exuberant detail, deep colour, grandeur and surprise to achieve a sense of awe. The style began at the start of the 17th century in Rome, then spread rapidly to France, northern Italy, Spain and Portugal, then to Austria and southern Germany. By the 1730s, it had evolved into an even more flamboyant style, called rocaille or Rococo, which appeared in France and central Europe until the mid to late 18th century.

Karl Schnaase German art historian

Karl Schnaase was a distinguished German art historian and jurist. He was one of the founders of modern art history, and the author of one of the first surveys of the history of art.

In 1901 Riegl published a work that combined his interest in neglected, "transitional," periods with his endeavor to explain the relationship between style and cultural history. This took the form of a study of late antiquity. The Spätrömische Kunstindustrie (Late Roman art industry) (1901) was an attempt to characterize late antique art through stylistic analyses of its major monuments (for example, the Arch of Constantine) and also of such humble objects as belt buckles. The Kunstindustrie followed the lead of an earlier work by Riegl's colleague Franz Wickhoff, Die Wiener Genesis (1895), a study of late antique manuscript painting. The two books, taken together, were among the first to consider the aesthetic characteristics of late antique art on their own terms, and not as representing the collapse of classical standards. They also led to a controversy between Riegl and Wickhoff, on the one side, and Josef Strzygowski, on the other, concerning the origins of the late antique style.

Late antiquity period of transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages (Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East only)

Late antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages in mainland Europe, the Mediterranean world, the Near East, and to an extent, South Asia. The popularization of this periodization in English has generally been accredited to historian Peter Brown, after the publication of his seminal work The World of Late Antiquity (1971). Precise boundaries for the period are a continuing matter of debate, but Brown proposes a period between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD. Generally, it can be thought of as from the end of the Roman Empire's Crisis of the Third Century to, in the East, the early Muslim conquests in the mid-7th century. In the West the end was earlier, with the start of the Early Middle Ages typically placed in the 6th century, or earlier on the edges of the Western Roman Empire.

Arch of Constantine Triumphal arch in Rome

The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch in Rome, situated between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill. It was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine I's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. Dedicated in 315, it is the largest Roman triumphal arch. The arch spans the Via triumphalis, the way taken by the emperors when they entered the city in triumph.

Franz Wickhoff Austrian art historian

Franz Wickhoff was an Austrian art historian, and is considered a member of the Vienna School of Art History.

It has been argued, however, that the Kunstindustrie was conceived more as a philosophical justification of the concept of Kunstwollen than as a study of late antique art. [1] Indeed, one of Riegl's clearer definitions of the concept appears in the final chapter of the Kunstindustrie:

All human will is directed toward a satisfactory shaping of man's relationship to the world, within and beyond the individual. The plastic Kunstwollen regulates man's relationship to the sensibly perceptible appearance of things. Art expresses the way man wants to see things shaped or colored, just as the poetic Kunstwollen expreses the way man wants to imagine them. Man is not only a passive, sensory recipient, but also a desiring, active being who wishes to interpret the world in such a way (varying from one people, region, or epoch to another) that it most clearly and obligingly meets his desires. The character of this will is contained in what we call the worldview (again in the broadest sense): in religion, philosophy, science, even statecraft and law. [2]

Here all the main elements of Riegl's mature conception of the Kunstwollen are clearly expressed: its active nature, through which art becomes, not the imitation of reality, but the expression of a desired reality; its historical contingency; and its relation to other elements of "worldview." By means of this theoretical apparatus, Riegl could claim to penetrate to the essence of a culture or an era through formal analysis of the art that it produced.

Riegl's final completed monograph, Das holländische Gruppenporträt (The group portraiture of Holland) (1902), focused on the Dutch baroque, and represented yet another shift in method. Here Riegl began to develop a theory of "attentiveness" to describe the relationship between the viewer of a work of art and the work itself.

Riegl died from cancer three years later, at the age of 47.


Many of Riegl's unfinished works were published after his death, including Die Entstehung der Barockkunst in Rom (The development of Baroque art in Rome) and the Historische Grammatik der bildenden Künste (Historical grammar of the visual arts). Riegl had a robust following in Vienna, and certain of his students (the so-called Second Vienna School) attempted to develop his theories into a comprehensive art-historical method. In certain cases, such as that of the controversial Hans Sedlmayr, this led to unrestrained formalism. As a result, Riegl's stock declined, particularly in the American academy, and iconography was seen as a more responsible method.

Riegl's Stilfragen remained influential throughout the twentieth century. Its terminology was introduced to English-language scholarship in particular by Paul Jacobsthal's work on Celtic art. Ernst Gombrich drew heavily on the Stilfragen, which he called "the one great book ever written about the history of ornament", [3] in his own study of The sense of order.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Riegl had a significant impact on Otto Rank's seminal work, Art and Artist. Rank recognized the will-to-art as parallel to an idea he had been developing on creative urge and personality development. Riegl's work allowed Rank to apply the general problem of will to artistic expression across cultures where Rank found consistency for the individual will in a social ideology. Primitive, "ornamental" art, for example, uniquely represents a social belief in the abstract soul, and does not represent a lack of naturalism; it is an accurate presentation of the abstract in concrete form. Rank follows the development of art, which he believes contributes more than religion, in the humanization and concretization of the soul belief as classically displayed in nature and then man himself as the god. It is Riegl's emphasis on the historical context that initially inspires Rank to equally consider all forms of expression as a will-to-art.

Wilhelm Worringer likewise mentions his debt to Riegl in terms of art theory, and what Worringer calls, "the urge to abstraction." Art history is not a progress of ability from primitive lack of skill, but is, in Riegl's terms, a history of volition. Clemena Antonova writes, "Worringer sides with Riegl in that relativist approach to art and maintains that, "what appears from our standpoint the greatest distortion, must have been, at the time, for its creator the highest beauty and expression of his artistic volition." [4] Rank cites Worringer as taking Riegl up to the verge of psychological insight where art forms can be interpreted parallel to forms of belief in the soul, and, indeed, Worringer coined the term "expressionism" which is the modern individual psychology of Rank's presentation under primitive abstraction, classical intuition, and modern expression.

In the late twentieth century, the entirety of Riegl's work was revisited by scholars of diverse methodological persuasions, including post-structuralism and reception aesthetics. In retrospect a number of tendencies of Riegl's work seem to have foreshadowed the concerns of contemporary art history: his insistence that aesthetics be treated in historical context, and not in relation to an ideal standard; his interest in the "minor" arts; and his attention to the relationship between viewers and objects.


  1. J. Elsner: "From empirical evidence to the big picture: some reflections on Riegl's concept of Kunstwollen," Critical Inquiry 32 (2006), 741-66.
  2. Tr. C.S. Wood: The Vienna School reader: politics and art historical method in the 1930s (New York, 2000), 94-95
  3. E.H. Gombrich, The sense of order (London, 1984), 182
  4. Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, p.14


The most complete bibliographies of Riegl's work are found in K.M. Swoboda, ed., Gesammelte Aufsätze (Augsburg, 1929), xxxv-xxxix; and E.M. Kain and D. Britt, tr., The Group Portraiture of Holland (Los Angeles, 1989), 384-92. The following list includes only monographs, book-length works, and collections, arranged by date of publication.




Related Research Articles

Peter Weibel Austrian artist

Peter Weibel is an Austrian artist, curator and theoretician.

Josef Strzygowski Austrian art historian

Josef Strzygowski was a Polish-Austrian art historian known for his theories promoting influences from the art of the Near East on European art, for example that of Early Christian Armenian architecture on the early Medieval architecture of Europe, outlined in his book, Die Baukunst der Armenier und Europa. He is considered a member of the Vienna School of Art History.

Max Dvořák Czech art historian

Max Dvořák was a Czech-born Austrian art historian. He was a professor of art history at the University of Vienna and a famous member of the Vienna School of Art History, employing a "Geistesgeschichte" methodology.

Wilhelm Robert Worringer was a German art historian known for his theories about abstract art and its relation to avant-garde movements such as German Expressionism. Through his influence on the art critic T. E. Hulme, his ideas were influential in the development of early British modernism, especially Vorticism.

Hans Sedlmayr was an Austrian art historian. From 1931 to 1932 and from 1938 onwards, he was a member of the Nazi Party.

David Kaufmann Austrian academic

David Kaufmann was a Jewish-Austrian scholar born at Kojetín, Moravia. From 1861 to 1867 he attended the gymnasium at Kroměříž, Moravia, where he studied the Bible and Talmud with Jacob Brüll, rabbi of Kojetín, and with the latter's son Nehemiah.

Moritz Thausing Austrian art historian

Moritz Thausing was an Austrian art historian, and counts among the founders of the Vienna School of Art History.

The Vienna School of Art History was the development of fundamental art-historical methods at the University of Vienna. This school was not actually a dogmatically unified group, but rather an intellectual evolution extending over a number of generations, in which a series of outstanding scholars each built upon the achievements of their forerunners, while contributing their own unique perspectives. Essential elements of this evolution became fundamental for modern art history, even if the individual methods can today no longer claim absolute validity.

Rudolf Eitelberger Austrian art historian

Rudolf Eitelberger, full name Rudolf Eitelberger von Edelberg was an art historian and the first Ordinarius for art history at the University of Vienna. He is considered as the founder of the Vienna School of Art History.

Otto Pächt was an Austrian art historian.

Julius von Schlosser Austrian art historian

Julius Alwin Franz Georg Andreas Ritter von Schlosser was an Austrian art historian and an important member of the Vienna School of Art History. According to Ernst Gombrich, he was "One of the most distinguished personalities of art history".

Kronprinzenpalais palace in Berlin

The Kronprinzenpalais is a landmark late Neoclassical-style building at one end of Unter den Linden in Berlin. It was a palace of the ruling Hohenzollern house of Prussia until the abolition of the monarchy at the end of World War I. It then became an annexe of the Berlin National Gallery, housing a preeminent collection of modern art. It was closed by the Nazis and the building was destroyed in World War II. It was rebuilt in 1968 and used by East Germany as a guest house for official visitors to their capital of East Berlin. Since German reunification it has been used for exhibitions and cultural events.

Architectural style specific method of construction, characterized by the features that make it notable

An architectural style is characterized by the features that make a building or other structure notable or historically identifiable. A style may include such elements as form, method of construction, building materials, and regional character. Most architecture can be classified within a chronology of styles which changes over time reflecting changing fashions, beliefs and religions, or the emergence of new ideas, technology, or materials which make new styles possible.

Hans Tietze was an Austrian art historian and member of the Vienna School of Art History.

Kurt Erdmann was a German art historian who specialized in Sasanian and Islamic Art. He is best known for his scientific work on the history of the Oriental rug, which he established as a subspecialty within his scientific discipline. From 1958 to 1964, Erdmann served as the director of the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. He was one of the protagonists of the "Berlin school" of Islamic art history.

Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg Austrian art historian and archaeologist

Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg was an Austrian-German archaeologist and art historian. He was the husband of writer Marie Luise Kaschnitz.

Alphons Leopold Mielich Austrian painter

Alphons Leopold Mielich was an Austrian painter noted for his orientalist scenes. He participated in a team responsible for documenting the frescoes in an Umayyad castle at Qasr Amra, including the famous Painting of the Six Kings and provided the illustrations for a published book on the findings, Kusejr'Amra, published in 1907.