Warburg, Aby, 1866-1929

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German art historian.

From the description of Letters, 1918. (Getty Research Institute). WorldCat record id: 81610145

Born in Hamburg and educated in Germany, Aby Warburg was a German art and cultural historian. He was a renowned scholar of the Florentine Renaissance and who worked over the course of his career to develop a method to study the cultural history of different periods in a scientific manner by tracking the survival of iconographical motifs in art. Specifically, he was the first to develop this method, sometimes termed 'iconographical' or 'iconological', now pervasive in and indispensable to the field of art history. He collected a vast library of both books and individual images, which later became the Warburg Institute, now in London, UK. The son of a successful banking family, at a young age he famously traded his birthright as the eldest son to follow in his father's footsteps, Moritz Warburg, in their bank to his brother, Max, in exchange for Max's promise to always buy him whatever books he ever needed. By the age of twenty, Aby Warburg began to systematically record and preserve not only the works that entered his budding collection, but also more mundane details such as cost and the date of acquisition. Even before his professional career began he already had in mind the idea of creating a library specific to the needs of an art historian sharing similar concerns as he did. Between 1886 and 1892, Warburg studied art history, history, archaeology, and psychology at the University of Bonn, the University of Strasbourg, the University of Munich, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut Florenz, working under various professors, including Carl Justi, Karl Lamprecht, and Hubert Janitschek. Janitschek, a professor at Strasbourg, served as his Doktorvater for his dissertation, published in 1893 as "Sandro Botticellis 'Geburt der Venus' und 'Frühling'. Eine Untersuchung über die Vorstellungen von der Antike in der italienischen Frührenaissance," Hamburg and Leipzig. Warburg traveled to Florence throughout his doctoral studies and continued to visit after completing his dissertation. He also traveled to the Southwestern United States, engrossed in the cultural artifacts and archaeological remains of the Puebloan peoples. He collected many artifacts during his travels there in 1895 and 1896, which he later donated to the Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde, an institution for which he also served as a board member. A native of Hamburg, he eventually helped to found a university in the city, where he took up a professorship in 1919. Soon thereafter, Warburg's mental condition deteriorated and he was diagnosed with various psychological disorders upon entering a mental clinic in 1921. However, he recovered after some years and resumed his university duties of leading lectures and seminars from 1925 until his death of a heart attack in 1929. His collected library of books and personal archive had been preserved intact following his death, with both his fellow scholars and his family intent on preserving the library as a single collection, as well as the center of a larger institution devoted to furthering scholarship and research. By the last decade of his life, Warburg was already hosting other scholars in the small buildings he had purchased for storing his collection, so that by his last years he was already searching for a permanent location for the budding institute. The financial and political situation in Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s made a location in Germany unfeasible. Other potential destinations included Rome, due to Warburg's, and many German scholars' generally, close ties to Italian art historians, or Leiden, but financial support was never found for such moves. In 1933, a surprise anonymous donor in England at last provided the funds for moving the collection, at that time numbering some 60,000 books, to London while other mediators negotiated a temporary location to house the collection and its handful of staff, along with any visiting researchers, at the University of London. The lease ran for ten years, after which the Warburg Institute was formally incorporated as an entity within the University of London, in 1944.
Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Papers of Paul J. Sachs, 1903-2005 Harvard Art Museums. Archives
referencedIn Charles Eliot Norton papers Houghton Library
referencedIn Papers of Paul J. Sachs, 1903-2005 Harvard Art Museums. Archives
referencedIn Jacob Jacobson Collection, 1660-1958 Leo Baeck Institute Archives
creatorOf Warburg, Aby, 1866-1929. Letters, 1918. Getty Research Institute
referencedIn Sachs, Paul J. (Paul Joseph), 1878-1965. Papers, 1903-2005. Harvard University Art Museum
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Oral history interview with Linda Nochlin Archives of American Art
referencedIn Hamburgisches Museum Fur Volkerkunde und Vorgeschichte Chaco Research Archive
Relation Name
associatedWith Beckerath, Willy von. person
associatedWith Dammann, Walter Heinrich, 1883- person
memberOf Hamburgisches Museum für Völkerkunde. corporateBody
associatedWith Jacobson, Jacob, 1888-1968 person
associatedWith Nochlin, Linda person
associatedWith Norton, Charles Eliot, 1827-1908 person
associatedWith Sachs, Paul J., 1878-1965 person
associatedWith Sachs, Paul J. (Paul Joseph), 1878-1965 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Berlin 16 DE
Chaco Canyon NM US
Bonn 07 DE
Hamburg 04 DE
Strasbourg C1 FR
Firenze 16 IT
Art criticism
Art historians


Birth 1866-06-13

Death 1929-10-26





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