Lessing’s Laocoon: How A Greek Statue Changed Aesthetics

Ephraim Gotthold Lessing’s essay Laocoon was one of the most controversial essays of its time. Today it remains an essential work in the history of aesthetics.

Aug 29, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
ephraim lessing laocoon
Lessing, c. 1870, copy of a work by Carl Jäger; with detail of Laocoon, Vatican Museums


Laocoon and his sons is one of antiquity’s most famous sculptures. Its expression of pain has received praise for centuries, from the time of the Roman author Pliny the Elder, all the way to the modern period. In the 18th century, the statue found a special place in the writings of the German classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. However, Winckelmann’s descriptions of Laocoon’s pain became the reason for another German, Ephraim Gotthold Lessing, to write a lengthy essay titled Laocoon (1766). There, Lessing attempted to study the differences between the literary and the visual arts. His Laocoon is now considered a text with special historical importance in the history of aesthetics.


Winckelmann’s Laocoon

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Raphael Mengs, c. 1777, Met Museum, New York


“Of noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.”


These are the words that Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) used to describe ancient Greek art, and more specifically, Laocoon and his sons, a statue-group unearthed in 1506 and today exhibited at the Vatican. The sculpture depicted a famous episode from the Trojan War. When the Greeks brought the Trojan Horse to Troy, Laocoon became suspicious and warned his fellow Trojan citizens to remain cautious. This angered the gods supporting the Greek army who sent two giant snakes to kill Laocoon and his sons. The sculpture depicted exactly Laocoon’s struggle against the snakes, moments before his death.


There are many theories regarding who created the Laocoon group and when. Everyone pretty much agrees that stylistically this is a masterpiece of the Hellenistic Period, the age that followed the death of Alexander the Great, while chronologically, the sculpture is most probably placed in the early Roman imperial era. Yet, Winckelmann based his aesthetics on the premise that Laocoon was the embodiment of the Classical Period‘s art. Winckelmann, considered by many the father of archaeology, and one of the most important aestheticians in history, was spectacularly wrong, and this was not his only mistake.


Copy of Lessing’s Laocoon, 1766, Museum-Digital


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Reading Winckelmann’s Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1755), another German aesthetician was filled with mixed emotions. This man, whose name was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), disagreed so strongly with a description of Laocoon provided by Winckelmann that he wrote a whole book called Laocoon; An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766). On its first page, Lessing quotes Winckelmann’s description in full:


“Such a soul is depicted in Laocoon’s face, and not only in his face, under the most violent suffering. The pain is revealed in every muscle and sinew of his body and one can almost feel it oneself in the painful contraction of the abdomen without looking at the face or other parts of the body at all. However, this pain expresses itself without any sign of rage either in his face or in his posture. He does not raise his voice in a scream which Virgil describes his Laocoon as doing. Rather he emits the anxious and subdued sigh described by Sadolet.” 


But what exactly did Lessing find annoying in this description? For once he strongly disagreed with the idea that Laocoon was a mere reflection of the image that was presented in Virgil’s poetry. According to Lessing, a sculptor and a poet cannot have the same image in their minds, and they certainly cannot depict it the same way. These arts are different; painting (he uses this term to denote the visual arts, including sculpture) has different qualities and means than poetry (this term denotes the literary arts in general). This is what Winckelmann, according to Lessing, got wrong.


Ut Pitura Poesis: What Problem Did Lessing Attempt To Solve With Laocoon? 

Laocoon and his sons, Vatican Museums


At this point, one can easily ask: “So, Lessing said that poetry and painting are different. But isn’t this self-evident?”


It wasn’t. Today it is generally understood that the visual and the literary arts differ from one another. We understand that a singer needs to master different skills and employs a creative medium with certain aesthetic qualities that a sculptor cannot access.  However, for centuries philosophers and artists had a different idea.


Starting with Aristotle, the ancient Greeks believed that the aim of art was imitation (mimesis), and more specifically, the imitation of nature. Aristotle drew some parables between painting and poetry but at the same time recognized that they were distinct. However, the idea that they were both aiming at imitation limited the possibilities of seriously examining each of these arts and understanding where they might differ. Centuries later, Horace in his Ars Poetica wrote that:


“As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic’s subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light” 


Later philosophers, artists, and critics read this statement but somehow ended up keeping only the very first few words: “as is painting, so is poetry” or in the original Latin text “ut pictura poesis”. This became a doctrine that helped create a delusion. For centuries, people believed that the higher art was painting as it could imitate nature the best and that all artists ought to behave like painters. Within this framework, a poet had to paint images, just like a painter. The better they were at this, the better their work was considered.

Of course, not all artists created art like this. This idea was mainly prevalent amongst those philosophizing and critiquing art. It was in 18th and 19th century Germany where “ut pictura poesis” became a commonly accepted doctrine amongst both philosophers and artists. This led to literature filled with long, exhaustive descriptions in an attempt to create complete images. Within this context, Lessing came to establish a new idea; that poetry and painting express things in different ways.


Why Isn’t Lacoon Screaming?

Laocoon’s head, Wikimedia Commons


According to Lessing, a poet speaks of ugliness or beauty through signs that are not necessarily ugly or beautiful. However, the visual artist does not speak about these things but directly depicts them. Consequently, the visual artist has to veil all excesses and tone down the overflowing emotions that could overwhelm the viewer. Why? Because the artist has to present something beautiful and not something distressing. This is exactly the reason why the artist of the Laocoon, according to Lessing, did not depict his Laocoon screaming but with his mouth barely open:


“simply imagine Laocoon’s mouth forced wide open, and then judge! Imagine him screaming and then look! From a form which inspires pity because it possessed beauty and pain at the same time, it has now become an ugly, repulsive form from which we gladly turn away. For the sight of pain provokes distress; however, the distress should be transformed through beauty, into the tender feeling of pity.”
p. 17


The Fruitful Moment Of Painting

Medea and Jason, John William Waterhouse, 1907, johnwilliamwaterhouse.com


Just like the artist of the Laocoon had to show moderation in his depiction of physical pain, all visual artists have to restrict themselves from overloading the spectator with crude emotions. This is due to the particular nature of the visual arts, limiting them to capturing a single moment in time.


The work of visual artists is not simply made to be looked at, but also to be contemplated long and often. Consequently, visual artists must take care to depict a certain moment, a fruitful or pregnant moment. This moment allows all possibilities to remain open without constraining our imagination. Lessing here brings the example of the ancient Greek painter Timomachus and his painting of Medea. Timomachus chose to paint his Medea, not at the time of the murder but a few moments before, “when a mother’s love was struggling with her vengefulness” (p. 21). This way, the artist allows us to imagine all the possible outcomes. Since we know what eventually happens (Medea murders her children), the painting of a pre-murder Medea is even more tragic as it allows us to peek into the woman that she could be.


In addition, this moment should not be transitory because, according to Lessing, with the passage of time, the depiction of a transitory moment appears unnatural. A hard laugh for example is by nature something ephemeral. Granted the perpetuity given to it by art, a laugh will eventually appear unnatural. Maybe seeing a bust of Democritus laughing the first time will not seem unnatural, but the second or the third time will, says Lessing.


Distinction Between Poetry And Painting

Still Life with four Bunches of Grapes, an attempt at creating life-like grapes like those of the ancient painter Zeuxis, Juan “El Labrador” Fernandez, 1636, Prado, Madrid


“But as two equitable and friendly neighbors do not allow the one to take unbecoming liberties’ in the heart of the other’s domain, yet on their extreme frontier’s practice a mutual forbearance by which both sides make peaceful compensation for those slight aggressions which, in haste and from force of circumstance, the one finds himself compelled to make on the other’s privilege: so also with painting and poetry.” p. 91


Lessing, in Laocoon, is primarily concerned with the distinction between painting and poetry. The one he describes as forms and colors in space and the other articulate sounds in time. Painting is concerned with bodies and their visible properties, while poetry with actions and their properties. Nevertheless, painting can imitate actions, suggesting them through forms, while poetry describes bodies but only indirectly through actions.


Painting uses a single moment and, as we saw, must use the most “pregnant” moment, suggestive of what has gone before and what is to happen. Poetry uses multiple moments but is restricted to only a single attribute of the body for each moment and must choose the one giving a vivid image of the body in one particular action.


Interestingly Lessing believes that only painting can successfully (if at all) imitate natural beauty. That is because natural beauty results from the harmonious action of various parts taken at a glance. For this reason, he advises poets to abandon all attempts at describing nature in an attempt to capture it. Instead, he encourages them to embrace poetry’s ability to present motion in time. As an example, he brings Homer, who does not describe beauty but allows us to glimpse at it by explaining how people are charmed by beauty. Because charm is the effect of beauty in time, it’s nothing else than beauty in motion.


Lessing’s Laocoon: Where Did It Fail And Succeed?

Lessing, c. 1870, copy of a work by Carl Jäger, via Wikimedia Commons


Lessing’s Laocoon played a determining role in pushing German art away from the Baroque and Rococo and into Romanticism. Especially in poetry, he influenced poets to abstain from long and detailed descriptions and engage in more emotional and expressive art forms. Action became the goal of poets ushering in the period of the Sturm und Drang which found its apotheosis in none other than Goethe.


It is also generally thought of as the end of a long aesthetic tradition that treated literature as painting. Although Lessing’s work did not end this tradition, it played a significant role in questioning it. However, the German thinker also failed to talk about the rest of the arts as autonomous. For example, he referred to all the visual arts under the term painting and never thought painting and sculpture might be different. This becomes even weirder when one realizes that Lessing used a sculpture, Laocoon and his Sons, as a key example of a painting! More importantly, though, he completely ignored music, although he intended to talk about it in another book he never completed.


Lessing has also been critiqued for using Greek art to structure his arguments even though he had never seen the artworks about which he spoke. Interestingly, he had only ever seen the Laocoon in engravings.


Suggested Further Readings


McCormick, Edward Allen (1962). Translator’s Introduction. In Ephraim Gotthold Lessing, Laocoon. Bobbs-Merrill Company

Lessing, Gotthold E. Laocoön (1984) An essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Translated by Edward Allen McCormick. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1984.

Lifschitz, Avi and Squire, Michael (2017). Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon. Oxford University Press

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.