Art History

Heinrick Wölfflin, Katsushika Hokusai and J. M. W. Turner

The observation of nature is an empty notion as long as we do not know in what forms the observation took place.  The whole progress of the “imitation of nature” is anchored in “decorative feeling.” Heinrick Wölfflin

An exploration of the distinction between the “imitation of nature” and “decorative feeling” with reference to the works of Katsushika Hokusai and J. M. W. Turner

This article will critically examine Heinrich Wölfflin’s theory of the ‘Development of Style.’[1]  Applying the comparative approach utilised in Principles of Art History,[2] selected paintings by J. M. W. Turner will be set alongside the woodblock prints taken from Katsushika Hokusai’s Mount Fuji scenes.   Wölfflin believed that style had an evolutionary history of its own, which would root an artwork within the visual preferences in existence at the time and locale of its creation.

Rejecting previous attempts at deciphering the stylistic transformations in art, in particular the Hegelian notion of a collective trajectory towards an ‘Absolute Idea,’[3]   Wölfflin concentrated upon isolating that which was present across the history of artworks;  form.  Previously, style would be identified in the work of one artist, Wölfflin wished instead to categorise these elements and group together the ‘specific expressions of an age.’[4]  In observing the way in which the ‘imitation of nature’ and ‘decorative feeling’ inform Wölfflin’s approach to art history, particular attention will be paid in this article to the relationship between subject and form, and, more specifically, how a fusion of the two can, rather than dismiss it, build upon the groundwork of Wölfflin’s theory.

In broadly defining the terms, the ‘imitation of nature’[5] refers to the subject matter of a painting, categorised by the conscious choices made by the artwork’s creator.  Within Wölfflin’s text, the significance of the subject is dismissed early on, and respectfully set aside, as the domain of the artist.  ‘Decorative feeling,’[6] or form, becomes the realm of the art historian; the aspect of an artwork that is steeped in historical progression, which Wölfflin claims artists are ‘more or less indifferent’[7] to.  It is subconscious and plural, rather than individual, felt through a society’s culture and not selectively chosen at will.  Principles of Art History suggests that it is prejudiced and unempirical to interpret archaic samples of artworks as if they belonged to the ‘modern’[8] time of analysis.  Instead, a model with an all-encompassing approach is required.   In looking for a stable and consistent point of reference, present in all artworks, Wölfflin began identifying signifiers within the formal aspect of art.  For example, assessment would not focus on how accurately Turner portrayed the centre of an ocean storm.  The spiritual aspect of Hokusai’s work, or his depiction of the human condition, would not be of interest within Wölfflin’s framework.  Instead, one would seek to place them into broad categories of visual style, based on their formalistic qualities, rather than thematically.

In beginning a closer discussion of the artworks, it would be of value to consider the appropriateness of extracting formal qualities in isolation for analysis.  Turner’s works are characterised by a strong sense of personality, whilst Hokusai imbues his prints with a timeless tranquillity and, at first perhaps, it seems that an interpretation would be the poorer for not bringing these factors into consideration alongside formal style.  However, Yiengpruksawan relates that studies of Japanese art history have often been ‘short on scholarship but long on romantic conjuring of “Japanese spirit.”’[9] Therefore, an objective, purely formalist, reappraisal may be appropriate.   Hokusai’s Fuji prints invite a formalist interpretation, with the same subject depicted from many angles, as if to purposefully display the different compositions and variations in perspective.   Turner’s works are often referred to in terms of their formal qualities, rather than subject.   Kasson[10] reflects how Turner captured the imagination of the viewer, with his ‘intense rendering of colour, light and atmosphere.’ [11]  As with Hokusai, Turner often returns to similar subjects as inspiration for his work, particularly the ocean, and so the identifiable differences are most felt in their formal qualities.    Curators often cite tales of the artist being tied to the mast of ships to experience the reality of being caught in a squall, in ‘a heroic method of observing extreme meteorological effects at close quarters.’[12] The artist’s passion seems to inhabit the stormy seascapes.  Wölfflin’s methods remove those preconceptions which could strongly influence the reading of an artwork, in favour of a more objective stance.

This, then, leads to the assessment of form.  Wölfflin argues that ‘the historian must realise what choice of formal possibilities the epoch had at its disposal.’[13] Within these phases, Wölfflin made allowances for ‘national type’[14] and, therefore, Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa[15]and Turner’s Dutch Boats in a Gale[16] produce distinctly different interpretations despite the two artists being contemporaries, and irrespective of the fact that both were attempting a similar ‘imitation of nature.’ In setting aside the iconographic aspects of an artwork, Wölfflin prompts us to contrast the formal qualities, ‘such as line, colour, and the distribution of light and shade.’[17]  Dutch Boats uses its painterly form to capture the movement of the waves, the swell of the storm.  The eye is led across towards the peaceful waters and safe harbour in the distance, and the sense of movement seems to push towards this happy ending.  Under the Wave, uses a linear schema that effectively suspends the scene at a moment of great dramatic tension, as the wave crests over the boat.  There seems little escape for the vessel, protected only by the infinity of this pause.  The form does seem to have a strong influence over how the subject matter is perceived.

Hokusai and Turner both represent different styles within Wölfflin’s model.   Hokusai’s work would be viewed as less advanced along the form-based evolutionary chain than Turner’s, and in Wölfflin’s terms, ‘primitive.’[18]  It can quickly be identified within the ‘universal classifications’[19] of style:  ‘In their desire for recession and their dread of looking flat, earlier artists were apt to place striking elements in the picture in a slanting position.’[20]  This can be seen in Kajikazawa in Kai Province,[21] where the diagonal line of the rocky outcrop seems to jut outwards over the waves.

The spectator’s eyes are led along the path of the cliff, left and then right, as if travelling into the scene.  Conversely, in Turner’s Fishermen Upon a Lee  Shore in Squally Weather,[22]the painting displays the same ‘lively recession’[23] that Wölfflin attributed to Rembrandt.

Fishermen upon a Lee Shore in Squally Weather [accessed 27/04/2011]

Turner, J.M.W Fishermen upon a Lee Shore in Squally Weather [accessed 27/04/2011]

The artwork escapes the boundaries of the frame, into an intangible distance.  Although Hokusai shrouds Mount Fuji in a dense mist that hints at a ‘painterly’[24] absence of line, it is still contained within the boundaries of the work.  However, Turner’s style is one of conveying infinity; the ocean is endless.  On such contrasts, Wölfflin states, ‘certainly there are things in nature which are more congenial to the painterly style than to the linear, but it is a prejudice to think that the earlier type must have felt itself limited on that account.’[25]  Wölfflin proposes that Hokusai and Turner are equals on the grounds of artistic talent, and Hokusai would have been unaware that a different style was possible, let alone could have achieved it.   Modern studies of Hokusai’s work, contrary to this, do suggest that he was able to incorporate these new influences into his prints; Seiji Nagata tells of how Hokusai’s art showed an ‘increased awareness of Western style, including emphasis on chiaroscuro.’[26]  This does seem to concur with Wölfflin’s theory, in the respect that Hokusai seems to be straining at employing perspective, whilst still tied to the traditions of eighteenth century Japan’s ‘decorative feeling.’

Turner - eruption of vesuvius

Turner, J.M.W. Eruption of Vesuvius [Accessed 29/04/2011]

A similarity to the controlled form used by Hokusai can be seen in Turner’s work, Eruption of Vesuvius. [27] The volcano seems to be cordoned off; the violent and billowing movements are held back by a dividing wall formed by the city.  The tip of the mountain sits neatly in the middle of the picture, the light slicing down the centre of the picture frame, highlighting a small figure, who sets a precise scale for the piece.   Remove the excitable plumes of smoke and a plane-like quality is discernable; the triangular volcano and a straight horizontal and vertical line cutting the painting into neat segments.  Turner’s paintings often depict a clash between nature and the encroaching machinery and buildings of industry[28]and this deceptively simple, formal technique powerfully reinforces this discord.  In this way, the formal analysis leads back to consideration of the subject.  Although removing the ‘imitation of nature’ from the initial investigation, it is of value to use Wölfflin’s objective framework to then assess the presentation of the subject.  It could be conjectured that if the artist has deviated from what would be considered as the ‘decorative feeling’ of their time, there was a conscious decision to do so.   There is a possible extension to Wölfflin’s theory here.  If an artwork is rooted within a cultural norm, departing from this will surely register in the reaction of the viewer and therefore draw attention to a particular meaning.

Hokusai does seems to alter his form dependant on the subject , such as in Red Fuji,[29] where the sacred mountain is stark, commanding and dominating in its geometric presence.  By depicting the clouds as two-dimensional, he conveys the tranquil beauty of the day, giving rise to its alternative title of Fine Wind, Clear Weather.  It can be assumed that  Hokusai’s subject and the artistic inspiration that led to the print has informed his choice of form, because it can be seen in other examples, such as Kajikazawa in Kai Province,[30] that he had other choices of perspective ‘possibilities’[31] in his repertoire.

Hokusai and Turner both appear to bridge two separate ‘epochs’[32] in the progress of art historical style.  According to Fehl, Turner was ‘a man straddling the fence between two periods, but was looking forward.’[33]  Hokusai, too, fits this description.   There is a taxonomic quality to Wölfflin’s model that becomes problematic when individual artists cannot strictly be placed into a style category.  Hokusai was doubly fortunate, in that he lived at a transformative period in Japan, as it started to become more aware of the western civilisations, and also reached an impressively old age, giving him the time required to transform and adapt his personal style.  These foreign influences on Hokusai’s art support Wölfflin’s conjecture that art offers ‘unmediated sensory access to past world views.’  The struggle between the old and new can be palpably felt through the formal fusion of styles within the Fuji print collection.   Perhaps where these artists appear not to fit, they are not exceptions and instead a new category has yet to be identified.  Principles warns the reader that they should not expect completeness and instead should anticipate a starting point, awaiting expansion.

Wölfflin’s categories seem to apply with relative ease to the carefully selected artworks he presents throughout his text.  However, although at the time of publication his vast array of examples may well have felt expansive and conclusive, in the modern times it may seem rather ethnocentric.  It could be argued this weakness in Wölfflin’s research proves his own point.  He could not help but take on the cultural zeitgeist.  His use of the term ‘primitive’ may cause ripples of discord, but he is a product of his time.   Perhaps, like the artworks he defends, Wölfflin should be judged within the era in which his work was conceived.  Maybe he sought to use terms and examples that would be identifiable by his audience, thus easing its acceptance into art historical discourse.  His success remains the conception of a new form of art theory, which sought to remove the subjectivity and elitism from the analytic equation.   An empirical emphasis served to give credibility to a fledging academic subject.

Principles of Art History becomes as constricted as the theories Wölfflin strived so hard to dismiss because, whilst the traditional methods favoured the idea of aesthetic beauty over form, Wölfflin equally seeks to circumvent one of the main features of a work of art.  In the current age of social connectivity, unimaginable only a century ago, formal style is yet further away from such closed notions of ‘national types,’ and strict categorisation becomes insufficient for mapping the global trends in visual preferences.   To reduce analysis down to a basic level of formal construction is certainly valuable in attempting to bring coherence to such an influx of varying artworks.  As with Hokusai and Turner, however, it then brings an additional depth to the analysis to then question how these objective qualities have informed the ‘imitation of nature’ and discern to what extent the artist may have consciously adopted a particular ‘decorative feeling’ that seems out of step.

Although artworks with a more linear style are labelled, ‘primitive,’ there is an attempt to explain them, and they are no longer dismissed.  It is an expansive theory that aims to include any work of art.  Wölfflin does not seek to raise one style above another for technical ability:  ‘For water and clouds, for phenomena of smoke and fire …is there any basis for the assertion that these things are more difficult to master with line?’ [34]

It is all too easy to be critical with hindsight about Wölfflin’s theories, after the emergence of post-colonial and feminist theory, and criticise it on the grounds of narrowness and partiality.  In remembering that the culture of reappraising artworks on an equal basis was not yet part of the academic discourse in the arts when Principles was first published, it seems remarkably modern in its overarching aims.   In the introduction to Principles, where Wölfflin details the limitations of his work, one may wonder whether it is himself as well as the artist he refers to when he states, ‘even the most original talent cannot proceed beyond certain limits which are fixed for it by the date of its birth.’[35]

The relationship between ‘imitation of nature’ and ‘decorative feeling’ is complex, overlapping and the two are not easily or comfortably parted.  As seen in the works of Turner and Hokusai, the artist can break free of the visual preferences, revert to a past form or progress into a new phase.   Wölfflin’s model could be built upon by suggesting that, so subconsciously ingrained is the ‘decorative feeling’ that for an artist to compete against this to something that feels ‘wrong’ could cleverly create a jolt in the viewer, a jarring sensation that would adjust their perception of the artwork and reveal a further meaning in the art itself.  As Wölfflin himself declares, his aim was not to provide the complete classification of art history, but to ‘set up’[36] the standards by which this could eventually take place.  He certainly succeeded in giving his own ‘jolt’ to the fledgling academic study of art history.  He propelled it into the fore with an empirical stance that encouraged scholars to look beyond subjectivity, and to consider the artwork of all cultures in their studies, albeit with reluctance and pre-feminist, pre-post-colonial trappings.  Wölfflin allowed the very differences in cultural ‘decorative feeling’ to become a great leveller, the one thing that brought together all art under the same unifying features.  Although Principles surgically removes ‘subject matter’ from art historical discourse far too absolutely, for even in the artworks of Hokusai and Turner discussed within these limited terms, a link can clearly be seen between the two, as far as a more inclusive view of art, the groundwork was laid.

 This article is adapted from the author’s postgraduate Masters essay written in April 2011


[1] Wölfflin, Heinrich Principles of Art History: The Problem of Development of Style in Later Art (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1986) p. vii
[2] Principles of Art History
[3] Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)
p. 28
[4] Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods p. 65
[5] Principles of Art History p. 231
[6] Ibid. p. 231
[7] Ibid. p. 10
[8] Ibid. p. vii
[9]Yiengpruksawan, Mimi Hall. ‘Japanese Art History 2001: The State and Stakes of Research’ Art Bulletin 83.1: 105 (2001) [Accessed 26/04/2011] p. 3, para. 2
[10] Kasson, John F., (review of) William S. Rodner, ‘J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution’, Technology and Culture, 40:3 (July 1999) p. 697, para. 1
[11] Ibid.
[12] Hall, James ‘A Sublime Rollercoaster Ride through Art History’ Tate etc. Issue 17/Autumn (2009) [Accessed: 28/04/2011] para. 1
[13] Principles of Art History, p. vii
[14] Ibid. p. vii
[15]Under the Wave off Kanagawa [Accessed 27/04/2011]
[16] Dutch Boats in a Gale [Accessed 27/04/ 2011]
[17] Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, p. 64
[18] Principles of Art History, p. 101
[19] Ibid. p. vii
[20] Ibid. p. 101
[21]Kajikazawa in Kai Province [accessed 27/04/2011]
[22]Fishermen upon a Lee Shore in Squally Weather [accessed 27/04/2011]
[23] Principles of Art History, p. 94
[24] Ibid. p. 14
[25] Ibid. p. 29
[26]Nagata, Seiji Hokusai: The genius of the Japanese Ukiyo-e (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1999) p. 16
[27] Eruption of Vesuvius [Accessed 29/04/2011]
[28] Kasson, John F., (review of) William S. Rodner, ‘J.M.W. Turner: Romantic Painter of the Industrial Revolution’, Technology and Culture, 40:3 (July 1999) p. 699
[29] Red Fuji [Accessed 29/04/2011]
[30]Kajikazawa in Kai Province [accessed 27/04/2011]
[31] Principles of Art History, p. vii
[32] Ibid. p. vii
[33] Fehl, Philipp, ‘Turner’s Classicism and the Problem of Periodisation in the History of Art’, Critical Inquiry 3:1 Autumn (1976) [Accessed 28/04/2011] p. 93, para. 1
[34] Principles of Art History, p. 29
[35] Ibid. p. ix
[36] Ibid. p. vii







3 replies »

  1. Outstanding condensation & illumination of Wölfflin’s “Principles.” His terms ‘imitation of nature’ and ‘decorative feeling’ seem so evocative compared to today’s “artspeak”–which your style brilliantly avoids. Thanks for the truly informative words! (And thanks for choosing Turner for your comparison. 😉


    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read my work, and the wonderful compliments. I’m really pleased to hear you say that I’ve avoided “art speak” – even in academic essays I believe that research on art should be readable and accessible, not exclusionary. I’m glad you like the comparison – I like the fact that Turner and Hokusai were contemporaries, albeit on far sides of the world.


  2. First off I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick
    question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.
    I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting
    my thoughts out. I do enjoy writing however it just seems like
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