Kant’s Maiden

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Kant’s Maiden

Alejandro Nodarse Jammal


Fig. 1. Caspar David Friedrich, Meeresstrand im Nebel (Seashore in Fog), c. 1807, oil on canvas, 34.2 x 50.2 cm, Belvedere Museum, Vienna. Used with permission.


Nearing the conclusion of his magnum opus on Greco-Roman sculpture, The History of Ancient Art (Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764), Johann Winckelmann turns to his reader and confesses:

Still I could not refrain from searching into the fate of works of art as far as my eye could reach; just as a maiden, standing on the shore of the ocean, follows with tearful eyes her departing lover with no hope of ever seeing him again, and fancies that in the distant sail she sees the image of her beloved.[1]

Winckelmann lingers in (homo)erotic contemplation before his subject (her beloved). The scholar’s lament of historical distance parallels a loss, or a forbiddance, of touch. Both of Winckelmann’s “bodies” undergo a procedure of imagistic sublimation. As the beloved is obscured in distance, the lover’s flesh is metonymized: the analyst (now “maiden”) reduced to his (or her) eye. The eye reaches. Tactile possession blighted, the eye responds in tears, to further (thematize) the object’s obfuscation.[2] This eye ultimately beholds its beloved not as an object to be touched but as an image distributed across its reflective surface.

Edward Bullough once conceived aesthetic distance as seeing through fog at sea: “a veil surrounding you with an opaqueness of transparent milk, blurring the outline of things…”[3] The reduction of clarity enhances the loss of the object, and transforms that which is lost into an image of itself. (As Teresa of Avila wrote two centuries earlier regarding her own prophetic visions: “when the clarity was not very strong, it did seem to me that I might be looking at a painting.”[4]) The tear may be said to produce a similar visual phenomenon, an instantiation of those very conditions within and upon one’s own body. It is Caspar David’s Friedrich’s Meeresstrand, or seashore, from which—I imagine—Winckelmann’s maiden departs; the obfuscation of the tear extended as Bullough’s Nebel, or fog, across the canvas (fig. 1).

Kant was one of Winckelmann’s readers, his own Critique of Judgement (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790) indebted to the historian’s text.[5] While the Critique may lack the History’s effusive language, it does not reject the logic of Winckelmann’s Mädchen (maiden) but locates a particular mode of ocular apprehension within it.[6] In both cases, the apprehension of Beauty belongs to a possessive eye. Kant divides the formative arts according to dimension: plastic (three-dimensional) and painting (two-dimensional).[7] “Both,” he writes, “express ideas by figures in space: the former makes figures cognizable by two senses, sight and touch (although not by the latter as far as beauty is concerned); the latter only by one, the first of these.”[8] Here, Kant’s aesthetic “distance” is conceived as a denial of touch; the apprehension of beauty belongs to a possessive eye, alone.[9] However, this lack of touch is not a failure to incite an affective response. On the contrary it may be said to invoke, as in Winckelmann’s description, a subjective formulation preceding (and affecting) judgment—a tear.

Might we consider Kant’s beauty as an analogous beholding? In “Section 8,” Kant conveys beauty’s universality as an “aesthetic satisfaction” of an object “imputed to everyone.”[10] The judgment of beauty exists as if within the object itself. It is not a formulation to be invented, but an ostensible reality (always, already) disclosed. This disclosure of an object, upon being submitted to one’s eyes, operates under the temporalities of an image: it partakes in the immediacy of a body, like Winckelmann’s, beheld (all) at once and distended across space.

The pleasure that we feel is, in a judgement of taste, necessarily imputed by us to everyone else, as if, when we call a thing beautiful, it is to be regarded as a characteristic of the object which is determined in it according to concepts, though beauty, without a reference to the feeling of the subject, is nothing by itself.[11]

Beauty is relational, yet its “subjective” relation (if it is to be universal) is predicated on a sensus communis,[12] a formulation that transposes the subjective act—the (single) viewer’s perception—into an action extended by the object. Suddenly, the limit of the beautiful appears to be that of its object’s, as if disclosing an image upon its beholders’ eyes, like seeing through fog or tear-dampened eyes. This blurring of one’s singular vision—of seeing through tears or through a fog (at sea)—condenses the imputation (“by us to everyone else”) that Kant seeks to trace.

Kant, accordingly, turns from an action of “seeing” the beautiful to an action of “naming” its procedures: to naming one’s visibility—one’s reciprocity—to it. The philosopher, as if attending to Winckelmann’s maiden—whose “figure [expressing the aesthetical idea] paints itself on the eye”[13]—captures the historian’s ambivalent and thus affective inversion: an “imputation” of subject and/as object, lover and/as beloved, as fundamental to the perception of beauty.[14]


Alejandro Nodarse Jammal

Alejandro is an artist and writer, PhD candidate in History of Art & Architecture at Harvard University, and Fellow at the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max-Planck-Institut für Kunstgeschichte in Rome. Their research focuses on the intertwined histories of art, science, and observational practices, with an emphasis on early modern art and art theory.

Published on February 13, 2024.

Cite this article: Alejandro Nodarse Jammal, “Kant’s Maiden,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 22 (2024), accessed date.



[1] Johann Joachim Winckelmann, The History of Ancient Art (Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764), translated by G. H. Lodge (Boston: James Osgood and Company, 1880), vol. 2, 364. On Winckelmann’s “separation” of beauty and expression and the Kantian divide between the “beautiful form and the work of science,” see Jacques Rancière, “Divided Beauty,” in Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul (New York: Verso, 2013), esp. 10-11. On Winckelmann’s eroticism, in relation to this passage and to his view of history, see Kevin Parker, “Winckelmann, Historical Difference, and the Problem of the Boy,” Eighteenth Century Studies (1992): 523-544; and Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 47-50.

[2] Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” in Aesthetics: Lectures and Essays (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977), 91-130, 94.

[3] Bullough, 94.

[4] Translated in Victor Stoichita, Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art (Reaktion Books, 1995), 45.

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, translated and excerpted in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964), 324. See also Kant, Critique of Judgement, ed. and rev. Nicholas Walker, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[6] See Richard Moran, “Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 38, no. 2 (2012): 298-329. Moran positions Proust as a kind of corrective to Kant’s “juridical” stance; I would like to think of Winckelmann’s position as challenging the (perceived) loss of subjectivity in Kant’s aesthetic distance.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, translated and excerpted in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964), 324. See introduction under “Kant,” for Kant’s additional sources.

[8] Kant, 324.

[9] See Bullough.

[10] Kant, 292.

[11] Kant, 325.

[12] Kant, 312.

[13] Kant, 324.

[14] See Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). Special thanks is owed to Elaine Scarry and to two anonymous readers for their comments on an earlier stage of this text.