Johann Georg Sulzer

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Johann Georg Sulzer, painting by Anton Graff , 1774, Gleimhaus Halberstadt.

Johann Georg Sulzer (born October 16, 1720 in Winterthur , † February 27, 1779 in Berlin ) was a Swiss theologian and philosopher of the Enlightenment . His General Theory of Fine Arts is the first German-language encyclopedia to systematically deal with all areas of aesthetics .

life and work

Memorial plaque on the house where he was born in Winterthur

Johann Georg Sulzer was born as the 25th child of councilor Heinrich Sulzer in Winterthur in what is now the canton of Zurich . His parents had planned for him a career as a theologian. Both parents died in 1734, so that Johann Georg Sulzer was placed under the tutelage of a preacher in Zurich in 1736. He received lessons in theology at the Carolinum in Zurich and was also interested in aspects of mathematics, botany and philosophy. His teachers Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger also introduced him to poetics and art. In 1741, Johann Georg Sulzer finished his studies in Zurich with ordination and received the position of vicar in Maschwanden .

In 1743 Sulzer went to Magdeburg , where he was employed as a teacher for the children of a wealthy businessman. Johann Georg Sulzer was a supporter of Christian Wolff's philosophy . Sulzer wrote his first work in this style, the edification essay, Attempt at some moral considerations on the works of nature , which was published in 1745 and contained a foreword by the Berlin court preacher August Friedrich Sack . In addition, Sulzer worked in Magdeburg on a German translation of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer's Latin script Itinera alpina , which appeared in Zurich in 1746 under the title Natur-Geschichte des Schweizerlandes .

Sulzer moved to Berlin, where he made friends with Leonhard Euler , Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim . These three scholars finally promoted Sulzer's appointment as professor of mathematics at the Joachimsthalschen Gymnasium in Berlin in 1747. Three years later, Sulzer was accepted into the Royal Academy of Sciences . It was thanks to him that the Monday Club was founded in 1749, an intellectual center of the Berlin Enlightenment . A trip to Switzerland followed in the summer of 1750, which Sulzer undertook together with Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock .

The grave of Johann Georg Sulzer , copper engraving after a drawing by JH Brandt (1779), illustration for Hirschfeld's theory of garden art

In the same year he married the merchant's daughter Catherina Wilhelmina Keusenhoff in Magdeburg, in 1753 the first daughter Elisabeth Sophie Auguste was born, who in 1771 married the famous painter Anton Graff . Catherina Wilhelmina died in 1761 after the birth of her second daughter. Her death marked a deep turning point in Sulzer's life.

As a widower, he made numerous trips to Leipzig, Frankfurt and Strasbourg. In 1763 he resigned his professorship in Berlin and returned to Switzerland, where he continued work on his major work, General Theory of Fine Arts , which he had begun in 1753 .

A letter from King Friedrich II induced him to return to Germany. He became professor of philosophy at the newly founded Knight Academy and was given a piece of land near Berlin by King Friedrich II, where he made his home. In 1775 he became director of the philosophical class of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, but was already weakened by that time. Trips to France and Italy only improved his condition for a short time. Johann Georg Sulzer died in Berlin in 1779.

Encyclopedia: General Theory of Fine Arts

Title copper to Sulzer's General Theory of Fine Arts. Engraving by Daniel Chodowiecki 1771.

The main work of this Enlightenment , the General Theory of Fine Arts , appeared in four volumes in 1771 and 1774. It was the first encyclopedia in German that aimed to systematize all knowledge relating to aesthetics . Models were French lexicons, such as Jacques Lacombes Dictionnaire portatif des beaux arts (“Dictionary of fine arts”) and the universal dictionary Denis Diderots , the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers .

In around 900 articles, Sulzer deals in detail with basic terms and individual questions of aesthetics and goes into the areas of literature, rhetoric, visual arts, architecture, dance, music (see music dictionary ) and the art of acting. He used, among other things, philosophical and aesthetic works by Bodmer, Breitinger, Karl Wilhelm Ramler and Johann Adolf Schlegel . The monumental work thus represents the state of knowledge of the German High Enlightenment in a condensed form and is one of the most important lexical publications in the Age of Enlightenment .

Sulzer rates the ode as the highest type of poetry. In addition to Klopstock's Messiah, he also counts Bodmer's Noah among the masterpieces of German poetry and sees the importance of Plautus and Molière above all in their serious pieces.

Sulzer's views came under fire, as Johann Gottfried Herder wrote to Johann Heinrich Merck :

“Sulzer's dictionary has appeared; but the first part entirely below my expectation. All literary-critical articles are useless, most mechanical ones are useless; the psychological ones are the only ones, and also in those the longest, most starving chatter ... "

- Herder to Merck, 1771

Sulzer's view that art should awaken feelings in the viewer that ultimately have an educational character was also questioned. So the young Goethe turned against Sulzer, whom he accused of having misunderstood the essence of art.

Despite this criticism in the younger generation of poets and scholars, Sulzer's main work was widely distributed until the first years of the 19th century and established his position as the main representative of German aesthetics in the late 18th century.

Philosophical approach

The focus of his philosophical work is on aesthetics and psychology. In his philosophy, Sulzer places feelings between actual, clear ideas and desire. Sulzer assumes that the purpose of action is one's own happiness or that of others ( eudaimonia ).


Collected Writings

  • Collected writings: annotated edition , Schwabe Verlag, Basel 2014 ff.
    • Volume 1: Brief Concept of All Sciences: first (1745) and second (1759) edition , 2014, ISBN 978-3-7965-3217-7 ( table of contents ).
    • Volume 2: Writings on psychology and aesthetics
    • Volume 3: General Theory of Fine Arts
    • Volume 4: Writings on philosophy and religion
    • Volume 5: Writings on natural history and natural philosophy
    • Volume 6: Writings on pedagogy
    • Volume 7: Poetry and literary criticism , 2020, ISBN 978-3-7965-3813-1 .
    • Volume 8: Travel reports, writings on geography
    • Volume 9: Testimonials
    • Volume 10: Johann Georg Sulzer - Johann Jakob Bodmer. Correspondence

Original and single editions

  • Short concept of all sciences, in which the natural connection of all parts of learning is shown [...] (1745)
  • An attempt at some moral considerations on the works of nature (1745)
  • Attempting Some Sensible Thoughts from the Education and Instruction of Children (1745)
  • Description of some of the items that he has in an Ao. 1742. made mountain trip through some places that Switzerland has observed . Zurich 1747 ( digitized version and full text in the German text archive )
  • Critical news from the realm of learning (together with Ramler; 1750)
  • Conversations about the beauty of nature (1750/1770)
  • Thoughts on the Origin of Science and Fine Arts (1762)
  • General theory of fine arts (1771–1774)
  • Cymbelline (1772)
  • Draft of the establishment of the Gymnasii Academici (1773 and 1774) newly founded by Sr. High Prince the Duke of Curland in Mitau
  • Mixed philosophical writings (1773/81)
  • Diary of a journey and return journey made from Berlin to the midday countries of Europe in the years 1775 and 1776 . Leipzig 1780 ( digitized version and full text in the German text archive )
  • Johann Georg Sulzer's biography written by himself. With comments by Joh. Bernh. Merian and Friedr. Nicolai (1809)


  • Otto LiebmannSulzer, Johann Georg . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 37, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1894, pp. 144-147.
  • Ludwig Maximilian Heym: Representation and criticism of the aesthetic views of Johann Georg Sulzers . Leipzig 1894, OCLC 39759329 (Dissertation University of Leipzig 1894, 55 pages).
  • Maximilian Dähne: Johann Georg Sulzer as an educator and his relationship to the main educational currents of his time . Leipzig 1902 OCLC 490775845 (Dissertation University of Leipzig 1902, 201 pages).
  • Anna Tumarkin : The Aesthetist Johann Georg Sulzer . Huber, Frauenfeld, 1933.
  • Johannes Dobai: The fine arts in Johann Georg Sulzer's aesthetics . Konkordia, Winterthur 1978.
  • Wolfgang Riedel: Knowing and feeling. Anthropological axis rotation and turn to aesthetics with Johann Georg Sulzer . In: Hans-Jürgen Schings (Ed.): The whole person. Anthropology and Literature in the 18th Century . Metzler, Stuttgart 1994, pp. 410-439.
  • Frank Grunert, Gideon Stiening (ed.): Johann Georg Sulzer (1720–1779). Enlightenment between Christian Wolff and David Hume . Academy, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-05-005174-1 .
  • Wilhelm Körte (Ed.): Letters from the Swiss Bodmer, Sulzer, Geßner. Zurich 1804. Digitized

Web links

Commons : Johann Georg Sulzer  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Johann Georg Sulzer  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Otto LiebmannSulzer, Johann Georg . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 37, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1894, p. 146.