150 years since the first experiment in empirical aesthetics

The Madonna des Bürgermeisters Jacob Meyer zum Hasen, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1526, sold for about $75 million on July 12, 2011, becoming Germany’s most expensive artwork at the time (Gropp, 2011). Not only is it regarded among the greatest German Renaissance paintings, the Madonna sparked one of the fiercest and most consequential controversies in art history, and motivated Gustav Theodor Fechner to use empirical methods to study the appreciation of art. In doing so, he founded Empirical Aesthetics. 

In 1743, the Dresden Gemäldegalerie acquired Hans Holbein’s Madonna des Bürgermeisters Jacob Meyer zum Hasen. This was no small addition to its collection, for at the time it was considered the greatest painting in German art, equal to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. It must have come as a shock when, in 1821, it became known that there was a second version in a private collection in Darmstadt. The question of which version was the authentic Holbein, and which the copy, quickly became a national controversy. What began as dispute among academics soon flared into a full-blown political affair, entangled with ideological passions (Bader, 2018b). Artists and academic art historians competed for the authority to decide on the works’ authenticity. Each side rolled out countless essays and pamphlets, printed and distributed reproductions of the paintings accompanied by analyses, arguments and counterarguments, and spoke at conferences and exhibitions. 

The Darmstadt version on the left, and the Dresden version on the right

Fechner had been interested in the Holbein Madonna controversy at least since shortly after publishing his Elements of Psychophysics (Fechner, 1860). He compiled, presented, and discussed the history of the conflict and the two sides to it (Fechner, 1871a), and he plunged into it himself with several iconographic analyses (Fechner, 1866b, 1866a, 1868, 1870b, 1870a). In his opinion, both were authentic paintings by Holbein, but they expressed two different meanings. He thought that Holbein painted the Darmstadt version first, and intended it for a chapel, and the Dresden version later, and intended it for the family home (Fechner, 1870a). Fechner concluded that the Dresden version was a votive work, and that the sick-looking infant was an amalgamation of the Christ Child and the donor’s ill child (Fechner, 1866b). Later, he speculated that the oldest woman in the painting was Meyer’s deceased first wife, and that the figure of the Madonna was the portrait of one of Meyer’s deceased daughters carrying her sick son (Fechner, 1868). 

The way to settle the conflict, it was finally concluded, was to show the two paintings together. So, in 1869, the plans began for a Holbein retrospective exhibition which would feature, for the first time ever, both versions of the Madonna side by side. The exhibition had to be postponed, however, because of the Franco-Prussian war (July 19th, 1870 – January 28th, 1871). The exhibition had been on Fechner’s mind while writing his monograph On Experimental Aesthetics, published in early 1871. Fechner (1871b) devoted much of it to arguing for the use of empirical methods in the study of aesthetics. He made his point mainly in reference to the pleasure of simple forms. But he also believed that the methods of empirical aesthetics could be used to study art, especially in the case of comparable artworks that have led to unresolved disputes among connoisseurs. He explicitly mentioned the two versions of Holbein’s Madonna as the sort of case his new methods could be applied to. He expected that the joint exhibition would add fuel to the conflict about authenticity without necessarily settling it. His experimental aesthetics, however, could answer a different, more fertile, question: which of the two versions is more preferred aesthetically by people in general, or by experts vs. laypeople, or by men vs. women (Fechner, 1871b). 

Finally, the peace treaty was signed in May 1871, and the plans for the exhibition moved forward. It took place 150 years ago, from August 15th to October 15th, 1871, in Dresden’s recently built Prinzen Pavillion. By the time’s standards, it was a massive exhibition. On display were over 500 items, including paintings, woodcuts, drawings and photographs, lent from over 60 museums, galleries, and private collections from over 40 European cities. It was the first time masterpieces had been transported across frontiers for an exhibition on such a scale, the first time an art exhibition had been promoted by art history academics, and not aristocrats, nobility, governments or artist associations (Haskell, 2000), and the first time the paintings were seen side by side. The catalogue included a bibliography of over 70 publications on the controversy compiled by Fechner (Bader, 2018b), showing just how absorbed in the controversy he had become.

The exhibition committee allowed Fechner to conduct the research on the visitors’ preferences he had been planning for a year. In the hall where the two paintings were exhibited, he placed an announcement of his study, a table and necessary writing materials, the instructions for participants, and a booklet with space for the visitors to write their answers. The scene, sketched by the renowned German painter Adolph Menzel in his pocketbook, as “Plebiscite table”, was certainly an unusual one to see at a museum. The art historians at the exhibition dismissed Fechner’s study, for the issue of aesthetic value could only confound the issue of authenticity (Bätschmann, 1996). In an analysis of the role that the Holbein exhibition at Dresden played in the forging of art history as an academic discipline, Bader (2018a) recounts the skeptical remarks of one of the most eminent Holbein scholars: “Off to one side, on a writing desk, can be found a pen, a large book, and a placard above it. Professor Fechner, the highly-regarded physicist in Leipzig  (…) intends to enable a decision between the two pictures on the basis of universal suffrage” (Bader, 2018a, p. 7). 

The instructions asked the visitors to state which of the two Madonnas made such an appealing and positive impression as to grant it a place in their room for constant or repeated contemplation. Fechner asked them to disregard the artworks’ deterioration caused by the darkening varnish and other conservation defects. The visitors were also asked to write their name, title, position and place of residence, and had space to make open remarks about the comparison and for the reasons for their responses (Fechner, 1872). 

Fechner’s analysis of the responses showed that the visitors generally preferred the Darmstadt Madonna. But he was, nevertheless, disappointed with the outcome of the study. Of the 11,842 visitors to the exhibition, only 113 answered his survey, and many of them clearly did not understand the goal of the study nor the instructions. He devoted much of his report to outlining the improvements to the methods and instructions that were required for similar studies in the future (Fechner, 1872). On top of it, art-historical research on the two paintings later proved that Fechner’s iconographic analyses were wrong. The Darmstadt Madonna was the only authentic Holbein and the Dresden Madonna was a copy of the original, painted over a century after the original (1635/1637) by Bartholomäus Sarburgh (Bader, 2018b). 

Fechner’s disappointing experiment and his incorrect iconographic analyses of the Madonnas should not overshadow the magnitude of his achievements in 1871. First, by finding value in the public’s reception and appreciation of art, he broke with the tradition that considered that the only legitimate value of art could be set by experts and academics. Second, he showed that understanding the way laypeople appreciate art was worthy of scientific study, and that such a study should and could be pursued with empirical methods. Third, he was the first to collect data on the aesthetic appreciation of art from over 100 people, to use statistical techniques to determine the aesthetic value of artworks for the whole sample, to study the impact of individual variables, such as sex and expertise, and to study aesthetic appreciation in a public space (Leder, 2005).

So, it was at the greatest art exhibition of his time, absorbed in the most resounding and long-lasting dispute on an artwork’s authenticity, in the presence of a masterpiece of German art, and amid skepticism, misunderstanding and disappointment, that Fechner sowed the seeds of the new field of Empirical Aesthetics.


Bader, L. (2018a). Artists versus art historians? Conflicting interpretations in the Holbein controversy. Journal of Art Historiography19, 1–23.

Bader, L. (2018b). The Holbein exhibition of 1871 – an iconic turning point f or art history. In M. W. Gahtan & D. Pegazzano (Eds.), Monographic exhibitions and the history of art (pp. 129–142). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bätschmann, O. (1996). Der Holbein-Streit: eine Krise der Kunstgeschichte. Jahrbuch Der Berliner Museen38, 87–100.

Fechner, G. T. (1860). Elemente der Psychophysik. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.

Fechner, G. T. (1866a). Die historischen Quellen und Verhandlungen über die Holbein’sche Madonna : Monographisch zusammengestellt und discutirt. Archiv Für Die Zeichnenden Künste12, 193–266.

Fechner, G. T. (1866b). Vorbesprechung über die Dentungsfrage der Holbein’schen Madonna mit Rücksicht auf die Handzeiclmung Nr. 65 des Baseler Museum. Archiv Für Die Zeichnenden Künste12, 1–30.

Fechner, G. T. (1868). Nachtrag zu den drei Abhandlungen über die Holbein’sche (Meier’sche) Madonna. Archiv Für Die Zeichnenden Künste14, 149–187.

Fechner, G. T. (1870a). Der Streit um die beiden Madonnen von Holbein. Die Grenzboten. Zeitschrift Fur Politik Und Literatur2, 1–18.

Fechner, G. T. (1870b). Ueber das Holbein’sche Votivbild mit dem Bürgermeister Schwartz in Augsburg. Archiv Für Die Zeichnenden Künste16, 1–39.

Fechner, G. T. (1871a). Ueber die Aechtheitsfrage der Holbein’schen Madonna. Discussion un Acten. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.

Fechner, G. T. (1871b). Zur experimentalen Aesthetik. Leipzig: Hirzel.

Fechner, G. T. (1872). Bericht über das auf der Dresdner Holbein-ausstellung ausgelegte Album. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.

Fechner, G. T. (1876). Vorschule der Ästhetik. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.

Gropp, R.-M. (2011, July 14). Holbein- Madonna. Deutschlands teuerstes Kunstwerk. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Haskell, F. (2000). The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Leder, H. (2005). Zur Psychologie der Rezeption moderner Kunst. In B. Graf & A. B. Müller (Eds.), Sichtweisen. Zur veränderten Wahrnehmung von Objekten in Museen (pp. 79–90). Berlin: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

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