In this essay, Goethe presents, in epistolary form, what is essentially a treatise on what might be called the various modes of perception of art; although he also speaks about the artist, he addresses especially how different people react to the works of art before them, in this case primarily paintings.
The main characters in the piece are the uncle, who owns the art collection around which the episodes revolve; a young student of philosophy (obviously a student of Fichte); the uncle’s niece Julie (another niece, Caroline, also makes an appearance but does not author any of the letters), who has obviously enjoyed a liberal and enlightened education; an otherwise unnamed visitor to the gallery whom they call the “Characterizer” or “Characterist” because of his inclination to perceive or focus on what at the time was known as the “characteristic” elements of art; and various visitors to the gallery who react in typological ways to the collection.
In the fourth letter, the uncle comes on the idea of creating a classification of such reactions (though such also extends to artists): 
Let us with this aim set about a new species of collection, that is not to consist of bronzes or marbles, of ivory or silver, but wherein the artist and critic, especially the lover of art, may find each his place.
In the seventh letter, Julie is to continue the uncle’s letters (he also being a physician and otherwise often too engaged to write) about a group of visitors the previous day and the aforementioned classification (95):
I am to give you an account of our proceedings yesterday, depict the persons who visited our cabinet, and then explain to you a most interesting framework into which, in time to come, each and every artist, and friend of art, who holds fast to a single aspect rather than raising himself to the contemplation of the whole, is to be fitted and set.
In the eighth letter, Julie presents the six classifications, on which the philosopher friend has also worked, but with the following preliminary qualification (106):
A singular circumstance occurred in our endeavors to enroll our guests of yesterday in our classes. They would not fit in anywhere, and we found no division for them.
When we took the Philosopher to task for this, he said: My classification may have other omissions, but it redounds to its honor that, except the Characterizer, not one of your guests of yesterday finds any place in it. My rubrics only embrace peculiarities, which appear as wants when the artist is thus limited by nature, as faults when he knowingly acquiesces in such one-sidedness. The false, the distorted, the admixture of foreign elements, finds no place in them. My six classes embrace the single sides, which, all united, would result in the true artist, as well as the true connoisseur; but which, judging from my own small experience, and what I see in the papers that have been communicated to me, too often, alas! occur separately.
The six classes of artists and preferences (of connoisseurs) include:
(1) imitators (106–7):
This talent may be regarded as the basis of the plastic arts. Whether they take their rise from it may remain a question. Beginning with this, the artist may at last raise himself to the highest. If he instead sticks to imitation, we call him a copyist, which title in itself conveys an unfavorable idea. But if a genius of this sort manifests a desire to advance continually in his narrow path, a demand for perfect imitation must at last grow out of it, which the amateur seeks for, and the artist endeavors to realize. If you miss the transition to true art, you are in the most out of the way by-path. You ultimately end up painting statues, and go down to posterity, like our good grandfather, in your damask dressing gown. . . .
The Imitator only makes a duplicate of his original, without doing anything with it, or carrying us beyond it. . . . Yet it cannot be truly pleasing to us, because artistic truth is wanting to impart a higher beauty.
In their treatment of this class, our friends indulged in too much satire. It seemed as if the subject enticed them to step a little out of the track; and though I, professedly of this class, was present, and demanded justice and civility, I could not prevent their loading it with a heap of epithets that did not sound altogether commendatory. They were called Poetizers, because, instead of recognising the poetic side of art, and striving for its attainment, they rather emulated the poets, trenching upon their prerogative, and mistaking and neglecting their own interest. They were also called the Showmen,  because they strive so hard to get up an appearance, and excite the fancy without troubling themselves how far their execution is sufficient to satisfy it. They were nicknamed Phantomists, because a hollow spirit-world has so much charm for them; Phantasmists, because dreamy distortions and incoherencies are not wanting; Nebulists, because they will not refrain from using the clouds as a suitable ground for their phantasms.
Indeed, our friends eventually simply wanted to dispense with them after the fashion of German rhymes as Schwebler and Nebler.  It was maintained that they were without reality, and had never anywhere had existence; that they were wanting in artistic truth and real beauty.
As the Imitators had been accused of a false naturalness, so this class were not free from the reproach of a false nature, and more sins of the like kind were attributed to them. I perceived that it was the gentlemen’s object to provoke me, and I did them the pleasure to become really mischievous.
I asked them whether genius did not chiefly express itself through invention? whether this prerogative could be disputed with the poetizers? whether we should not feel grateful, when the mind was charmed by a beautiful dream-picture? whether, after all, in this classification, that had been disgraced by so many questionable epithets, the ground and possibility of the highest art was not compromised? whether wearisome prose had any mightier opponent than this capacity to form new worlds? whether it were not an estimable talent, an estimable quality, of which one should always speak with reverence, even when one finds it astray?
The gentlemen soon yielded. They reminded me that we were now only speaking of a one-sidedness, and that this quality, which is of such importance in its relation with the whole, was, on that very account, injurious when it was isolated, separate, independent. The Imitator does no injury to art, for he brings it laboriously to a point where the true artist can and must take it up. But the Imaginative, on the other hand, is the cause of endless harm to art, because he drives it beyond all bounds, and the greatest genius would be requisite to bring it back from its license and wildness, into its true and appointed circle.
The subject was debated forth and back for some time; finally, they wished to know whether I did not admit that Caricature, that confounding of all art, taste, and manners, had its origin in this classification?
In truth I did not undertake to defend it. But I cannot deny that I have often been amused by such distorted trash, and that, as a piquant delicacy, Schadenfreude, that original and hereditary sin of all the children of Adam, does not taste all that bad.
(3) the characterizers (or characteristics); the unnamed friend represented this position, speaking earlier about it as follows (76–77):
Beauty (Schönheit) comes from appearance (Schein); it is an appearance, and not worthy to be the object of art. The perfectly characteristic alone deserves to be called beauty; without Character, there is no Beauty. . . . It is enough that character can be indicated. You find no beauty without it, else it would be empty and insignificant. All the beauty of the Ancients is Character alone, and only out of this quality is beauty developed.
Also described as follows (110):
He [the uncle] thought them in one sense entitled to the name of Rigorists. Their abstraction, their going back to the idea, always established and advanced something.
The philosopher friend, however (111):
calls them Skeletists, Formalists, Pedants; and remarks in a note that a merely logical existence, a mere operation of understanding, did not satisfy or assist us in matters of Art. . . . Moreover the Characterizers are wanting in that lightness without which no art is worth having.
(4) the wavy (or undulists) (111–12):
This names designates those who stand in opposition to the last named, and who love the soft and agreeable, without character and significance, by which means their highest attainment is in indifferent gracefulness. They were also called Serpentine, and we called to mind the time when the Serpentine line was adopted as the model and symbol of beauty, and this was thought a great step in progress. This serpentine and soft style manifests itself in artists as well as amateurs by a certain weakness, sleepiness, and if you will, sickly gracefulness. Such works are in demand by those who wish to find in a work of art something that is a little more than nothing at all.
(5) artists in miniature (113):
They cover a small space with the greatest care, and the amateur can possess the labor of years in a small casket. As far as their labor is artistic, they deserve the name of Miniaturists. When they fail in spirit, have no feeling for the whole, cannot bring any unity into their work, they must be set down as Dot and Point makers.
(6) sketchers (114):
It is the aim of art not only to address the soul through the outward sense, but to satisfy the outward sense itself. . . . But the Sketcher addresses himself immediately to the soul, thus enchanting and bribing the inexperienced. A happy idea, only half shown, and as it were symbolically expressed, glides through the eye, stirs up the mind, the understanding, the imagination, and the beholder, taken by surprise, sees what does not exist. There is no longer any question about form, character, expression, grouping, harmony, execution, but instead we find an appearance of each.
Admixtures (“unions”) of the various types occur (e.g., the Imitator often being one with the Artist in Miniature, and also with the Characteristic; the Sketcher being inclined to place himself by the side of the Imaginative, etc.) (116):
Every such union brought out some example of a work of high art; whilst the separate qualities, so long as we sought examples for them, could be shown only in rare instances.
In this way we came back to the consideration from which we had started, viz., that the perfect artist could only exist by the union of all six qualities, and that the true amateur must also unite an inclination for all the six departments.
The first half of our six proceed with an excess of earnestness, severity, and caution; the other half with too much lightness and license. True art can only exist where the serious and the playful are united, and when our one-sided artists and amateurs stand opposed to each other, thus:
The Imitator to the Imaginative.
The Characteristic to the Wavy.
The Artist in Miniature to the Sketcher.
Thus, by union of these opposites, the result is always one of the three requisites of a perfect work of art.
At the end of the essay, Goethe includes the following diagram demonstrating the dispositional dynamics and the relationship between the various categories:
 Goethe, “The Collector and His Friends,” Essays on Art, trans. Samuel Gray Ward (Boston 1845), 70; pagination hereafter appears parenthetically in the text. Translations variously altered in the following citations. Back.
 Literally, “men of appearance.” Back.
 “Hoverers and befoggers”; this sentence omitted in the translation by Samuel Gray Ward. It occurs in the original German on p. 110. Back.
Translation © 2013 Doug Stott