Podcast Episode 10: The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One

THE EARLY ROMANTICS: GROS AND GIRODET

Part One

Although the French Revolution caused an upheaval in French art, there was an attempt to use Neo-Classicism to return to the pure and historical origins of art. However, compelling contemporary events and a new regime interested in using art as propaganda worked against the dominance of Neo-Classicism in the Academy. Even before the term was applied, “Romantic” art began to appear, the earliest of the French Romantic artists were the Napoléonic painters, Gros and Girodet. Both students of David, the young artists uneasily made the transition from the Neo-Classicism of their master to the demands of the new century.

The early Romantic artists in France were mostly court painters to the new emperor Napoléon and it is one of the ironies that these supposedly “romantic” artists were, in fact, servants to imperialism and empire. Individuality was a matter of style, rather than true freedom of expression. In their early works, Gros and Girodet represented the poles of Romanticism: contemporary subjects and escapist subjects. In their choice of content, these artists who inherited the mantel of Neoclassicism rebelled against their “father,” Jacques-Louis David. In the next podcast, “Part Two” will examine the artists’ later works and discuss the roots of “Realism” found in Romantic art.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

The French Academy: Sculpture

SCULPTURE FOR THE PUBLIC

Training and Execution of Sculptors

The most prestigious place to study, work, live and exhibit art was Paris, whether one was French or not. Nowhere was the system of education and training more rigorous. For the artists outside of Paris, there were numerous provincial art schools, écoles de dessin and académies des beaux-arts. By 1830, training for sculptors was similar to the training for painters in the rigorous control of style and content. The stress was on conformity and upon learning a certain set of technical skills that enabled the sculptor to produced the desired works in the official style. Drawing was the foundation of an artistic education learned at the Academy, and the artists would be trained later in painting or sculpture in ateliers or in studio courses taught by famous artists. Provincial sculptors could also study from drawing courses printed in Paris. Predating the later use of photography and textbooks, these unbound lithographed sheets of stipulated objects were copied by artists outside of the Academy. Called modèles estampes, these prints were for aspiring students, who could also work from plaster casts of existing sculptures, also available outside the Academy. The entire process of education was based upon the belief that copying a particular style, Classicism, was the appropriate way to learn one’s trade.

At the Petit école, a “school” that we today might be termed “trade” or “vocational,” students took courses in human anatomy, modeling and drawing. Reflecting the careful attention to the arts at all levels, courses in architectural history or in ornament trained students to supply the carved decorative motifs necessary for the building trade, which embellished architecture. In contrast, students, who wanted to focus on fine art sculpting went on to the École des Beaux-Arts where they were first granted the right of “inscription,” that is, the right to follow the courses to the right of “admission,” which gave the student the opportunity to participate actively in actual making. Once admitted, further proof of training was demanded in which students had to demonstrate their skills in competitions for admission in one of the two annual concours des places. These competitions for available slots in the Academy consisted of six three-hour sessions of drawing and modeling the figure from nature. These concours des places would be the equivalent of being admitted to an art school with a portfolio.

The schedule of the sculptor’s training followed that of the painter–from drawing outlines to drawing volumes before advancing to the drawing live models. Because these models were nude, women were excluded from the academies in order to protect their virtue. In France, women as sculptors were few and far between. During the first two years, students copied casts of antique marbles and began to work from life only by the third year. In the fourth year, the student was expected to complete a full-scale marble statue of a human figure. Once again, the sculptor would follow the same procedure as a painter, from drawing to sketch to study to finished product. First, the student would produce a drawing of the proposed work. Second, he would make a small model in clay or wax, a bozetto or maquette, which would be spontaneous and sketchy, rather like a rough draft. Next, a full-scale clay model would be made and then destroyed in the process of making a plaster cast of it. With the aid of the pointing machine, the original plaster would be copied in marble by professional carvers, or practiciens, or the plaster cast could be cast in bronze at the foundry. Thus there are no “originals” in sculpture, unless the clay model or the maquette is preserved. By 1851, this system of education and production was universal in sculpture.

A class at the Academy

Competitions among students never ended. The études libres or free studies, which presented two weeks of free study of specific problems set out by the professor prepared the students for the most prestigious competition of all, the Prix de Rome. The problems or topics were complex in nature, allowing the students to demonstrate mastery of technique. The screening process for the candidates included the première essai, a sketch of a pre-selected subject which eliminated all but sixteen students. These fortunate students returned for the deuxième essai, in which they sculpted, either in relief or in the round, a figure from a living model. Full-scale sculptures from the original sketches had to be produced in two months time, from themes that were usually taken from ancient history or mythology. The sculptural subject matter demanded by the Academy reflected history painting. Like history painting, sculptural works were destined for the larger community and the ultimate destination would be a large scale public work. The Prix de Rome was based upon the assumption that the only the aesthetic criteria was antique sculpture. These competitions, no matter how small or large, reinforced the academic doctrine of classicism on one hand and the enormous prestige of the École and its prizes. Although when he was a competing student Jacques-Louis David threatened to starve himself, when he lost in the Prix de Rome competition, the decision of the conservative judges was accepted and not debated.

The French Academy in Rome. View along the Via del Corso of the Palazzo dellAccademia, established by Louis XIV

The French Revolution and the Napoléonic wars that followed disrupted this careful schedule of education, training, and competition. One of those whose career was interrupted by the political unrest was François Rude (1784-1855) who, being from Dijon, would have grown up in the shadow of Claus Sluter’s Well of Moses (1400). Thanks to an admiring local patron, Rude was sent to complete his education in Paris where he won the Prix de Rome in 1812 to execute a sculpture he himself destroyed in 1843. Unfortunately, due to the expense of the ongoing conflicts, his academic education ended with what was a largely honorary prize and he never went to the Eternal City. Disappointed and derailed, Rude returned to Dijon in 1814 to escape the increasing political unrest associated with the downfall of Napoléon, but he made the mistake of joining the local Bonapartists. When Napoléon finally accepted defeat, Rude, like David, fled to Brussels. In leaving France, Rude missed the transition from Neoclassical sculpture, a tradition that had not produced many French sculptors of note, with the possible exception of David d’Angers. But when he returned to France in 1827, Rude returned as a sculptor inspired by the new Romantic tendencies, and new career opportunities would open for him.

From 1750 to 1800, sculptors had to create models of proposed monumental sculptors on their own initiative in hopes that critical acclaim would attract buyers. Unlike the painters whose materials, paint and canvas, were relatively cheap, sculptors were bound to the tradition of expensive marble and bronze. Commissions were, more often than not, public which immediately meant that the sculptor had to submit to a civic committee and lacked the same kind of freedom a painter, working alone, would have. Local patrons tended to be either restrictive or the themes could be limiting to artistic creativity. The result was that sculpture, as a discipline, lagged behind painting in innovation of means and content, simply because the sculpture had to suit the public’s brief. That said, the Industrial Revolution actually reduced the price of metal and sculptors could produce small bronze sculptures that were not only within the price range of the average art buyer but could also fit into a domestic decor.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, sculptors had learned to create on a smaller scale and thus unlike the sculptors of the early decades of the century, sculptors at mid-century were less dependent upon public patrons and the commissions they requested. Sculptor and actor Sarah Bernhardt was able to successfully execute in both marble and bronze, usually on a small scale. The aim of bronze casting was to capture the texture of the clay model and allowed the sculptor to take on a newly independent role, directly addressing a new rich bourgeois buyer. Initially Neoclassical sculpture enjoyed a prestige that was higher than that of painting, which was more “private,” that is, placed in museums. Public sculpture, which was out in the open and seen by everyone, needed to be in the Neoclassical style was intended to educate and inspire the public to strive for nobility in society. However, as times changed, sculptural monuments had to respond to the needs of this newly democratic and middle class society that wanted to see its own history commemorated.

depart_volontaires-5e02d

One of the more successful, if not the most successful public commissions of the first half of the nineteenth century, was The Departure of the Volunteers 1792 (1833-6) by François Rude. Affectionately known as La Marseillaise, the gigantic and dramatic high relief sculpture was mounted on the Arc de Triomphe (1803-36). At forty two feet in height, this tightly grouped segment of the common people who rose up during the Revolution is dynamic and exciting–full blown Romanticism. Oddly, if one assumes a reading of the reliefs on the flanks of the Arc, the left flank, The Triumph of Napoléon by Jean-Pierre Cortot, depicts an event more recent than that of Rude. But despite the quibble about chronology, La Marseillaise outshines the rather staid and unexciting example of waning Neoclassicism. In his book, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution, 1815-1848, the late Albert Boime noted that the commission came from a post-Napoléonic Restoration government. Rude and the other sculptor, who did the reliefs for the other side of the Arc, Antoine Étex, were from working class families and were deliberately selected by Adolphe Thiers, who wanted to break the power of the Academy by selecting outsiders to realize his program of French history.

Despite the presence of other artists, the panel by Rude dominated and became a public favorite. Only he managed to rise above the out-of date adherence to Neoclassicism static poses by activating the common people in a state of patriotic fervor. Sweeping action figures make the relief seem to come alive, bringing back memories that in 1836 would have been still alive for many who gazed up at the carvings. Clearly Rude understood that the artist had to communicate with a diverse audience that demanded contemporary content and historical accuracy and a degree of realism that was incompatible with Neoclassicism. As Boime explained, the sculpture depicted a very specific event, the occasion when the National Convention called for an Army of Volunteers to march against the advancing Prussians and Austrians. To our modern eyes, the sculpture seems energetic, even frenzied, but Rude felt that he had compromised his vision for his benefactor and that the work was too “beautiful” to convey the true spirit of the times. Once the sculptor stepped into contemporary history, s/he had entered into the precincts of Romanticism and into lived and experienced history itself. Unfortunately Rude’s mobile life had left him outside the precincts of the Academy and he had to wait for the year of his death 1855 before the Institute would honor his achievements.

Also read: “The French Academy” and “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 9: Romanticism in France

FRENCH ROMANTICISM

Romanticism in France was an artistic movement that was born of the excitement of Napoleonic art and its depictions of the glory and horrors of total war. But after the Emperor was deposed, the new generation of artists could find “liberty” only in the refuge of art-for-art’s-sake and freedom existed only in bohemia. It was in the quarters of unknown artists that the avant-garde was born, but the most successful Romantic artists in France were, in fact members of the establishment. Although Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were often considered as Romantic opponents, they both were chroniclers of their times, depicting an image of an age caught between past glories and the future of industrialism.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

 

The Artistic Revolution in France

REVOLUTION IN ART

By the eighteenth century being part of the beaux-arts rather than being involved in “crafts” was often a matter of class. Artists tended to come from the middle class and shared the aspirations of upward social mobility typical of the bourgeoisie. Eager to please and desiring to succeed, these artists were disciplined by way of the long-standing academic training and system of rewards and punishments. For nearly a century and a half, artistic production, the education of the artists and the quality of the arts was under the auspices of the state. Each artist and every object was evaluated and all artists were trained to respond to patronage and prizes. The academic system, as restrictive as it was, was, if one played by the rules, a stable and predictable means of earning a living. But two social events would impact artists and art, especially in France, and upend the promise of guarantees. The first event was the French Revolution, which forced artists to choose between King or country, aristocracy or citizens, and, which, during the Terror, eliminated the traditional patrons, the Church and the aristocrats. The second event was a long, ongoing process: the rise of the middle class as a group that would dominate the state economically and politically and thus would constitute a new buying public for art. In the decades before the French Revolution, the middle class had made itself known to the artists through the Salon exhibitions, a major cultural event in their time. Although impressed by prestigious history painting, this new class was interested in domestic themed art that reflected their ordinary lives suitable for middle class interiors. If they responded to large works of art or the grandes machines, this public wanted the narratives to be comprehensible and were puzzled by erudite classical themes the artists were rewarded for. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, artists looked, not just to the State for support but also to the patronage of private citizens. Such patronage depended upon the artist obtaining a place in the Salon, gaining notice and finding new collector who would have their own demands. One could dream of making a splash in the Salon, like Jaques Louis David did with The Oath of the Horatii, but the artist was increasingly beholden to the opinions of art critics.

The artist had to master numerous obstacles to achieve success and make a living from a competitive profession. Most young men began the serious study of art as teenagers and spent years achieving mastery, and the Academy would have been the equivalent of a contemporary high school, dedicated to the arts. The elite training was then, as it is today, the key to success. Any artist who wished to be fêted in the Salon had to go through a set of educational and professional motions, including being trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and perhaps winning the Prix de Rome and then, capping off these student years, with the longed-for recognition in the Salon by the established powers–the State, the Church, and the wealthy patrons. The French Revolution upended the state-based system of educating and rewarding artists, but only for a time. During the Revolution, artists either participated in propagandizing the aims and ideals of the revolutionary cause or risked being denounced and imprisoned by zealots. One of the most important painters for the French Royal family, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), proved to be an agile and adroit political opportunist and quickly turned his (royalist) coat and put himself in the service of the Revolution. He even went to far as to sign warrants which led to the imprisonment of his colleagues while he designed and built huge works of public art, rather like the Rose Bowl floats of today, that advertized the Revolution and awed the spectators. At the end of the worst part of the Terror, David joined his imprisoned colleagues in the Luxembourg Palace. He was lucky not to have been beheaded–the fates of his sponsors.

David emerged from prison somewhat chastened but quickly attached himself to the next rising star, Napoleón Bonaparte, already a patron to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1825), who had befriended the young general in Italy. David’s pupils, Jean-Antoine Gros and Anne-Louis Girodet Roussey de Trison, were able to ride out the Revolution in Italy, safely away from the changing fortunes of artists unwise enough to play politics. But to survive in this inverted world of newly minted leaders, the artist had to be wily to survive. The fin-de-siècle was an age of hero worship and Napoleón rewarded those who worshiped him. Once (relative) sanity returned to the streets and government stability replaced civil war and chaos, the new régime, the Directory, quickly restored the system of art education. The École des Beaux-Arts, the Rome Prize, and all of the academic rules and regulations that, if followed, would lead to Salon success, were all resurrected. But the demands upon the artist had changed. The old aristocratic patrons were gone and new powers awaited the artists. Now governed by a militaristic “man of the people,” the state under Napoleón embarked upon nearly two decades of propagandistic art, celebrating the new Emperor and his court and the glories of war and conquest. Neoclassicism, already an important style before 1789, had been employed as the style of the Revolution by David, who was, under Napoleón, the most important artist of the Empire. Responding to the needs of the new military heroes, Neoclassicism retained its carefully classical style—-clear outlines and cool colors and balanced composition–but was drafted into the service of battle paintings, dramatized and exciting narratives of military exploits, suitable to Napoleónic narratives of victory.

It is here, in these military panoramas, that the germs of Romanticism can be discerned. Early Neoclassicism did not favor diagonals and action and motion, but under the Emperor, excitement and drama ruled and a certain Baroqueness slid back into history painting. That said, the official style of the Empire–bombastic and extravagant–was given over to the same traditional role as had always been expected of artists–supporting the established powers. Although during these Napoleónic years, ideas of Romantic aesthetics from Germany were imported to France, art-for-art’s-sake and artistic freedom were still in the future. The artists had to please new masters, the Emperor, the Salon jury, and the bourgeoisie. Most of all, the artists had to conform to the Salon system itself, now refined and, without the possibility of private commissions from aristocrats, was more important and more competitive than ever. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the bourgeoisie, was firmly in social, economic, and political power, and despite the comings and goings of various emperors and kings, would remain in power. This middle class was an art-loving class. They knew little about art but knew that they like to be entertained. Thousands came to art exhibitions, the Salons, which were the only avenue of economic opportunity for the French artist who needed to make a living. Scheduled for every year or every other year, depending on which régime was in power, the Salons were huge exhibitions drawing from artists around the world attracted to the prestige of France. Jostling with the French artists, seeking recognition, Americans and British painters and sculptors, not to mention Italians and Germans, pushed into the prestigious contest. Expecting to be delighted and amused, rather like we are pleased (or not) by contemporary film, the French public crowded into the exhibition spaces by the thousands, freely expressing their more or less uninformed opinions.

salon_du_louvre_1787

Salon of 1785

For the French artist, the annual Salon was the one chance to show and to become known. To be refused—rejected from the Salon–was to be a failure, a refusée, until the following year. Merely being accepted was not a guarantee of success. Paintings were hung floor to ceiling and, of course, each painter wanted his/her work to be hung at eye level and not “skied,” that is, hung high, or hung low. Prominent artists could demand that their works be hung where the public could see them easily but those less well known were at the mercy of the installers. The most successful painters were those who pleased both the public and the Academy juries. Sculpture in the Salons adhered to the Neoclassical style but what the audience saw were small-scale works or casts or maquettes for future public projects. Often the smaller works would be placed upon a crowded table and the sculptors suffered from the same kind of limitations to ideal viewing as the painters.

The Salon was a site of hierarchies. History painting reigned supreme, prized because the difficult and didactic compositions, crowded with ancient notables, mostly partially nude, displayed the artist’s erudition and education and artistic skills. Only an artist educated in the École would be capable of drawing and composing a group of figures. Only an artist educated in the École would be educated enough to understand the minutia of ancient history, literary and historical topics favored by the juries. Other artists, especially women, would be confined, due to lack of academic education to lower ranking genres, such as genre scenes and portraiture and still lives, none of which required knowledge of the nude. In these years before modern art galleries and adventurous collecting, the Salon was the only game in town and artists had little choice but to accept the rigorous rule of a conservative elite, disinclined to be open-minded to new artistic ideas. But such new ideas were already present to those who were alert to new styles and new cultural trends. The clash of realism and romanticism was present in the propaganda art of Gros, the blatant eroticism of Girodet stunned the prudish, and the offbeat choice of content by Théodore Géricault, who loved horses and frequented carnal houses disturbed the politically correct. The French Revolution may have ended in yet another oppressive regime under a new Emperor, but it had introduced the idea of individual rights and freedom. Neoclassicism, as a ruling style, essentially ended with the reign of Napoleón, and an artistic revolution that would be called Romanticism began to emerge. Denied political rights and freedom, artists began to resist the demands for the status quo and the edicts issued by the Salon juries and took a more independent path, seeking to attract the attention of the public. Born of political disillusionment, a new attitude began to take shape. The artist demanded the right to freedom of expression as an art maker, which, in these early years of Romanticism, played itself out mostly along the lines of style and the way in which materials were handled.

Both inside and outside the Academy, there was the pressing and urgent quarrel between the Poussinistes (the proponents of line in art and discipline in society) and the Rubenistes (the proponents of color in art and individual freedom in society). This quarrel was a (political) challenge to the dominance of Neoclassicism and the Salon system, which controlled artists. But the quarrel was more than stylistic; it was generational and cultural and political. The dominant art form–controlled and contained Ne0classicism–was connected to the dominant social system, which controlled and contained the populace. These artistic conflicts, no matter how they are labeled, seem to break down into philosophical positions, which seem to extend far beyond any disagreements as to style or subject matter. Neoclassicism vs. Romanticism is really a conflict about emotion vs. reason, which is really a conflict about which should be supreme in art, color (emotion) or line (reason)? The question of line versus color is really a political conflict about who should rule, the people (feelings) or the state (order) were social conflicts concerning democracy vs. the ruling caste. The conflict over individual freedom opposed to the state’s traditional control over the art makers is really a conflict between the lone, romantic genius artist inventing new forms as opposed to the powers of the Academy. During this era, the beaux-arts had a far more important and prominent place in society than today; and the State government of France kept careful control over artistic production, understanding all too well that an artist could speak directly to the people.

Also read: “The French Academy” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

The French Academy

THE ACADEMY IN FRANCE

The seventeenth century was the century in which the modern idea of “nation” or of a modern “state” came into being, based upon the idea of absolute rule. The territory under the absolute despot might be disparate and disjointed, but there was now a core from which tyrannical governing would be done with the intent of keeping the boundaries intact and under total control. Only in England did a constitutional monarchy exist, a king with clipped wings in an otherwise united British Isles or Great Britain. The British had no trouble putting down rebellions within its sphere of interest, smiting Scotland and Ireland on a recurring basis until the threats subsided into sullen passive resistance mixed with outbreaks of guerrilla warfare. While other nations were establishing the quintessential rule under one individual, the British contented themselves with consolidating an empire. Elsewhere in Europe, for the next two centuries, the modern nation was constructed under the dominance of one individual, a King–the many Louis, as in France, or a Empress, Catherine, as in Russia. Perhaps the most magnificent and the most cunning and canny of all of the so-called “benevolent despots” was Louis XIV of France, the Sun King. It was he who put paid, once and for all, any lingering power of the Medieval lords. It was he who understood that a “nation” was more than territory or borders and that a country was a state of mind, gathered together under the will of one person who would create and construct the “image” that reflected the personality of its leader. Louis XIV, on his better days, was a typical “benevolent despot,” on his bad days, and there were many of those, a frightening ruler who maintained totalitarian control over even his most insignificant subjects.

Louis XIV chivvied the hereditary nobility out of their ancient strongholds and corralled them into Versailles where the King co-oped them with artificial “honors” which included serving him in the most humiliatingly trivial and personal ways at his Levée and Couchée. From the moment the King was awakened, the Levée to the moment of his Couchée, his retirement for the night, each movement of his day was carefully choreographed and witnessed only by the privileged few. The more private the activity, the more honored the entourage. Once great lords and powerful nobles vied for the odd benefit of watching the King wash his face or hold a towel as Louis relieved himself on his throne-like toilet. Just as Louis XIV surrounded himself with an array of servile courtiers, just as he created himself as the Sun King, the rays of his control stretched widely, encompassing the arts, the main platform for advertising the King, and he controlled visual and verbal communication with a strict censorship. The practice of controlling what could and could not be published or publicly distributed was called “peer review.” Through this mechanism of control of what could be uttered, the French government became the main propaganda arm for a nation determined to dominate the rest of Europe militarily, politically and artistically.

The centerpiece of the lair of the Sun King was, of course, Versailles, the palace in the suburbs of Paris. The headquarters of the King, Versailles was the orb from which the tentacle like rays emanated. Everything in Versailles was a work of art–not just the palace itself–but also the rituals inside its elegant walls. By ten in the evening Grand Public Supper or Grand Couvert an affair of twenty to thirty dishes was attended by the royal family and certain nobles, accompanied by elaborate performances to entertain during the hour and a half daily event. These ceremonies were not trivial nor were they were for pleasure: they were an integral part of the shaping of a monarchy. A French pastry served beautifully on a French dish was as important as the King’s robes or as the grounds of the château–every detail contributed to the aura of control and to the command of spectacle. The artist became an important partner in the enterprise of Making the Monarch. As Peter Burke recounted in The Fabrication of Louis XIV (1994), the man in charge of artistic quality and artistic execution was Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Working with a report from Jean Chapelain, Colbert devised a plan in 1662 “for preserving the splendor of the king’s enterprises.” As Burke noted

..it is extremely interesting to have this documentary evidence of a grand design so early in the history of Louis’ personal rule and in the career of Colbert as a royal counsellor. The plan was put into practice in the next decade, when we can observe the ‘organization of culture’ in the sense of the construction of a system of official organizations with mobilized artists, writers and scholars in the service of the King.

Over the next few years, numerous “académies” of “Danse,” “Peinture et de Sculpture,” “Sciences,” “Architecture,” “Musique,” and so on were set up by the State in order to ensure high quality. Even tapestries and other forms of “crafts,” such as Gobelins, founded in 1663, were under Royal control. All of these academies were founded for he purpose of glorying the King and the State and the importance of the visual arts as propaganda is signified by the fact that Charles le Brun not only founded the Académie Royale de Peintue in 1648 but also directed Gobelins and was also was in charge of decorating the King’s palaces. The King of France was the main patron, not only for the French artists but also sough the services of artists from other nations, such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who did a famous bust of the Sun King in 1665. There was no concept of “artistic freedom” in this environment. All the artists and their productions were under government supervision and control. As Burke pointed out it was “the king’s image” not artists’ creativity that was the main concern of small committees who made sure, under “peer review” that all text and objects of any kind, large or small, fulfilled the stated purpose: the glorification of the Sun King.

As in all things, other nations were mindful of the ways in which Louis XIV seized control of the arts in France and noted that the centralized command stretched to all crevices of the territory. Modern academies and modern totalitarian sovereignty over cultural production spread across the continent. The original model for artistic education and supervision, the French Academy, was established in 1648 for the purpose not just of controlling art in terms of its content but also in terms of its quality. For those in the hinterlands, the Academy obligingly extended a network of provincial schools in Rouen, Marseilles, Dijon, and Tours. The careful encouragement of excellence in the arts was intended to establish a hegemony in the arts and crafts as part of a program to extend the power of France in the arts to equal its political dominance. By the time the French Revolution toppled this “Royal” Academy, replacing it in 1795 with the Institut, France had become the international center for the arts, a position the country would maintain well into the twentieth century. The “Royal” aspect of the Academy died on the scaffold of the guillotine along with many of its members. The revolutionaries declared elite arts and letters to be of no use to the new nation but by 1795, the value of arts was reiterated, and in August in the Third Year of the Brumarie, Year IV, “a National Institute, charged with the collection of discoveries, with the improvement of the arts and sciences” was established. An up and coming young military hero named Napoléon Bonaparte was made a member of the Institute where, no doubt, he learned of the importance of the arts in supporting a regime.

Meanwhile, other major cities followed the lead of the French. In London, the Royal Academy was established in 1768. By 1790, over one hundred academies of art or public schools of art were flourishing: Vienna (remodeled) 1770, Dresden 1762, Berlin 1786, Copenhagen 1754, Stockholm 1768, St. Petersburg 1757, Madrid 1752, Dusseldorf 1767, Frankfort 1779, Munich 1770, Genoa 1752, Naples 1756, Mexico 1785 and Philadelphia 1791/1805. The increased importance of academic training in the arts coincided with these cultural centers taking part in the development of each modern nation state, and the ambitious governments’ growing awareness of the usefulness of art in an international contest for prestige.

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Sébastien Leclerc’s 1698 engraving L’Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts.

By the end of the Eighteenth century, the Neoclassical style was the official style of “Academic art,” regardless of country. This “official” style of the academy was based upon the foundations of classical art and art theory, as expressed by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Painting and Sculpture (1755). According to Winckelmann, contemporary art should not copy Greek art but to should imitate the Greeks in their “noble grandeur and calm simplicity,” by attempting to think about art as they did. This new frame of mind or mental state was hostile to that of the Rococo and put Antiquity forward as the only model to be followed. “It is easier to discover the beauty of Greek statues than the beauty of nature,” Winckelmann stated, “imitating them will teach us how to become wise without loss of time.” The selection, if one could call it that, of classicism as an official style of so many nations was not just an accident or a coincidence. The association with ancient history gave classicism and by proxy the new French government a veneer of prestige and a sense of origin and an aura of power. So for the Americans, an evocation of order and harmony through architecture was well suited to a fledgling nation. Incidentally it was Thomas Jefferson who imported classical architecture, which he had studied in France, to America, providing gravitas for the new nation. For the French, a reiteration of origins and of roots in the antique lent the roughly born regime an air of legitimacy.

Winckelmann’s well-meaning volume of art history led to a formulaic copying by artists of classical models. The academic learned response to the designated “ideal” beauty became a dictum to be followed as much for political as well as artistic purposes. Requiring artists to reproduce ancient art was a way of keeping the aspirations under control and by rewarding them based on the accuracy of their imitations guaranteed that the needs of the State would be well served. Copying a pre-given object/objective led to the academic stress on drawing (disegno) because the pure outline was more faithful to the image. Unlike fleeting, conditional and changeable color, drawing sought the essential and distilled the form into purity, a purity, which would have a moral character. The moral character of art was definitively addressed by the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who stated that art, and only art, could lift the human being up from his/her natural state into a moral state. Art alone produces harmony between our sensual instincts and formality and between life and order. Still, there were problems with teaching art, for speaking prophetically, Schiller asked in 1783, “Do you expect enthusiasm where the spirit of the academies rule?” Schiller foresaw the coming struggle between what his compatriot Emmanuel Kant would posit as artistic freedom, a necessary component of the genius who “played” with forms to invent new art. But Kant’s ideas of freedom and play were an anathema to the Academy where the watchword was oversight and control over the artists and a unquestioning respect for tradition.

The struggle between the French artists and the French government would be occur much later and it was not until well after the French Revolution that the modern Academy was able to take its definitive shape. When he came into Imperial power, Napoléon reorganized the Institut in 1803 and increased its membership. The members were given exclusive rights and unprecedented power to admit and honor the works of art allowed to be shown in the Salons or public exhibitions of the visual arts. Napoléon’s gift of control to a handful of individuals was part of his plan to ensure total dominance of art now yoked to his propaganda machine. The Salon, now in its modern form, showed the works of all artists, deemed worth of admission, not just the members of the Academy. The Institut also awarded the Grand Prix de Rome to Beaux-Arts students (males only), a mode of guaranteeing good behavior, for only those who adhered to the rules were rewarded. When Napoléon fell from power in 1814, the Restoration government sought to reestablish the historical link between the old Royal Academy and the Institut, which also managed to control the École de Beaux-Arts, even though the two bodies were theoretically separate. For the rest of the century, the Academy sought to continue the basic foundational purpose of the Louis XIV–the state would be the main patron for the artists and could, therefore could keep art in check and guide artistic production for the purposes of the ruling class.

The strength of the connections between the Academy, the École, and the government varied with the ruler in power who could intervene or not in the affairs of the art world. Nevertheless, the Academy exercised a great deal of power over the world of French art, and by extension, over all other serious art worlds, for French art had established an hegemony in Europe in the seventeenth century and maintained its monopoly on the quality of the visual and literary arts. The forty members of the Academy held fourteen chairs in painting, eight in sculpture and in architecture, four in engraving and six in music and controlled the Beaux-Arts curriculum and the contents of the annual Salon exhibitions until the mid 1860s when the fortress that was the Academy began to crack.

Also read: “The Artistic Revolution in France” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

Podcast Episode 8: Formalism and Romanticism

ROMANTICISM AND CHANGING METHODOLOGIES

IN ART HISTORY

What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art? A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.” However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.” Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme. How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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French Neoclassicism: Sculpture and Architecture

NEO-CLASSICAL SCULPTURE AND ARCHITECTURE

Canova and Ledoux

When Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) advised eighteenth century artists to imitate the Greeks, he was probably thinking more of sculpture than of painting and upon sculptors fell a particular burden–to pay homage to and to aspire towards that which was considered an epitome of art in its finest hour. Sculptors had been exposed to examples of Classical sculpture for centuries, and even painters based their classicism upon sculptural examples. And for painters, the shift from the Baroque or the Rococo to Neoclassicism moved painting away from the painterliness of the seventeenth century to a flatter, smoother approach to application to a harder outline that reflected vase painting and sculpture. In contrast the painterly complexities of the Baroque style, Neoclassical painting was simplicity itself. Contours were not obscured but legible, based upon the elegant and restrained drawing style of the Greek vases, which were then redrawn for publications circulated among European artists. In addition to the simplification of drawing, there was a preference in France for the grand manner of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who, although he was French, lived in Rome to stay close to classical sources. Poussin’s compositions were, for the most part, geometric, favoring triangular or frieze like compositions. Similarly Neo-Classical composition was solid, balanced and stable, based upon basic geometric units that spread the figures evenly across the large canvases. The structure was centered and orderly, presenting the carefully outlined figures in a theatrical manner, so that each character could be seen clearly.

“The most important aspects of classical art,” Winckelmann said, “is its noble simplicity and calm grandeur.” As if to ensure calmness in a flattened space, the figures were set in narrow settings as if positioned along a ledge, reminiscent of the wall paintings uncovered at Pompeii. Drawing from a time honored vocabulary of stock positions which conveyed coded emotions, poses were carefully restrained in gesture–indicating reason and control–yet illustrative, capable of telling the story and furthering the narration. Color, which Johann Winckelmann disapproved of and discounted perhaps due to the fact that he studied sculpture, was strong but restrained. Calmness, so prized by Winckelmann ruled the scenes with emotion controlled under standard poses and postures. Paint was applied flatly, without inflection with a smoothness resembling vase painting. Carefully orchestrated human forms were assembled upon a shallow stage in long frieze compositions resembling sculptural reliefs, betraying their origins in classical sculpture and Greek vases.

Neo-Classical sculpture was a beat behind Neoclassical painting and reflected many of the characteristics of painting. For example, Neoclassical sculpture was, like painting, frontal. This frontality, even when the work is freestanding, is a change from the dynamism and shifted vantage points of Baroque works. Greek and Roman sculpture, whether victorious athletes or goddesses or the frieze on the Ara Pacis (13 BCE), always have a preferred or dominant view that conveyed a certain authoritative air of complete confidence. The aesthetics, that is the ethical and educative purpose of art, stemmed from the art of the Athenian Greeks and the ancient Romans, which was public and communal, designed to inform the public of the proper virtues and ethical standards. Winckelmann’s lesson was that the nobility of Greek art was manifested in the idealizing style, which perfected the human form, indicating the society’s strivings for perfection. The moral impulse emanated from Republican Rome, imagined as a time of virtue before the excesses of imperialism, following the Age of Augustus.

Therefore, if the sculptors wished to “imitate” the Greeks, then Neoclassical sculpture had to be based upon classical precedents. Baroque sculpture, as seen in the works of Bernini, was dynamic, exciting and active, but Neoclassical sculpture returned to the “calm grandeur” of Greek sculptures with calm poses that were upright, composed posture giving an overall feeling of stillness and poise to Neoclassical sculptures by Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Not knowing that the “Greek sculpture” he was viewing were Roman copies, Winckelmann had nothing but high praise for the graceful and restrained Apollo he viewed in the Belvedere of the Vatican. The marble copies of the Greek bronzes fundamentally altered the Greek originals, and Europeans had little opportunity to view original Greek marble sculptures, until 1806 when Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, brought sculptures from the Parthenon to England.

Sold at a loss to the British government ten years later, the “Elgin Marbles” were shocking to eighteenth century audiences in their rough and ready realism. Perhaps because they were weathered from exposure to the elements, the sculpture from the Pediment of the Parthenon were so unappetizingly stumbled, that “conservators” in the 1930s tried to sand down the surfaces into something more akin to the silky soft smoothness of Neoclassical sculpture., Contrary to assumptions of (imagined) idealism, actual Athenian sculptures show a deep concern with a realism of details, from copper nipples on male nudes to inlaid eyes to the polychrome surfaces. Indeed the modern vision of classical sculpture and architecture as being pure white is inaccurate and anachronistic. True, ancient sculpture and architecture from the Classical era was very brightly colored and adorned with metal details, but the actual appearance of Classical art is not as important as how classicism was reinterpreted to meet the needs of the Enlightenment.

Antonio Canova was perhaps the Neoclassical sculptor par excellence. Looking at his meticulous and elegant works, frozen in to graceful positions, one would never guess that his life was full of turmoil, disrupted by the conflict between France and Italy. A native of Venice, Canova maintained a full time residence in Rome where he was guided in the serious study of Classical sculpture by English artist Gavin Hamilton. However, his mature years as an artist were marred by the almost two decade long French occupation of Italy, during which the Italians learned to despise the French who, in turn, engaged in systematic looting. On one hand, the French made off with Italian works of art, Italian culture, on the other hand they had aspirations to, in the words of Christopher M. S. Johns, “turn much of Rome into an archaeological park.” In his excellent book, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe (1998), Jones describe how Canova, despite his “Franco phobia” was courted by Napoléon himself and executed several important commissions for the Bonaparte family.

Canova’s Neoclassical works dated to 1781 and his time in Rome where he was able to study actual classical works and Theseus and the Dead Minotaur (1781) shows a clam and cool Theseus sitting on top of the chest of the expired beast. Although this is a simple composition, one figure on top of another, the best vantage point is an oblique angle. That said, the hero is serene and contemplative compared to the 1809 Theseus and the Centaur in which Theseus is active and caught in the act of killing. This later work, commissioned by Napoléon, has a much clearer vantage point and is far more frontal and relief like. A convoluted and erotic work, Cupid and Psyche (1787-93) shows latent traces of a Baroque dynamic. Indeed, comparing Canova’s Venus Italica (1810) with the second century Venus Pudica, it is clear that Canova’s Neoclassical works are subtly more active than the original: the legs are flexed, the head is canted and the entire crouch is more alert and alarmed. Canova was also a master, not just of skin soft polished surfaces but also of finicky details alien to the ancients. Perhaps his most admired work was his recumbent sculpture of Napoléon’s sister, Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix (1804-08). In some ways this is among his most successful Neoclassical works. Holding her prized apple, Pauline/Venus is calm and still and regal in the proper classical manner but it is the precious realism–the carefully wrinkled cover to her cushion, the embroidered trim on the cover, the tassels of her pillows, the array of folds and drapery arranged over the Princess–that makes the statue “neo” rather than Classical.

canova

Pauline Borghese as Venus Victrix (1804-08)

Classical architecture was practical and pragmatic and, prior to Mies van der Rohr, form followed function, and yet Neoclassical architects reimagined classicism as utopian. Neoclassical architects attempted to create architectural forms suitable for a new and improved idealized future. Neoclassical architecture was based upon simple geometric forms—circle, square, rectangle, spheres, hemispherical shapes, pyramids, cones—universal forms, suitable for utopian dreams of new buildings for a new society. In contrast to the human scale of Classical architecture, Neoclassical utopian architecture was imagined, and sometimes built, on a gigantic scale. The extreme simplicity combined with the monumentality gave the visionary buildings an unexpected air of surreality and omnipresence. The century began with academic attempts to codify architecture and to move it towards a new classicism and rigor and away from the elaborate and exquisite architecture of the Rococo.

Theoretician Jean Louis de Cordemoy conceived of what might be termed “functionalism,” in the modern sense, reflecting a desire to streamline architecture. In his Nouveau traité de tout l’architecuture (1706), Cordemoy put forward stipulations of ordonnance or the appropriate use of the classical orders, disposition or the distribution and arrangements of the parts, and biensécance which is a form of aesthetics comparable to décor. The Academie d’Architecture chimed in in 1712 put forward their own guidelines. In addition to ordonnance, it listed proportion and convenance or submission to use and, lastly bon goût, or a higher form of good taste. Adding to what would be an extensive theoretical discourse on architecture in the eighteenth century, Germain Boffrand (1667-1754) submitted the idea of caractère as the basis for what the Viennese architectural historian Emil Kauffman would later call “Revolutinary architecture.” By caractère, Boffrand meant an expression of the character of the builder or what is called today a “signature style.” Writing in 1939 of the role of Étienne-Louis Boulée in this rise of Neoclassical architecture, Kaufmann wrote,

Change of form and change of system are intimately correlated. When a new architectural system arises it can abide for a while in the form its predecessor, but not for long. It tends to seek its own adequate expression, its appropriate form. One of the most interesting things to watch in the development of art is this attempt at self-realization which ends finally in the discovery of new forms for the new system.

In 2002, Anthony Vidler noted that it was Emil Kaufmann who discovered Revolutionary Architecture and who found the three nearly forgotten architects, Ledoux, Boulée, and Lequeu, who, in Kaufmann’s opinion, exemplified an architecture of Revolution. His selection of these three architects is still influential today, but it seems useful to point out that the ideas of “Revolutionary” architects had long roots going back to the beginning of the century. In addition, there is a distinction between Neoclassical architects and those visionary architects who practiced during the Revolution. Because of these difficult times, only one of these architects had a substantial body of actual work actually built and the other two completed only a few buildings but produced substantial writings and folios of extraordinary drawings.

The architecture of these Revolutionary Architects was visionary and indeed, according to Kaufmann, in “the second year of the Republic and stem-ming from a group of hostile artists warns against Ledoux and Boullee, particularly against the unbridled contrivances of the latter, who is called “un espece de fou en architecture.” To practical Academicians, this utopian built environment seemed “crazy” but, on a theoretical plane, the works, erected or not, reflected the dreams of a new world. Architects such as Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806) used laws of rigid and simple geometry as the visual language of reason. “The circle and the square are the alphabet authors use in the texture of the best works,” remarked Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Architecture in the eighteenth century was seen as being allied to power and repression. After the fall of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, the prison was promptly demolished. Equally hated was the vast visionary project of the customs wall of the Farmers-General that encircled Paris. Ledoux, who was briefly imprisoned during the Revolution, would see his major architectural work, the gate and custom posts of the despised wall, of fall to the mob in July of 1789.

In 2008 Luc Gruson described how Ledoux’s Salt Works, in ruins, were followed up or extended by the imprisoned architect who took the circle of the Salt Works and built an ideal (imaginary) city around it. In his article, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Visionary architecture et Social Utopia, Gruson wrote,

The ideal City is hence conceived twenty years after the building of the Salt works, in a totally different political context. It is the result of both social and architectural utopia… Ledoux extends there the theories which explained the choices made for the Royal Salt works. But what is intriguing is that this utopia is not one without a site, since it is situated exactly on the place of he Salt works, the latter being its centre. In the famous engraving of the ideal City of Chaux (Fig. 4), we clearly recognize the Salt works, but also Loue’s valley, in the place where it meets the Jura Bresse, having in the background the Chaux forest Massif, which names the imaginary city. We are now aware that there was no clear-cut distinction between the Salt works project and that of the city of Chaux, it is even likely that Ledoux has thought from the very beginning to set up a new industrial City in Franche-Comté.

In the works of Etienne-Louis Boulée (1728-1799), whom Kaufmann considered to be “significant as marking the first conscious employment of the new forms,” the circle or square or rectangle was divided into equal parts around omnipotent center, giving his works, in the opinion of some, a rather foreboding totalitarian atmosphere. As a visionary, Boulée was able to give him imagination free rein, creating unrealized buildings of massive scale, dwarfing an awed spectator. For this architect, one of the key goals was to impact the viewer and to cause psychological reactions, such as the sublime, within any imaginary visitor. Like Ledoux, he wrote about his architectural ideas and like his predecessor, it would take centuries for his work, Architecture, essai sur l’art, to be published. Both architects considered themselves to be artists first and architects second. Ledoux stated, “If you wish to be an architect, begin as a painter.” And Boulée wrote in his Essai sur l’art (1781-93, published 1953) “And I also am a painter.” Boulée’s most famous work of imagination was certainly Newton’s Cenotaph (1780-93), a brilliantly conceived and unbuildable sphere hovering as a grave against the horizon line. His use of massive geometry was meant to overwhelm, not just with shape but with the suggestive use of light and shadow. As he wrote,

To produce sad and dark images it is necessary to present architecture by means of a completely bare wall, as I intendedin some funerary buildings, showing a picture of sunken architecture by means of low proportions and buried into the ground; in short, give shape, by means of light absorbing materials, to the dark image of an architecture defined by the shadow effect. This type of shadow-integrated architecture is an artistic discovery that belongs to me..

Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757-1826) also created pure architectonic forms, treated them with economy and elegance, but, like his colleagues, he produced architectural visions that could never be realized. The Revolution upended his life and he gave up his ambitions for a career

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Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Elévation géométrale du temple de la Terre; Section de la ligne côté de l’entrée; Dernière résolution de l’ordre extérieur (1794)

as an architect for that of a civil servant who worked for civic projects in Paris. There is some question about his mental health, but there is no doubt that at the many drawings he left behind were those of an imagination unfettered by the need to actually build. In his seminal work on Three Revolutionary Architects, Boulée, Ledoux, Lequeu (1952), Kaufman made the case that Lequeu was a capable and competent government employer and that, like many artists, he was inspired by his times. Lequeu’s detour out of the beaux arts and into civil service underscores the fact that he must have been but one of many whose aspirations were derailed by the political upheaval. As Kaufmann wrote,

Though Lequeu wandered beyond the regular bounds, his fantasies are more than extravaganzas. They are works of art in which we recognize the man, and through which we apprehend the period . Building for patrons after classical canons must have been for Lequeu in his early years just as boring as delineating charts and maps in his advanced age. Classicism was the field in which the unoriginal, the minor spirits, felt at home. The independent minds strove to free themselves from the old heritage, in one way or another. They laid down their novel ideas in passionate words, or in ecstatic designs which must be looked upon as expressions of evolution. To measure their inventions by the standards of a perfected , stable style or tradition would be to misj udge their position and significance in the history of art. They are neither to be judged by any aesthetic canons of mature style, nor to be approached with any expectation of practical utility or even possibility . If ever there was such a thing as l’ art pour l’ art, we find it in the outbursts of the revolutionary architects.

Towards the end of his disappointing life, Lequeu sold off his drawings but the bulk of his achievements (of the mind) would have to wait two hundred years to be rediscovered. Most of the looming and gigantic buildings of these visionary architects were rendered but never built, and the architecture of the Enlightenment, like the architecture of the Russian Revolution, was doomed to be “paper architecture.” The concern of these architects with utility arose from nature and its perfect functionality and efficiency, and yet, the very purity and reductiveness of their designs resulted in a kind of hallucinogenic glimpse into an impossible future.

Also read: “French Neoclassicism” and “The Origins of Neoclassicism”

Also listen to “Neoclassicism” and “Jacques-Louis David”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
[email protected]

French Neoclassicism

NEO-CLASSICISM IN FRANCE

The Early Years

In any academy, whether from the seventeenth or the eighteenth or the nineteenth century, history painting was the most elevated form of painting due to the designated “important” themes treated by the artists. In terms of the hierarchy of genres or the preferred and most prestigious forms of painting and sculpture, historical topics were favored over scenes of the present, genre scenes, landscapes, or portraiture. The “history” depicted, where actual or mythic or religious, consisted of events the dominant culture considered significant and that were, therefore, considered by the authorities, topics suitable for public consumption and social edification. The content of history painting was the most difficult for artists to paint, for the complex compositions with multiple human figures were given (or selected) in order to display the artist’s knowledge of anatomy, range of academic artistic techniques and command of erudite history itself. Such intellectual knowledge could be gained only at art schools or the Academies where all students were taught in an “official style,” which, for decades in France, had been the grand Baroque manner of Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665). Although Poussin had spent his career in Rome, he was revered in his native land, France. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, the Baroque style was exhausted. In architecture and in interior décor and private commissioned painting, the Baroque had evolved into the soft and erotic Rococo style, leaving the “grand style” for the State and its advertisement.

For Enlightenment thinkers, such as Denis Diderot, it was time for a new style, one that would better reflect the needs of a changing society. An artistic revolution to put an end to the grand manner of Poussin and the sensuality of François Boucher (1703-1770) was needed. In the middle of the century, Herculaneum and Pompeii, towns buried by a long forgotten eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79, were discovered in 1738 and 1748. These towns were resort towns near Naples and were favored by well-to-do Romans in the early Imperial era. Frozen in time, magnificent villas were unearthed, revealing extraordinary murals painted by provincial artists. Beyond Greek vases, no substantial examples of classical paintings were extant until these towns were re-discovered. Suddenly the linear and simple approach to drawing and the cleanly painted areas of strong colors provided a new way to make art to a young generation of artists who wanted to make their marks in the Academy and upon new patrons. The linear approach of the Pompeiian murals and their strong colors, similar to Greek vases, were an antidote to the showy brushy painterly styles so prevalent with the Rococo. The affinity to the simple compositions and strong lines of Poussin made it easy to assimilate the paintings of Pompeii for artists who were interested in being radical, a prospect that took four decades to come to fruition.

The unearthing (and looting) of a slice of ancient life, preserved in its original state had a revolutionary impact upon the visual arts, from drawing to painting to interior design to architecture. The clean hard edges of the antique drawing style stood in strong clear contrast—even a stern rebuke—to the soft edges of the waning Rococo style–or so it would be understood within the political context of social unrest and the coming of the French Revolution. The modern version of the Antique Style was coded in the mid-eighteenth century as “simplicity and virtue,” while the Rococo style was coded as “corrupt and decadent,” a class distinction with political overtones. The result of these new discoveries in Italy was an International adaptation of classical art was what the art historian Hugh Honour called the “cult of antiquity,” developed to reflect the needs of each country, whether England or France or Germany, inspired by this “neo” “classicism.” These anachronistic and political readings imposed upon Classical art as “virtuous,” happily ignoring mystery paintings or scenes of sheer pleasure, were filtered through a newly powerful middle class and the bourgeois art public, seeking to forge a new identity in opposition to the aristocrats.

Wall-Painting-Pompeii-Italy-144635

Wall Painting from Pompeii

Dating from 1760 to 1800, the Neoclassical period begins with an air of expectancy, as though an era is awaiting a Messiah. The co-author of the Encyclopédie, Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, Denis Diderot yearned for the artist who could correct the excesses of the Baroque and the decadence of the Rococo, but he did not live to enjoy the work of the artist, who would inflict upon these old styles the coup de grâce, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Neoclassicism is more than a simple shift in artistic style or in audience taste, the style became a vehicle for conformity or rebellion, for the erotic or the political, depending upon the artist in question. The fact that this ancient style proved to be so flexible and contradictory is explained by its placement in time—in the midst of vast economic and social changes, with intimations of a “return” to the foundations of European culture so that a new society could be built upon the old values. Neo-classicism was ideally suited to a new “grand” style that could supersede the Baroque and re-inject a new seriousness into history painting.

The fact that a philosopher and a thinker such as Diderot was also an art writer, corresponding with the crowned heads of Europe, attests to the increasing importance of art as a mode of communication of social ideas. Towards the end of his career, Diderot favored Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) an artist who depicted calm and sober middle class life. The quiet industry of the bourgeoisie was a strong contrast to the luxurious and useless lives of the French aristocrats and in retrospect we can read political changes if not overt political statements in the contrasts of grand Baroque, decorative Rococo, and austere and quiet middle class art. Because it was “new,” Neoclassicism became the vehicle for an artistic style upon which emerging social and cultural needs would be projected. Inspired by classical antiquity, artists painted with archaeological exactitude, based upon historical research and actual trips to Italy. The Neoclassical style was one of intellect, an art of perfecting nature and of presenting idealized human forms and exemplary human behavior. As such, Neoclassicism can be thought of as the application of a theory of aesthetics, a new definition of art as an attempt to re-write social existence and as a text suggesting a new world of improved human behavior.

Initially, Neoclassicism reflected the interests of the upper class, its passion for collecting the rare and precious antiquities and its need to present an ennobled self-image to a world, increasingly disenchanted with the self-indulgent ways of the aristocracy. But it was the aristocracy itself that provided the first and most enthusiastic market for Neo-classicism. The market orientation of Neoclassicism is most obvious in the early stages of the style with the frozen eroticism of Joseph-Marie Vien, but this fascination with the eroticized female would be ended by the second stage of Neoclassicism, and heroic men would take the center stage as active and noble subjects. Monumentality and sober and serious colors, strong shadows and theatrical settings filled with brave men engaged in virtuous enterprises became the preferred style at the end of the Eighteenth Century. David’s conversion to Neoclassicism in Rome, as seen in The Oath of the Horatti, 1785, resulted in a style that could serve the needs of his King as well as the needs of the Revolution that followed. Neoclassicism’s ancient roots rendered it universal and suitable for a multiplicity of causes and purposes.

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In its early stages, Neoclassicism was first a period of response to art of antiquity. As seen in the art of a French artist, Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809) and a Swiss artist working in England, Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), Neoclassicism is basically a reform of the Baroque with classical subject matter as the major content. Both artists presented a parade of antique characters, mostly women, wearing attractive Greco-Roman gowns, engaged in ordinary everyday activities. Introducing Neoclassicism to the French in the Salon of 1763, Vien presented an antique version of the Rococo, meaning that his work is linear, inspired by John Flaxmann’s (1755-1826) line drawings of Greek vases, but that his content is erotic, inspired by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s (1732-1806) boudoir paintings. It is perhaps in England that the link between Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment can be most clearly seen. In her 2004 book, Geometries of Silence: Three Approaches to Neoclassical Art, according to Anna Ottani Cavina, John Flaxman followed the dictates of the theorist of the Neoclassical, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) who said, “Let the artist’s pencil be impregnated with wisdom.” In its philosophical challenges to the age of monarchs, the Enlightenment stressed the importance of human reason and individual intellect. But most of all, the Enlightenment introduced the concept of rigor in thinking and logic in theory, making it a thoroughly middle class philosophy that prized individual humanity. In an homage to middle class ideals, Kauffmann created genre scenes out of the classical era, domesticating and gendering Roman virtue, and celebrating the ethics of women. The patrons for these artists were aristocrats who liked to keep up with the latest art trends, but what is interesting in the case of these early Neoclassical artists is that these artists produced stories of everyday life, rather than serious history painting, and that these paintings were clearly destined for a domestic rather than a state setting.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Neoclassicism would be come serious and history painting, reconfigured to accommodate a new trend in subject matter. Baroque art had been a grand form of propaganda for state power, an advertising style, as it were. Neoclassicism would present another theme: the morality of civic life and the artists would seek a more didactic content in order to teach the art audience, the public, the citizens of the state, how to live ethical lives. The final break from the Baroque to the Neoclassical came in the art of Jacques-Louis David, who was “converted” from the grandeur of the older style to the austerity of the classical when he was sent to Rome by the French Academy. That said, David’s art was as rooted in the patronage of the aristocratic class as was that of Vien and Kaufmann. The distinction between the first and second stage of Neoclassicism was the move to large sized history paintings intended to announce the advent of a newly important style. There was, as was noted in an earlier post, a gap in the rediscovery of antique art and its appreciation and the full development of a Neo-classical style that eventually happened in France. Part of the slow shift towards a new style in France had to do with a lack of appreciation of a native French style. According to Colin B. Bailey in his book Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-revolutionary Paris, the pre-Revolutionary French collectors preferred Flemish and northern artists, until the 1780s. As Bailey wrote, “By the middle of the eighteenth century, the preference of Parisian collectors for Italian and Northern old masters was being questioned for the first time by critics and amateurs eager to promote the French school.” Bailey noted that the abbé Louis Gougenot, who liked Greuze, “lamented” that the only place to see French painting was in the biennial Salon: “To the shame of our Nation, and to the astonishment of foreign visitors, our so-called art lovers–attracted by the unusual rather than the truly beautiful–make it an unwritten law to banish the work of modern painters, no matter how good, from their collections.” The point is an important one, as it is adventurous patrons who made Neo-Classicism important and accepted in Paris and in the French Academy.

There is an important prelude, therefore, to the success of David and his new style that was a result of the increasing demand that French art be foregrounded in Paris. Collectors began heeded the call to turn their serious attention towards living French artists. Joseph-Hyacinthe-François de Paule de Riguad, the comte de Vaudreuil, of the Ancient Régime, as Bailey pointed out, was an important early supporter of David, although through art historical prejudice, he has been discounted due to his association with Elizabeth Viegée-Lebrun. But what connects the two disparate artists was that they were both living and important French artists, supported by new patrons. It is often assumed that suddenly Rococo art disappeared as soon as Neo-Classicsim hove into view, but such is not the case. As Anne L. Schroder in “Reassessing Fragonard’s Later Years: The Artist’s Nineteenth Century Biographers, the Rococo, and the French Revolution” noted, Fragnoard did not descend into disgrace, but continued to thrive through the private market that still had a taste for Rococo art and was, in fact, a close associate of David himself. As she pointed out, the Rococo style never faded away and was beloved to the extent that during the Second Empire, it–not Neo-Classicism–was seen as the true national style of France.

Jacques Louis David. The Oath of the Horatii (1785)

David’s career and success was, in fact, based upon the pre-Revolutionary desire to promote “French art.” The most important power who as behind a larger effort to put French art before the public was Charles-Claude Flahaut de la Billaderie, comte d’Angiviller, who was the director of the Bâtiments du Roi. According to Andrew McClellan in his 1994 book, Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in Eighteenth-century Paris, was responsible for renovating the Grand Gallery of the Palace of the Louvre into “a space suitable for the public display of art.” Working under a crumbling and indecisive Louis XVI, de Vaudreuil had ambitious plans for the Louvre, even “anticipating the modern museum in which the objects on display are allowed to speak for themselves, de Vaudreuil insisted on only minimal decoration of the gallery’s walls and ceilings. Even the new frames ordered for the museum were characterized by elegant, neoclassical restraint.” This was the influential man who would be the supporter of Jacques Louis David–one could hardly get closer to the throne of France than the aristocrat who was stocking the Louvre with the works of living artists.

In one of the first modern art historical studies of Neoclassicism in 1967, Robert Rosenblum’s Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art, attempted to sort out the many variations of Neoclassicism. For France, during the transition out of the monarchy, into the Revolution, and transiton towards the Empire, what Rosenblum called “Neoclassic stoic” suited a country in turmoil. It was the comte d’Angiviller, who commissioned David to do a grand history painting, using as theme from the Roman Republic to suggest loyalty to the King. David chose a scene from the story that was slightly different from the one requested, but the “oath” to the patriarch, the father, the leader of the tribe, fell within the parameters of his patron’s requests. The Oath surprised the Parisian art audience, not by its subject matter but with its rigid classicism, a revelation of austerity in comparison to the widely loved Rococo. Following the shocking debut of David’s Oath of the Horatti in the Salon of 1785, Neoclassicism quickly became the favored style of the French Salon. As Rosenblum stated, Neoclassicism “looked toward antiquity for examples of high-minded human behavior that could serve as moral paragons for contemporary audiences.” This particular manifestation of Neoclassicism could serve the ancien régime and the Revolution and the Empire with equal efficacy.

Moving from its second stage as a spare and Spartan style of rigor, Neoclassicism’s third state was activated dynamic one, in the service of Napoléon in France. Formally speaking, Napoléonic Neoclassicism was a dynamic or diagonal repositioning of the horizontals of the Stoic phase. A comparison between David’s Death of Socrates (1787) with his Napoléon Crossing at Saint-Bernard (1801) shows the same linear effects, block colors, strong and deep hues, and shallow stage-like setting, linked to relief sculpture and vase painting. David’s works always have the look of a tableau-vivant or pantomime play and his classical style seemed to consist of frozen postures, static and unnatural poses and overtly theatrical scenes. Later, in the early nineteenth century, Neoclassicism softened due to the new tendencies towards the prelude to Romanticism, as seen in the work of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) (Johann Heinrich Füssli), Anne-Louis Girodet (de Rossy-Trioson)’s The Sleep of Endymion (1791),and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ Dream of Ossian (1813).

And finally, Neoclassicism dwindled down to a final stage of a sugary, sentimental, pompous, and empty academic style, demanded of their students by the powers of the Academy. Even David fell victim to the final spasms of a dying style and he and his pupil François Gerard produced a series on the lives and loves of Cupid and Psyche. Neoclassicism, exhausted as a means of communicating powerful ideas, became the academic status quo enforcing the established powers and becoming a retrograde style against which avant-garde artists will fight. At its height, Neoclassicism was the dominant art style, restrained, cool and formal, marked by moralistic themes and perfect for the new forms of government following the fall of the French monarchy. By the time the nation had undergone the traumas of a Revolution and an Empire and a Restoration, the Enlightenment optimism embedded in Neoclassicism gave way to Romanticism, a dramatic style that could express those traumas and disillusionment.

Also read: “French Neoclassicism: Sculpture and Architecture” and “French Neoclassicism” and “The Origins of Neoclassicism”

Also listen to “Neoclassicism” and “Jacques-Louis David”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
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Podcast Episode 7: The Academy and the Avant-Garde

THE ACADEMY AND THE AVANT-GARDE IN FRANCE

The artists of the French Academy and the artists of the French avant-garde are often presented as being protagonists, but, in fact, each group defined itself in terms of the other. The French Academy was the bastion of the establishment, of rules and regulations and of order. The avant-garde bohemians were the original outsider artists, misfits without credentials, who were able to break the rules of art and change the course of art. But the Academy absorbed and co-opted and softened the concepts and techniques of the avant-garde artists, making the “radical” changes acceptable to the general public.

The model for the Academy as the purveyor for “official” art, approved by the State, which supported the system of art schools, was followed by other nations. England had its own Royal Academy, Germany had its academies, even Spain and America had an Academy. The struggles between the forces of the Academy or the status quo and the Avant-Garde or change were fought mostly in Paris and London. There were several reasons for the quarrels between the older and young generations. First, there were questions of style, centered mostly in painting—how to paint, second, there were issues of content—what subject matter was appropriate for public consumption, and third, by the second half of the nineteenth century, there were economic conditions.

Arbitrary academic restrictions on art, censorship by the state on artists became an economic restraint of trade. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, there were simply too many aspirants for too few positions in the Academic system and the so-called avant-garde artists were those artists who, for reasons of style or content or both, could not find success within the existing establishments. It would be these artists, pushed into the position of being Refusées, who would seek out new means of exhibiting, displaying and selling their “outsider art.”

 

 

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The Origins of Neoclassicism

NEOCLASSICISM AND THE ANTIQUE

The Rediscovery of the Past

Classicism, since the Renaissance, had been the foundation of an expression of all that was superior and exhaled in the fine arts. Capable of morphing, the classicism of the Renaissance, of Raphael and Michelangelo, became the Mannerist distortions of Pontormo and the drama of the Baroque and even the eroticism of the Rococo. By the eighteenth century, “classicism” had become so overridden by the new styles and the new demands of the new patrons that its distinguishing characteristics were nearly invisible. The idiosyncrasies of Mannerism and the drama of the Baroque were alien to the internal calm and self-sufficiency of the classism of ancient Greece and Rome. During the Renaissance, classical sculptures were unearthed and provided the basis for a fifteenth century reinterpretation of the antique. But no authentic example of painting, beyond vases, was available, allowing the classicism of the Renaissance and the Baroque to flourish iwht invention but without discipline. What made Classicism “new” again in the late eighteenth century was a discovery of a new authentic source of Classical painting at Pompeii and Herculaneum, two resort towns near Naples and far too near to the looming volcano, Vesuvius. Buried since 79, these towns were the ancient equivalents of the Hamptons on Long Island, and the wealthy inhabitants had commissioned wall paintings to provide decorations for the unbroken expanses of walls, illustrating ancient and fanciful myths and events of everyday life in antiquity. The significance of the uncovering of the ancient murals is that, after centuries of basing “classical” on sculptures, now there were, amazingly, actual paintings (almost certainly provincial) for contemporary artists to study. These ruins inspired the beginnings of archaeology, however primitive, that fit in well with the practice of scientific analysis and the new respect for empirical knowledge. Throughout the eighteenth century Pompeii (discovered in sixteenth century and excavated in 1748) and Herculaneum (discovered in 1701 and excavated in 1738) were being excavated, a process that continues to this day.

Early archaeologists and artists and architects explored and discovered the remains of classical civilizations and these recoveries were made available to the public and to artists through carefully engraved reproductions. In addition to the significant public displays of the remarkable specimens of classical art from the long buried cities was the circulation of drawings of ancient architecture, also in Italy, through portfolios of drawings, such as Bernard de Montfaucon’s 15-volume work, L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (1719-1724)and Le Antichità di Ercolano (The Antiquities of Herculaneum) (1744 and 1792). The former was translated by Davy Humphreys (one of the early experimenters in photography) as Antiquity Explained. Even more remarkable was the work done by the English architects, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett who, thanks to the easing of travel restrictions to Greece, were able to make careful measurements and beautiful drawings of the ruins of ancient Athens. The years after their field work, they were able to publish The Antiquities of Athens in 1762. Books such as these, combined with an increase in tourism, the English Grand Tour to Italy, and the support of the French government of artists who lived and worked in Rome, suggested the very real possibility of a “return” to a more authentic, historically rooted form of “classicism.”

The Roman ruins were especially compelling as crumbling lessons of morality. Roman virtue was more than a dream, for Rome–ancient Rome–had become the climax point of every Grand Tour. Politically, the example of antique virtue, as seen through eighteenth century eyes, provided an example to the French Revolution, which could serve as a call to return to the “roots” of the proper moral and ethical government that existed prior to the imperialism of the Roman Empire. Artistically, the new interest in ancient cultures fired the imagination of artists, who, in the beginnings of Neo-classicism, used ancient Rome as a kind of fashion statement. Joseph-Marie Vien reimagined pretty people, usually women, dressed (or undressed) in diaphanous draped gowns, posing for genre scenes of life in antiquity. Indeed the long named catalogue of the 1972 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert, The Age of neo-classicism: a handlist to the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe [held at] the Royal Academy and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 9 September-19 November, 1972, pointed to Vien as the tastemaker of his time and the father of Neo-Classicism. As Alice Mackrell pointed out in her book, Art and Fashion. The Impact of Art on Fashion and Fashion on Art (2005),

The 1770s in France were notable for the re-emergence of costume books hat conveyed a specialist antiquarian knowledge of dress. Michel-François Dandré-Bandon spent the years 1726-31 studying in Rome..A vivid draughtsman and theoretician, he wrote and illustrated a number of books, including his magnum opus, Costumes des ancient peuples. Published in six volumes in 1772-74, he dedicated it to the marquis de Marigny in recognition of his encouragement of le goût grec. André Lens’s book, Le Costume des peoples de l’antiquité appeared in 1776.

These simple new fashions for the aristocrats, especially the women, who obligingly clad themselves à la grec were well suited to be both a statement of that which was “natural” and politically wise, given the rising political criticism of insensitive displays of wealth. Scholars and tourists inspected the ruins, and artists, such as Hubert Robert (1733-1808) and Canaletto, responded to the demand for Italian vistas with view paintings. For his part Canaletto (1697-1768) provided veduta paintings of Venice to tours who had reached their Italian destination, but Robert satisfied the desire to contemplate the past. The crumbling and romantic ruins of Robert (“Robert des Ruines”) were a painted mix of modern fantasies of the meaning of the ancient world and past grandeur and accurate descriptions of actual remaining buildings. Antiquity, from the reading of Homer to the use of the ancient as a suitable subject for artists, became the order of the day from the mid-eighteenth century on.

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Joseph-Marie Vien. La Toilette d’une jeune mariée dans le costume antique (1777)

Preference for classical art was articulated by Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), the first modern art historian, who recommended copying the ancients in order to study nature more thoroughly. In 1755, Winckelmann, the secretary and librarian to Cardinal Albani in Rome, published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, which was an attack on Rococo and an assertion of the superiority of the art of the Greeks. Winckelmann established the idea that art was created within a particular cultural and social context. The writer concluded that the temperate climate of Greece and the Athenian emphasis on outdoor sports as performed by the young males (in the nude) fostered ideals of “noble calm and simplicity.” Using Cardinal Albani’s collection of antique art, Winckelmann wrote his History of Ancient Art in 1764 in which he conceived of the development of Greek art in successive phases within a political, social, and religious context. Winckelmann put forward the idea that art evolved within a society in a teleological fashion, reaching a peak of perfection. For the art historian, the peak was the antique art of Classical Greece, and the modern artist could do no better or no more than to emulate the Greeks. In 1755 Winckelmann wrote,

The only way for us to become great, and, if indeed it is possible, inimitable, is through the imitation of the ancients, and what someone said of Homer, that the man who has learned to understand him well learns to admire him, is also true of the works of art by the ancients, especially of the Greeks.

Two years later, an Englishman, Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), envoy extraordinary to the court of Naples, published a four-folio volume of antiquities as a result of his participation in excavations (and unabashed looting). Hamilton’s post as ambassador did not pay well and he created a side line as an art dealer, excavating Greek vases from ancient sites of colonial settlements in Italy, inflating their value, and selling them to the British Museum. One group of vases arrived safely to England but the another batch of antiquities sank with the HMS Colossus in 1787. Hamilton’s discoveries, including the famous Roman cameo vase, the Barberini Vase, sold to the Duchess of Portland, provided additional information about the drawing style of ancient potters. The luxury folio which presented exquisite illustrations of the vases was titled Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities (1766-1776). Although the text was in English, the line drawings, strict and plain, created a series of illustrations that were influential internationally and studied by potter Josiah Wedgwood, artists John Flaxmann, Henry Fuseli, Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-August Dominique Ingres for inspiration and information. Continuing his efforts to revive interest in ancient art, Hamilton published another set of folios, Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of The Honble. W. Hamilton, illustrated by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, director of the Naples art academy, in 1791-95. The folio drawing were flat outlines that deftly handled details without becoming orange or cluttered, giving the illustrations a restrained and severe appearance.

This burgeoning historicism allowed identification with an ancient past that could be understood in relation to contemporary political goals. To Europeans, Rome was far more accessible as the source of ancient art than Greece. Greece, dominated by the Ottoman Empire, was cordoned off, making it difficult to travel to the territory of Plato and and the Parthenon. Actual (ancient) modern Greece was virtually unknown to most Europeans. But in a remarkable act of cultural imperialism, an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a native of Scotland, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord Elgin, convinced the Sultan in charge of the Parthenon, an ancient temple of incomparable beauty and perfection, to allow him to take all the sculptures, external and internal to England. On the surface this stripping was nothing less than an act of vandalism, but there was a counter argument. The Athenians were using the stones of the Parthenon to build their own houses and the building was being slowly dismantled. But Elgin was not interested in saving the building; he wanted the sculptures, because the French wanted the sculptures. Due to the shifting alliances during the Napoléonic wars, the French were shut out of Greece long enough for Lord Elgin to spring into action and was granted permission through a series of firmans or letters of instruction to acquire the art of the Parthenon.

The Muslims in charge did not care about Western relics and watched while the priceless works of art were removed from the building and shipped to England. Even at the time of these actions, cries of “vandalism” could be heard, but Elgin claimed he was protecting the sculptures for their own good. The cost of removing the sculptures and transporting them to England was astronomical and bankrupted the Bruce family. The British government, which eventually acquired the sculptures, never paid Elgin back for his troubles, giving him only half of what he had demanded. As was pointed out, the “acquisition” of the marbles played out during the war against France, led by the tyrant Napoléon. As Ian Dennis Jenkins wrote in his 2007 book The Parthenon Sculptures, “Against a background of British post-war patriotism and a new-found sense of self a liberator of Europe, a Parliamentary select committee sat in 1816 to investigate the prospect of acquiring Lord Elgin’s Athenian marbles for the nation..They went on show at the British Museum in a temporary makeshift gallery that opened to the public in 1817. From the time of their arrival in London until the present day, these sculptures of the Parthenon have been objects of exceptional fascination. Even those, moreover, who revile his actions must admit that Lord Elgin’s acquisition of them is now and irreversible part of their history and, indeed, has to a large extent made them what they are.” The English public was stunned at the realism of these actual works by the workshop of Phidias himself. It would take years before the artists could reconcile the abstraction of the Greek vases, as illustrated by Tischbein, and the physicality of the “Elgin Marbles” still on view in the British Museum today. In her 2012 book, The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture. Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso, Elizabeth Prettejohn wrote of the divided reception of the Elgin Marbles, pointing out that their condition was (predictably, given their exposed condition and lack of maintenance) fragmentary and rough, disconcerting to those used to the line drawings of Greek art. “Interestingly, the draped figures of the female figures were much more difficult than the nude males for most witnesses to accept: the broken folds of the drapery appeared incompatible with the notions of the wholeness and serenity of the classical ideal.”

But as Pettijohn noted, the surprising sculptures had an eloquent and very early defender in Georg Hegel in his series of lectures on Aesthetics, beginning in 1818. By the 1820s, he had taken up the issue of the Elgin marbles and their place in antiquity, breaking away from Winckelmann who had seen only Roman copies of Greek sculptures. “The whole body, except the head, witnesses to the truest treatment and imitation of nature. Even the accidental feature of the skin are imitated and carried out excellently with a marvelous handling o f the marble; the muscles are strongly emphasized, the bone structure of the body is indicted, the shapes are constrained, by the severity of the design, yet reproduced by such knowledge of the human organism that the figures almost deceive is into thinking that they are alive, why! even that we are almost scared by them and shrink from touching them..” Hegel wrote, “..even the minutest detail has its purpose..and yet it remains in continual flux, counts and lives only in the whole. The result is that the whole can be recognized in fragments, and such a separatated part affords the contemplation and enjoyment of an unbroken whole.” As Pettijohn explained, “Ingeniously, Hegel has managed to produce a theoretical justification for appreciating the Elgin Marbles in their fragmentary and fractured condition, perhaps the greatest sticking-point to their reception.” In retrospect, it is interesting that Neo-Classicism, as a style, would be identified as “French,” not English, despite the absence of authentic examples in Paris, largely due to the work of Jacques Louis David, a painter.

Also read: “French Neoclassicism: Sculpture and Architecture” and “French Neoclassicism”

Also listen to “Neoclassicism” and “Jacques-Louis David”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]