French Neoclassicism: 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.


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


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”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.
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