Schiller: Naive and Sentimental Poetry

Art and Nature

Schiller’s “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”

On the Aesthetic Education of Man was written as a series of letters to the Duke of Augustenburg and was published in 1795 and 1801, and published just before “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” also written in 1795. Called “one of the greatest essays in the German language” by writer Thomas Mann, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, a highly influential essay was a response to his friendship with Germany’s most celebrated Romantic poet, Göethe, comparing himself as a poet to his friend as a poet. Johann Wolfgang von Göethe had written the quintessential work of German Romanticism, the rather overwrought, Sorrows of Young Werther, the fictional version of his many youthful love affairs. However, as he matured, Göethe assumed a mantle of dignity, of near-Olympian calm, and repudiated Romanticism as “sick” and extolled (neo) Classicism as “healthy.” The famous friendship got off to a rocky start. Göethe spurned the advances of the younger poet whose dramatic plays were associated with Romanticism. And Schiller, for his part, viewed Göethe with antipathy, distrusting the apparent ease with which poetry apparently flowed from this distinguished inhabitant of Olympia. Nevertheless, the younger poet who experienced creative agonies and self-doubts was driven by a need to understand Göethe and pursued the poet. The two men eventually succeeded in achieving a meeting of the minds and their consequent correspondence and collaboration is of great importance to German literature. “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” published in the journal, Die Horen, seems to pit Göethe, the naïve poet, against Schiller, the sentimental poet. The essay is an early and influential effort to sort out types of artists, as makers and as psychologies. The words “Naïve and Sentimental” refer to both poets and to poetry, not to themes, subject matter, or content. These types of artists are seen by Schiller as opposites, somewhat like Kant’s antinomies—a way of organizing the world in terms of contrasts–as personifying two different modes of creativity.

As can be seen in The Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller was a student of human psychology and feelings and was an astute observer of states of mind long before the profession of psychology was established. Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, published just after Aesthetic Education in Die Horen, is a companion piece, expounding on some of the same themes. Once again, Schiller returned to the ideal period of ancient Greece when humans lived in harmony with nature. The poet was writing at the end of the eighteenth century, at the end of an era, the last years of a time when untouched “nature” still existed in modern Europe. Already in England, the Enclosure Movement was well underway, fencing in fields, walling in pastures, blocking the population from “trespasssing” on private property. The Commons were closing in the name of profit. The Industrial Revolution was also spreading across England, with factories springing up in the countryside, already belching smoke and cinders. The German territories were, as yet, undisturbed; but Schiller seemed to have sensed something coming, for, like his counterpart, Caspar David Friedrich, began to contemplate nature as if it were a quality with psychological implications. He begins his essay on this theme of “interest in nature:”

This kind of interest in nature takes place, however, only under two conditions. First, it is entirely necessary, that the object which infuses us with the same, be nature or certainly be held by us therefor; second, that it (in the broadest meaning of the word) be naïve, i.e., that nature stand in contrast with art and shame her. So soon as the last is added to the first, and not before, nature is changed into the naive.

It is here that the famous “compare and contrast” methodology of art historical discourse begins, for Schiller’s comparative pairing of nature and art and of contrasting poets will be copied by the early twentieth-century art historian, Aby Warburg, who was also fascinated by psychological themes. That being said, Schiller’s ultimate purpose went beyond his purpose of understanding two kinds of genius and two means of artistic creation. He analyzed modes of perception, ways of being, and ways of living in the world, ways of relating and responding, not only to nature itself but also to one’s own inner nature, to the structure of one’s own mind. In establishing between psychological types, Schiller paved the way for later thinkers, such as Freud and Jung, Nietzsche and Dilthey, and James. But Schiller’s aesthetic is also a moral philosophy. The essay was an examination of the human being and the human condition in a world that is so modern it had yet to be defined, discussed or understood. Schiller’s predecessor in grappling with the new place of nature in the newly industrialized society was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who advocated a turning away from the artificiality of French society to the simplicity of nature to rediscover the “natural” human being, free of civilization and its “discontents,” as Freud would express it later. Rousseau, a precursor of Kant on the subject of ethics and of Schiller on the subject of nature, published the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, or the “Second Discourse,” in 1755, where he explored not so much inequality itself but human nature and how social orders allow inequality to exist. Like Schiller after him, Rousseau returned to “natural man.” He imagined that, in a state of nature, “primitive man,” as the philosopher termed him, there was no inequality. However, in the “Second Part,” as Rousseau continued to speculate,

But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops. Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts which produced this great revolution. The poets tell us it was gold and silver, but, for the philosophers, it was iron and corn, which first civilised men, and ruined humanity.

Like Engels would posit a hundred years later, classes emerge when the establishment of agriculture, which, in turn, evolves into private property. Both Rousseau and Engels searched for and located an original sin which precipitated the Fall. Rousseau wrote with bitter words,

Such was, or may well have been, the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.

As one of the originators of the notion of psychological types, Schiller led the way to the nineteenth century and to Modernism, for his world is far more “civilized” than that of R. Both philosophers (who would influence Freud on this point) understood civilization to be necessary and inevitable and unavoidable, the result of Rousseau’s “Social Contract,” but the social system has built a wall of rules, regulations, and conventions that were entirely artificial. Trapped in the social system, blindly following its customs and mores, we are alienated from nature and the natural. We have lost our sense of oneness, our feelings of harmony with our world. Worse yet, we are alienated from ourselves, divided within our own minds, disconnected from the totality of our own being. Responding to a system that purports to be “rational,” we struggle with our irrational side, repressing it until we are alienated not only from the “natural” but also from a part of our own selves. Thus we, as humans in the modern world, are alienated from nature itself, which is neither rational nor irrational; it simply exists, as Schiller wrote, as “subsistence of things through themselves, existence according to its own unalterable laws.” Nature is its own being in a state of purity, which we, in our divided state, can no longer comprehend or connect with. In our alienated condition—alienated from ourselves and from our fellow human beings—we can only respond to nature through the distorting filters of civilization. Our varying modes of perception—“Naïve“ or “Sentimental”—can never encounter nature, the pure state of being. Such unity with us and nature must wait until we reach our own natural state of harmony within ourselves and our natural environment.

Unlike Rousseau, Schiller does not present “Natural Man” as a lost state but a goal we must aim for. This goal cannot be reached in an individual’s lifetime but can be achieved only through successive generations, which must struggle to regain wholeness, harmony, and unity, both internally, within the individual, and externally, with nature. This modern concept of the alienated human being seeking a lost unity would be of great consequence to nineteenth and twentieth Century thought. The author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, writing somewhat later than Schiller, also warned that we have become estranged and alienated from ourselves and from nature. As the allegory of the creation of Frankenstein’s monster shows, we have become deluded into playing God through the misuse of technology. G. W. F. Hegel will write of “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “synthesis,” the ultimate Absolute unity. Karl Marx will write of “alienation” of the working class from industrial products and will warn that humans have become so alienated that we are no longer aware of it and exist in a state of “false consciousness.” Marx’s “alienation” was sociological due to economic causes. Jacques Lacan will write of Lack, resulting from the human’s entry into society and the severing of the child from its mother (loss of unity and wholeness). Alienation will become a major theme and perhaps the definition of the condition of Modernity itself.

Thus aesthetic philosophy becomes a moral philosophy and art becomes an arena for self-actualization, a way of thought to counter the evils of artificiality and civilization. For Schiller, in “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” all art is inferior to nature but all art must begin with nature. Art becomes a way of reacting to ourselves and a means of responding to nature. Nature takes on a dual meaning: nature is the world surrounding us and our own individual personalities. Art also seems to assume duality, being equated at times with that which is artificial, in other words with a wide range of artifacts, works, and activities, while, at other times, art is the natural product of a creative process. Art was a means of restoring a natural balance in personality. Art was a journey towards a purer morality and an exposition of the nature of artistic genius that rises above artificial rules and ideas on morality. The role of free play of imagination in art and the artist as a genius is indebted to Kant. Six decades later, perhaps thinking of Schiller, Emil Zola famously wrote of “nature seen through a corner of a temperament” to define art, which is, in those terms, a response to nature shaped by the personality of the artist.

Schiller began his analysis of artistic temperaments with a discussion on the innocence of children, writing “…the child is to us a vivid representation of the ideal, not indeed of the fulfilled, but of the commissioned, and it is therefore by no means the conception of its poverty and limits, it is quite to the contrary the conception of its pure and free force, its integrity, its infinity, which moves us. To the men of morality and feeling, a child will for that reason be a sacred object, an object namely, which through the greatness of an idea annihilates every greatness of experience; and which, whatever it may lose in the judgment of the understanding, gains again in the judgment of reason in ample measure…” Once again Schiller was prescient in writing of “childhood,” a new concept which would be fully developed in the nineteenth century. But the philosopher was writing of adults and he carefully distinguished between “childish” and “childlike.” Schiller wrote that “…the naive way of thinking excites in us. It combines the childlike simplicity with the childish; through the latter it exposes a vulnerable point to the understanding and calls forth that smile, whereby we make known our (theoretical) superiority. So soon, however, as we have reason to believe, that the childish simplicity be simultaneously a childlike one…” He used the directness of a child’s open heart and mind to define the naïve artist: “The naïve is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected, and precisely for that reason, can not be attributed to real childhood in the strictest sense.”

For Schiller both the child and the “childlike” naïve artist are part of nature, suggesting that the adult is a rare being, surviving modern life without corruption and retaining a harmony with the natural world. He stated,

It is therefore required, that nature triumph over art, not through its blind violence as dynamical, but rather through its form as moral greatness, in short, not as need, but rather as inner necessity. Not the insufficiency, but rather the inadmissibility of the latter must procure the victory of the form; for the former is want, and nothing which originates from want can produce respect. Indeed, it is with regard to the naive of surprise, always the superiority of emotion and a want of reflection, which makes nature recognizable; but this want and that superiority still do not entirely constitute the naive, but rather merely provide the occasion, so that nature follows unhindered its moral nature, i.e., the law of harmony.

The naïve man (Schiller does not take women into consideration) is one who “overlooks their artificial and affected relations and keeps merely to simple nature.” In following Kant who popularized “genius,” Schiller sought to account for that state of creativity and determined that the ability to create is not only a natural or inborn inclination but is also rooted in nature itself:

Every true genius must be naive or it is not genius. Its naivetè alone makes it genius, and what it is in the intellectual and the aesthetical, it can not deny in the moral. Unaware of the rules, the crutches of weakness, the taskmaster of perversity, guided only by nature or instinct, its protecting angel, it walks calmly and safely through all the snares of false taste, in which, if it be not so prudent as to avoid it already from the distance, the non-genius will be unfailingly ensnared. It is only given to the genius, to be always at home outside the known and to enlarge nature, without going beyond it. Indeed, the latter sometimes happens to the great geniuses, but only because these have their fanciful moments, when protecting nature abandons them, because the power of example overpowers them, or the corrupted taste of their time leads them astray.

The genius has a “childlike character,” which is bashful and intelligent and modest, but there is another type of artist, the “sentimental” artist who experiences the “distress of culture and hear in the foreign country of art, the moving voice of the mother. So long as we were merely children of nature, we were happy and perfect; we have become free and have lost both. Therefrom originates a twofold and very unequal longing for nature, a longing for its happiness, a longing for its perfection. The sensuous man laments only the loss of the first; the moral one can mourn only for the loss of the other.” Schiller, once again, wrote expansively upon the perfection of Greece, based upon the fact that they “felt naturally,” and the consequent decline, resulting from our separation from nature: “Just as nature gradually begins to vanish from human life as experience and as the (acting and feeling) subject, so do we see it rise in the poetical world as idea and as object.” It is here that he made a profound statement that explains not just two different kinds of poets but also the modern relationship with nature and to ourselves. Schiller wrote,

The poets are everywhere, according to their concept, the guardian of nature. Where they can no longer entirely be the latter and already experience in themselves the destructive influence of capricious and artificial forms, or indeed have had to struggle with the same, then will they appear as the witnesses and the avengers of nature. They will either be nature, or they will seek the lost nature. Therefrom arise two entirely different kinds of poetry, through which the entire province of poetry is exhausted and measured out. All poets, who are really such, will, according to the time in which they flourish, or as accidental circumstances have influence upon their general education and upon their passing dispositions of mind, belong either to the naive or to the sentimental.

We feel, in reading Schiller, we are witnessing a tragedy of a society drifting towards complete alienation of human from nature and of human from human. We live, he explains in an “artificial age,” an age which displaced the naïve artist who was at odds with modern life “no longer in their proper place.” The “still pure” man “acts as an undivided sensouus unity and as an harmonizing whole.” The naïve poet merely follows simple nature and feeling” but “it is entirely different with the sentimental poet. The latter reflects upoin the impression…the object is here connected with an idea, and only in this connection does his poetical force rest.” “His representation will therefore be either satirical or it will…be elegiac; every sentimental poet will adhere to one of these two modes of feeling.” Schiller admired Göethe, the ultimate naïve poet, who was able to create “naturally” with “childlike” directness, and understood himself to be a sentimental poet, who was estranged from nature. This poet is in pain, pained by the “distance” from nature, meaning that he is an alienated observer, examining the world from a point of watchfulness rather than of immersion. The sentimental poet then can see nature only as a idea. With his divided consciousness, his self-conscious self-awareness, the poet is thoroughly modern, and, unlike his the naïve poet, was not out of place, but was a product of his own time. Rather than the unreflective naïve poet, who combined reason and feeling, the “sentimentalisch,” a term coined by Schiller, was split in two, with his mind and heart, his reason and feeling, separated.

Once again, we see the dialectical at work in Schiller, with human evolution being divided into two stages: the natural and the artificial, an opposition that must be overcome in a third state or synthesis which restores the original and primal unity of the natural and the ideal. At first glance, it might seem, that in his admiration for Göethe, Schiller thought the naïve artist to be superior but the opposite is true. A child of the Enlightenment, Schiller preferred progress over regression, and, understanding the price that has been paid, considered the sentimental artist to be an advance upon the naïve artist. The question is where would the sentimental artist eventually achieve the synthesis and the answer is distinctly non-Kantian. The sentimental artist would have to work at the level of the culture in the real world, a solution worked out in Aesthetic Education. Schiller’s sentimental artist, as presented in his seminal essay on the naïve and sentimental artist is an early example of a “Romantic “artist who cannot go back in time and who can belong only to his own time, faced with the task of transcending the chasam between nature and civilization. Unlike Rousseau, who, in Schiller’s opinion was regressive, the poet does not yearn for the past, but, like the sentimental artist, struggles to move forward. “…our feeling for nature,” he said, “is like the feeling of an invalid for health.” As H. B. Nisbet pointed out, the terms “naïve” and “sentimental” are not only used in unconventional ways but are also not aesthetic terms. Eventually Schiller suggested more conventional subsitutes, “realist” and “idealist,” or modes of perception (Empfindungsweisen).

Like Kant, Schiller must present a structure or a model, and, while the essay itself proceeds from thesis to antithesis and synthesis. The sentimental artist himself was divided into three parts as well–satire, elegy, and idyll, genres of poetry. Schiller then explained these stages of the sentimental and gave examples of contemporary poets, but it is possible to propose visual artists who would fulfill the “modes of perception.” Not long after Schiller’s early death, John Constable painted elegies of a vanishing England from the safety of his little corner in Dedham Vale in an idyllic and pastoral fashion. And then, for example, Courbet would have been perhaps a good fit for a naïve artist, if one ignores his deliberate and studied performance of a country bumpkin. A decade later, his avant-garde successor, Manet was obviously the satirical sentimental artist. These various positions or approaches on the part of these artists are modern ways to deal with the modern estrangement from nature–the satrical artist looks away from the natural and dives deeply into the artificial, while the elegic artist confronts nature and attempts to inhale its perfumes. The naïve artist is oblivious that time has passed and that the age is modern. When one tries to fit artists into Schiller’s slots, as it were, it immediately becomes apparent that the deep intelligence of the essay is its expression of the modern human condition, which is prelapsian, consumed with loss and longing, but without the desire to return to a state of nature. In his two part essay, Schiller does not sum up his argument, he merely stops writing and one can select a passage in the second part as a suitable last word: Nature has shown favor to the naive poet, to act always as an undivided unity, to be in every moment a self-reliant and perfect whole and to represent men in reality, according to their full value. To the sentimental one it has lent the power, or rather imprinted a living instinct, to reestablish out of himself that unity, which has been annulled in him by abstraction, to complete humanity in himself and to pass from a limited state to an infinite.

Nature has shown favor to the naive poet, to act always as an undivided unity, to be in every moment a self-reliant and perfect whole and to represent men in reality, according to their full value. To the sentimental one it has lent the power, or rather imprinted a living instinct, to reestablish out of himself that unity, which has been annulled in him by abstraction, to complete humanity in himself and to pass from a limited state to an infinite. To give human nature its full expression, is, however, the common task of both, and without that, they would not be able to be called poets at all; but the naive poet has always the advantage of sensuous reality over the sentimental, whilst he achieves that as a real fact, which the other only strives to attain.

Also read: “Kant and Aesthetic Theory” and “Kant and the Critique of Judgment”

and “Kant’s ‘Art-for-Art’s-Sake” and “Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom”


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: Painting


The Role of History Painting

The roots of academic art in France were long and deep and were integral to the tradition of painting in the École des Beaux-Arts, as well in as the provincial academies. In fact, within the art circles in France, classicism was considered almost a national characteristic, that in painting, was equated with the “grand manner” of Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665). For years the foremost authority on Poussin was the disgraced British spy and esteemed art historian, Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). In his authoritative book, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953), Blunt explained the significance of Poussin:

By a curious freak, French painting of the seventeenth century produced its most remarkable and its most typical works not in Paris but in Rome, since it was in Rome that Poussin and Claude spent almost the whole of their active lives. In once sense these artists belong not to the French school but to that of Rome or the Mediterranean. Seen from another point of view, however, Poussin at least i stye key to the whole later evolution of French art. In him are summed up all the qualities traditionally associated with French classicism; and his influence was to be predominate in French art from his own time up to our own, in the sense that many artists took him as their idea, and an almost equal number rejected him with a violence which was in itself a tribute to his importance.

In his study of Poussin, Poussin’s Paintings: A Study in Art Historical Methodology (1993), David Carrier noted that the importance of Poussin to the French tradition was a long-standing trope in French art. While Blunt attempted to study Poussin in his own context, an earlier English art writer, Clive Bell also placed Poussin as the fountainhead. Bell, as Carrier pointed out, had other goals in mind, that is to present an analysis of Poussin’s art from a formalist perspective, making the point that the “classicism” of Poussin–the formal elements–connect the Baroque artist to Paul Cézanne. Carrier wrote that “Poussin, Blunt says, links French art to the High Renaissance and to the art of antiquity, providing the starting point for the tradition of Ingres and Picasso.” The formalist link down the centuries rests upon the grid which provides a framework for perspective and for composition. Cézanne retained the grid and eliminated the deep infinite perspective favored by the Baroque period. The Madonna of the Steps (1648) could not be more “classical” in its gridded underpinning of the rectangular support and the central placement of the figural triangle of the Holy Family. Seventeenth century classicism was characterized by this kind of structured and logical composition, clearly defined forms, strong outlines and strong but restrained color of harmonizing blues and golds.

Nicholas Poussin. Madonna of the Steps (1648)

By the nineteenth century, responding to the experience with a more “authentic” classicism–actual murals for Pompeii and the Elgin Marbles–the space of Neoclassical painting was flattened and the figures were arranged in a more fontal and frieze like manner. Given the presence of authoritative sources, it should be no surprise that within the French art, classicism was always aligned with the academic system and was considered the artistic norm and the preferred style. As part of academic training, classicism was based upon a well worked out body of theory and system of instruction, which was based on the tenants of classical art. Classical art, antique art of ancient Greece and Rome, was a public art, made to communicate with the community and to express cultural values. Therefore it was important for the visual lessons to be clearly delineated and easily read, making classical art the ideal tool for a regime intent on disciplining its subjects. The values of classical art from antiquity was the basis of academic education and training, featuring perfected human forms, presented ideal states of being as conveyed by noble deeds and exemplary morality.

It is one of the ironies in history that in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the most prestigious art form in France, history painting, rested upon antique classical art. The confluence between the ruling powers, the academy and classicism was summed up with alliance with le grand goût, or art in the grand manner, or le grand art acted out in history paintings. Usually large and imposing, demanding to be looked at, history paintings had the task of presenting didactic lessons, whether moral or patriotic, to the audiences. The exemplary scenes of high-minded behavior were preferably set in ancient times. Painters could translate the heroic nudity of antique statues, which were seen as universal and timeless, removed from specific time and place and from actual reality translated into pigment and presented as an entire narrative in a single dramatic image. The grandiosity of history paintings reflected the power of the state and the elevated beings in the government that ruled over the larger public. Compared to the local qualities of domestic topics, classicism did not concern itself with individual feeling or emotions but expressed states of emotions that were universal, signaled to the viewer through codified gestures, all of which were understood by the audience of the day.

Academic art was the product of an art school where training was based in drawing from plaster casts and, later, nude models. The carefully delineated forms were carefully modeled for a restrained three-dimensional effect that was rather like a bas relief on paper. This academic art revolved around the mastery over the human form, which was considered to be the basis for the drawing all objects. Academic art was so grounded in the study of the human figure that the term “académies” refers to drawings and paintings of the live model, who posed in stereotypical postures considered “classical” and noble. Later these drawings would be replaced by photographs of modern nude men and women in “classical” poses, looking more then faintly ridiculous. The principle of teaching was to proceed from the part–the various figures–to the whole–the sparsely scenic backdrop. The figures (parts) would then be grouped into an ensemble stretched across the canvas, gesticulating in frozen positions. This method of collecting model studies and their organization would lead to canvases crowded with actors striking a variety of glorious poses in a painted theater, rarely relating to one another.

Academies 1880

Towards the end of the dominance academic art in France, composition became an exercise in adding bodies striking standard studio poses to a grid foundation, as best seen in Thomas Couture’s Romans of the Decadence (1850). The highest form of art resulted from the study of the human forms displayed in large-scale history painting, depicting noble and uplifting morality plays from the past. However, the ambitious artist who mastered the requirements was rewarded for following the instructions of the Academy. The Prix de Rome could be won when a student (males only) showed his ability to conceive of a composition on a subject from the Bible or ancient mythology or classical literature or national history as dictated by members of the Academy. This proscribed topic, designed to reinforce the state, gave the student a chance to use academic poses and to render historical costumes, draperies and folds of cloth, and a variety of colorful accessories, showing the mastery of human anatomy and use of carefully drawn detail–all designed to display the virtuosity of the artist. The students learned of ideal forms that appealed to the mind and the intellect rather than to the emotions and the senses, an ideal that conveyed a universal truthfulness and a timeless authenticity.

Romans of the Decadence in the Musée d’Orsay

Color was applied in strong but somber tones and was used to reinforce the linear zones and the overall design. This conservative handling of color was accompanied by fini, the smoothly finished pictorial surface (facture) that required great skill. The careful drawing, smooth surface of classicism in the Academy stood for an intellectual structure, a system of order, imposed upon nature in order to rule and control it. Traditionally color was always secondary to form and composition and color was used in the service of the narrative rather than for its own’s sake. But as the nineteenth century progressed, color moved into a more primary role, not just in painting itself but also in the intellectual quarrel over subject matter and the place of emotions in art. At the hands of some artists, color was linked to the increasing importance of contemporary content, a new kind of history painting. Presenting current events, rather than safely distant events, was a political event, capable of challenging the perceived power of the status quo. For decades the Academy would be embroiled in a quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns.

Institut de France/Académie française et pont des Arts, Paris

Indeed, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, the Academy and its official style was challenged by a new generation of restless artists. The threat to classicism came from many directions. First, there was the breakdown of the standards of hierarchies of subjects due to the new audiences and patrons, who rather liked landscape painting and enjoyed genre scenes. Second, the works of artists who insisted on disregarding the rules of classical art-making by reveling in brilliant color and dynamic spectacular compositions. In an outbreak of the old Poussin vs. Rubens debate, the young Romantic artists, such as Eugène Delacroix, preferred color over line and were interested in natural and transient light and preferred exotic and decidedly un-classical subjects. It should be noted that while Neoclassicism was obviously an art of sculpture, Romanticism is essentially an art of painting, and, before 1863, painting was not taught at the Academy.

Uninterested in classical composition, painters such as Édouard Manet, also paid little attention to the carefully worked out method of half-tones, demi-teints and to the prized finish of academic art. Manet, in his own time, was accused of painting and drawing carelessly and the odd flatness of his figures aroused the ire of critics. Although Manet was academically trained, by mid-century, artists trained outside of the Academy, like Gustave Courbet, could become successful and prominent. In the clash between the Romantics and the Classicists, Courbet’s bourgeois realism and naturalism was a compromise between the polarities of line and color. Perhaps it is no coincidence that vanguard art developed in sub-genres neglected by the Academy. Here in pure landscapes, still lives and genre scenes, Realism and Impressionism could experiment in a territory that was virtually unoccupied by academic artists. While the Academy stubbornly upheld unyielding theoretical positions and meaningless antique art in modern times, the official painters, by incorporating watered-down innovations in painting, were able to bring about a quiet revolution in pictorial techniques and content, updating history painting long after the classical transition had faded into oblivion.

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 Origins of Neoclassicism


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.


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”

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

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