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”

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”

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

Thank you.
[email protected]