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]

The Enlightenment and Artistic Styles


Rococo and Revolution

From the early eighteenth century on, the visual arts, from painting to interior décor, were markers of class and harbingers of the Revolution to come. A late expression of the pompous and grandiose Baroque, the soft Rococo style was the pompous Baroque turned lovely and domestic. The domaine of female patrons and even of women artists, the Rococo style was long given short shrift by art historians, who glossed over the pale pastel colors in favor of the more “masculine” style that supplanted it, Neo-Classicism. But even during the eighteenth century, this split between masculine and feminine and frivolous and sober, immoral and moral existed in the opposition between the aristocratic Rococo style and the genre paintings made for the middle class. The Rococo is a world of mirrored rooms with mirrors that had to be kept clean, of pale paneling trimmed in gilt that needed to be dusted and polished, of embroidered and brocaded fabrics that required careful maintenance–the maintenance of all of which demanded hundreds of servants. The sight of elegantly carved furniture and voluminous shimmering silk gowns and shirts with lace cravats, depicted so appealingly by Jean-Antoine Watteau, makes one understands the rage of a vengeful revolutionary mob rioting in tattered clothes.

The Rococo style is dualistic in that it is both private and aristocratic and public and accessible. The aristocratic Rococo reflects the aimless lives of the privileged elite but had a sense of humor, respecting neither church nor state. Rococo art was an anti-style with a palette and a type of brushwork all its own, rejecting the grandeur of the Baroque and aiming to simply please the wealthy spectators with its fleshy and witty eroticism. With Rococo art, the grandiose didactic Baroque was watered down to an art without serious purpose or, to put it another way, an art for pleasure’s sake only. At the hands of Joseph Marie Vien (1716-1809), antiquity became an excuse not to wear clothes and to exhibit plump and pink female bodies to the male spectators under the disguise of “classicism.” After decades of religious strife and endless preaching of the Reformation, the sheer prettiness of the Rococo was a great relief to weary art patrons. The Rococo was an art of sexual allure rather than solemn instruction as to duty and country, an idyll beautifully imagined by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who pretended that life is an endless game, a fête galant for lovers who lived on a fantasy island or a Pilgrimage to Cythera (1717).

The world envisioned by the Rococo is a world of the court, where as Madame du Châtelet said, “We must begin by saying to ourselves that we have nothing else to do in the world but to seek pleasant sensations and feelings.” One can almost hear the clock of the Enlightenment ticking as it remorselessly reordered Madame’s world of pleasure into a world of democracy and equality. Today’s interpretations of the pleasures of Rococo art and the pretensions of Baroque art would have been largely lost on the actual audiences at the time, who, like any other art audience were interested in what they liked not in the social and class sub-texts of the art. The more famous of the Rococo paintings would have been private commissions, such as the quartet of paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) done in 1771 for the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. Now in the Frick Collection, the Louveciennes panels, The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and Love Letters are almost as famous as earlier 1767 work, The Happy Accidents of the Swing (The Swing). To more discerning eyes, however, both Baroque art, as still alive and well in history paintings, and Rococo art represented outmoded styles of an exhausted art form that would be judged as frivolous in comparison to serious Neo-Classicism.

Enlightenment writer and art critic Denis Diderot (1713-1784), one of the founders of the Encyclopédie, published in thirty two volumes between 1751 and 1765, used his pen to critique his age. Because his job was to observe society, everything caught his eye and he was one of the first art critics, publishing Correspondance littéraire, accounts of the French Salons. As a hardworking journalist, Diderot used art criticism to press the cause of righteous and moral art, as seen in the genre scenes of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) and Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779), over the licentious art of François Boucher (1703-1770), such as Leda and the Swan (1741). The Diligent Mother (1740) by Chardin displayed the sober and reasonable life style of the middle class. The Father’s Curse, The Ungrateful Son (1777) by Greuze was an object lesson in didactic morality. In these paintings, the middle class behaved rationally, pursing definite goals through industrious and productive work. “Reason,” Diderot claimed, “must be our judge and guide in everything.” In contrast to the private art of pleasure patronized by aristocrats, the simple human virtues of ordinary people could be compared to the ideals of a past that existed before the current age of decadence.

As opposed to the divine right of the monarchy and the idle lives of the nobles, another alternative morality was to be found in Nature and in Antiquity, the repository of ancient ideals and virtues. The middle class virtues and serious behavior were “natural,” compared to the artificial lifestyles of the court, controlled by arcane rules of etiquette. Even Marie Antoinette sought “nature” in her Versailles retreat, Le Hameau (1783), where she played peasant and the acting out of the natural only underscored its un-naturalness in her highly artificial “farm,” Le Hameau. “Nature” became fashionable. Inspired by Discourse on Inequality (1755) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) criticized modern life (culture) and compared it to the “natural” state of original human beings untainted by civilization. In addition, the world of nature itself was becoming an object of admiration, not of fear. Most importantly, Nature or the Natural, was mobilized as a critique of current social conditions being examined under the pens of the gens de lettres.

Hameau de la Reine

Hameau de la Reine (1782-83)

The kind of art preferred by Diderot the critic was moralizing and didactic that encouraged the public to use reason instead of the senses. As one of the first art critics, his task was twofold, to describe the works of art to the rulers of Europe who would never see them and to use art as a subtle vehicle for his social ideas. Although Diderot learned about art through studio visits with the artists, his audience, European despots, who sported the sobriquet “enlightened,” were informed of French art through an internationally distributed newsletter, Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, edited by Baron Friedrich-Melchior Grimm. The newsletter was not subject to French censorship and could freely critique the social system. The irony of Diderot extolling middle class virtues to the lusty Czarina of Russia, Catherine, is intriguing and one can only wonder what the great queen thought when she read in his review of the Salon of 1763, “First, I like genre–it is moral painting.”

In relation to the works of Boucher, Diderot wrote in 1765, “Depravity of morals has been closely followed by the debasement of taste, color, composition,” and suggested a year later that an appropriate alternative to aristocratic frivolity would be antiquity: “It seemed to me that we should study the antique in order to learn to see Nature.” But Diderot demanded more than mere stylistic servitude, “First of all, move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder, outrage me, delight my eyes, afterwards, if you can…Whatever the art form, it is better to be extravagant than cold.” Although Diderot did not live long enough to witness either Neoclassicism or Romanticism, both of which are anticipated in his writings, he articulated many important concepts in his art writing with his emphasis on naïvité, which led to “primitivism” in the Realist Movement and the grand ideal of Nicholas Poussin, grand manner painting based in classicism. He advocated restraint: “Paint as though in Sparta.”

The re-discovery of Pompeii (1748) and Herculaneum (1709) reignited an interest in ancient life. The towns, buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 CE, were perfectly preserved under layers of ash and lava and consequent (and ongoing) excavations revealed a way of life thought extinct. Fueled by the unearthing of wall paintings, history painting shifted more and more to the moral lessons of antiquity. The example of ancient virtue, especially the Roman virtue of the early days of the Roman Republic, provided an alternative to the current decline in social standards. Roman virtue was more than a dream, for Rome–ancient Rome–had become the climax point of every Grand Tour for every well-to-do European during the eighteenth century. Scholars and tourists inspected the ruins and artists, such as Hubert Robert and Canaletto, responded to the demand for Italian vistas with vedutas. Archaeologists explored and discovered the remains of classical civilizations, and these recoveries were made available to the public and to artists through carefully engraved reproductions. 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.

Diderot believed that art should teach moral development but at the same time he believed in the idea of genius, a new idea that was beginning to circulate and would be best articulated decades later in the writings of Emmanuel Kant. Although the moral sentiments of the works by Greuze were admirable, Diderot lamented that he was “no longer able to like Greuze,” who occasionally attempted the grand manner, and preferred Chardin, who was not only morally sound but also the superior artist. Reading Diderot, one thinks of Jacques-Louis David as the Messiah of art that the critic was waiting for, but Diderot died too soon and never saw “Spartan” art of David. In fact, the artistic period of the Enlightenment is one of transition, because intellectuals found it hard to either predict the future or to foresee the logical consequences of the newly forming ideals of “reason,” “democracy,” and “equality.” Diderot’s public counterpart, the art writer, La Font de Saint-Yenne, author of Réflexions sur quelques causes de l’état present de la peinture en France, 1757, also took a middle path and equated the aristocrats with the ancients and was typical in his inability to imagine a form of government or society without these hereditary rulers. The aristocrats, in turn, took the prudent course of denouncing their own decadence and corruption and joined in the vogue for the “natural” by praising simplicity and order. The nobles attacked royal despotism of King Louis XVI and the Austrian Queen, Marie Antoinette, in defense of their own privileges and positions, threatened by the wayward behavior of these hapless monarchs.

The repudiation of the monarchy did not save the lives of the French nobility and the stage was set for a new form of art that would more precisely reflect the Enlightenment ideals for a middle class art public.

Also read: “What is Modern?” and “The Enlightenment: Introduction” and “The Enlightenment and Reason” and “The Enlightenment and Society” and “The Enlightenment and the Art Public” and “The Political Revolution in America”

Also listen to: “What is Modern?”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]