French Neoclassicism


The Early Years

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

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

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


Wall Painting from Pompeii

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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]

Podcast Episode 2: Neoclassicism


The origins of Neoclassicism in art, architecture and interior décor was the excavation of long buried Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid-eighteenth century. A popular correction of the late Baroque style and the ornamental Rococo style, Neoclassicism became an international style. As the name indicates, this “new” “classicism” was based upon the art of the early Roman empire. Classical art had long been available but what was notable about this particular iteration of classicism is the discovery of painting—murals on the walls—in the resort towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Authentic classical painting now joined authentic classical sculpture as an inspiration for an important shift in European academic styles.

For the second half of the eighteenth century, the Neoclassical reform of Baroque art brought a new seriousness to academic art and impacted architectural styles, particularly in England. Despite its antique sources, this style proved to be surprisingly versatile, suiting the needs of English aristocracy and American revolutionaries and French aristocracy and French revolutionaries. An imperial style from the past was appropriated for a variety of purposes from political messages to decorative needs.


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