Kant and Aesthetic Theory


While Kant was writing the Critique of Judgment, 1790, the answer of the role of the artist in society was increasingly unclear, and the social and cultural situation was increasingly unstable. The artist was looking at an abyss, gazing into the unknown of a new era, when Kant solved the problem of art and shaped its definition for the next two centuries. Kant began with assumptions common to his time: we can recognize “art” and we know what “art” is and that “art” is something we can see. He also assumes “beauty” and hence assumed its existence as an unquestionable quality universally agreed upon. Kant never dealt with specific works of art and thus was removed from the current taste and vogue for classical art. Neo-classicism was the new art in Kant’s time, and it was, briefly, a revolutionary art movement denoting (Greek) freedom and democracy and the promise of individuality, along with (Roman) gravitas and stability. But Neoclassicism was quickly co-opted by post-Revolutionary Academicism. A once-revolutionary movement became a forced and regulated status quo. The Neo-Classical ideal of beauty, before the ideals became rules, was associated with the art of ancient Athens, considered eternal and transcendent. As the poet John Keats best expressed it, in Ode on a Grecian Urn:


When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

“Aesthetics” was that which is sensuous or the perception of sense data. Aesthetics has evolved into a more inclusionary definition that is applied to the arts but in the middle of the Eighteenth Century when A. G. Baumgarten founded a “new science” and published Aesthetica in 1750, aesthetics connected art to life. Although Emmanuel Kant did not invent aesthetics, he formalized the philosophical concept and elaborated aesthetics into a new notion of art that turned out to be uniquely suited to the new century. Although Emmanuel Kant did not invent aesthetics, he formalized the philosophical concept and elaborated aesthetics into a new notion of art that turned out to be uniquely suited to the new century. For the first time “art” became a distinctive value in life and was considered the result of a mode of knowledge, called aesthetics or feelings registered by the subject/viewer in response to the stimulus of an art object. Regardless of the intent of the client or of the artist, the art object is a unique object in that it is contemplated for insight and delight. Alexander Baumgarten widened the field of aesthetics from art to human conduct, opening possibilities for another philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who would build upon Kantian aesthetics to create theories of art as participating actively in life itself. For all of the eighteenth century pioneer writers, “Aesthetics” is a middle ground, existing somewhere between reason and morality. Aesthetics concerned itself with that which was material or sensuous or plastic—physical life. Like other aspects of human experience, aesthetics needed to be brought into the Kantian epistemological system and subjected to the rigors of reason.

Aesthetics is a dualistic concept, a philosophical play between the artist and the art critic or philosopher. Aesthetics as a branch of philosophy, is not concerned with particular works of art but is more concerned with the question of “art” itself. Obviously, the contemporary meaning of the word, “aesthetics” as a particular quality or style of the art or intent of the artist is superficial and limited and incorrect. Fundamentally, Aesthetics, like any other branch of philosophy, attempts to determine the grounds of “art,” its ontology, and the system of knowledge that produces and constructs the mode of judgment or contemplation of art, its epistemology. Once art had been justified as an activity legitimated by its role in society as teacher and instructor and educator, working for the benefit of the community. In Giotto’s time, his profession was ancillary to the needs of the religious institution that contracted for his services. As Michael Baxendall pointed out in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, the artist or artisan or skilled workman, was a contract worker, doing what he was told. However, four hundred years later, in the modern period, art needed two things. First, a reason for being: ontology, and second, a definition: epistemology. Although it was not Kant’s precise intention to create a new meaning and purpose for art, the effects of his philosophy was to link art to personal expressiveness and individual freedom. It was Kant who ushered in Romanticism by devising a theory of aesthetics that perfectly suited the times.

Given that aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, Kant proceeded by putting art into his transcendental system. As is characteristic of his system, the idea of art was divided into two parts that correspond to self and object, that is, contemplation by the viewer of the work of art itself. The ontology of a work of art is not the object, not even the artist, but the recognition of “art” which is a perceptual and conceptual act. Too see is to judge/contemplate. Art vision, like any vision, is never raw; it is always tempered and educated and acts according to (Kantian) rules. Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) was the third in his trilogy of epistemology. In his first two Critiques, Kant established new ground for reason and morality and the third Critique had to establish a universal and transcendent basis for making a judgment. What did one have the occasion to judge? One judges all the time and one judges emotionally, often based upon a physical reaction or a sensation to a perception or a sight of an object considered “beautiful” or “ugly” and so on. Depending upon the extent of the reaction, one could judge the man as more or less beautiful or the house as more or less ugly. These reactions are personal and localized and are dependent upon individual taste. In other words, Kant could have selected any category of experience in which humans exercise judgment, such as the law which weighs the fate of human beings, but he selected art, a surprising choice.

To select the judgment of art as the centerpiece of this critique was a very modern move on the part of a man who had little experience of art himself. Kant was born in, lived in, worked in, wrote in, and died in one place, Königsberg, and, as far as we know, knew of art only through reading about it. In an age before color printing, he might have seen engravings of famous works; in a time before photography, he would have had only an approximate idea of what any work of art looked like. One can surmise that perhaps he selected art as the center of his Critique on judgment because he had no strong feelings about the topic. We know, for example, that Kant had a strong reaction to the French Revolution, which erupted a year before this last book was published. Surely, the judgment of the revolutionaries upon the hapless aristocrats would have provided a dramatic case study, but Kant selected areas far less topical and far more eternal and universal: nature, the sublime and art, which involved volatile taste, a troublesome reaction that needed to be brought under control. Unlike the sentencing of criminals, art was not amenable to judgment under a system of laws from the state and did not fall within the sphere of morality, nor did art traffic with reason. Simply by removing art from the rule of law or morality was to free works of art and artists from age-old tutelage at the hands of the powerful or the religious. Like the rest of society, art had become secular, and, in becoming secular, it had lost its place in society. Coincidentally, Kant was writing at the precise time the artist was losing the class that had been the traditional patrons, the aristocrats, to the guillotine in France. In the Nineteenth Century, the purpose of art and the role of artists were questions, and, regardless of his intentions, Kant’s aesthetics proved to be the new answers.

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

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

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French Romanticism: The Historical Context


Neoclassicism was a historicist revival of an ancient style that acquired political and social implications during a time of turbulent change. Calm and serene, Neoclassicism lent itself well to noble subject matter that depicted the ideals the French public should emulate. Despite the classical harmony of Neoclassicism, the style was developed during a decade of chaos. Ironically, Romanticism, which in contrast, was a dramatic and dynamic style matured during a decade of peace and calm. The Romantic artists looked back to the Napoléonic age of empire and glory with disappointment and depression that they had been born too late to participate in the great adventure. Although these artists challenged the Salon system that maintained the status quo and the academic style, they did so in a society that was busy turning back the clock of liberalism. Under Napoléon, traditional powers were reinstalled, an emperor took the place of a king, the Catholic Church was restored, and the Code Napoléon, while an efficient legal structure, set the cause of equality back for decades to come. Napoléon reinforced the backward look to his regime by adopting the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne as his model to reinforce the concept of “France,” which was a “modern” nation with a long tradition. On the other hand, Napoléon fought “wars of liberation” to spread the French Revolution over Europe and wound up presiding over an Empire. Once a force of the “liberation” of Europe, the Grande Armée became a force of conquest, control, and occupation, all in the name of “freedom.”

Romanticism in France, evolved out of Neoclassicism’s grand manner as Napoléon’s artists responded to commissions that demanded glorification of his military adventures and martial victories. But the building of an empire was often a dark and dirty business. Hiding beneath the mask of glory was a very real cost in human life and suffering that demanded a new and sometimes uncomfortable realism. Jean-Antoine Gros glorified Napoléon but could not ignore the reality of war. The growing public unease mixed with national pride toward Napoléonic wars can be traced through the works of Baron Gros. From Napoléon at Arcole (1796) to Napoléon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa (1804) and Napoléon at Eylau (1806). In the decade, the depiction of Napoléon had gone from heroic young leader to noble healer to solemn general leading his horse slowly among the dead.


Antoine-Jean Gros. Napoléon at Eylau (1807)

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and the other Napoléonic artists could not resort to classical allegory and were forced, by their Emperor’s demands, to represent the contemporary era. Current events seemed far more relevant than ancient deeds from an antique past. Any lessons the classical era might have had seemed meaningless in the face of modern times of industrialization and total war. The break between Neoclassicism and Romanticism can be clearly seen in the time when France dominated the Continent and plunged Europe into ten years of war. While many artists continued to explore the possibilities of the Neoclassical, artists such as Gros were drawing a distinctive dividing line between Neoclassicism and Romanticism—the new interest in the contemporary and a new concern with one’s own time. For the artists who were accustomed to the Academic style and dictates, the age of Napoléon was a great age for art in France. The Emperor threw himself into a well-organized orgy of looting the cultural heritage of Europe which he transported to France. He stripped European nations of their patrimony and brought thousands of art treasures, large and small, significant and less well known to Paris and installed them in the Louvre, now a public museum. The challenge to Neoclassicism from new artists and unfamiliar art was part of the origin of Romanticism. To be able to see actual paintings by Rubens, his bold brushwork, his bright colors, his restless and dynamic forms was a revelation to French artists.

The French people accepted, as their due, this artistic tribute from other countries. They had few moral qualms about the wholesale stripping and transportation of European culture to Paris. To the new Romantic generation, the French academy ceased to the sole source of artistic ideals. In addition to the unprecedented availability of Continental art, the fall of the French aristocracy had brought a number of important private collections to the market. Most of this art found its way to England, where it was safe from Napoléonic looting. But the looted collections added to the Louvre were returned to their countries of origin, with the exception of a few prize Italian works, still in France. After the fall of Napoléon in the first abdication of 1814 and the final fall in the second abdication of 1815, France returned to a conservative political mode. Napoléon himself had certainly been reactionary when it came to women and the lower classes and he reinstated the Catholic Church, bringing back religious traditions, albeit under state control. His successor, the Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII did little to change the France Napoléon left behind, continuing his policy of inviting the émigrés back and restoring the old order, while opening the doors to men of merit. Louis agreed to a constitutional monarchy, modeled after that of Britain, while his successor, Charles X, chafed under such restrictions.

François Joseph Heim. Charles X Bestowing Honours on the Artists at the Salon of 1824

Although the French people had nostalgic memories of Napoléon, they had little patience with the simple-minded kind and revived the old revolutionary fervor in the “July Days” of 1830. Charles X was summarily overthrown in a few short days, called “Days” as a reflection of the “Days,” also in July when the first Revolution began in another July in 1789. The next king who stepped into the vacant throne, Louis-Philippe, was careful to not repeat the mistakes of Charles X and called himself the “Citizen King.” During the span between Napoléon and Louis-Philippe, Romanticism in France and its counterpart, the avant-garde, was created. Near the conclusion to his classic history, The Age of Napoléon, J. Christopher Herold quoted Napoléon,

‘Greatness has its beauties, but only in retrospect and in the imagination’: thus wrote General Bonaparte to General Moreau in 1800. His observation helps to explain why the world, only a few years after sighing with relief at its delivery from the ogre, began to worship him as the greatest man of modern times. Napoléon had barely left the scene when the fifteen years that he had carved out of world history to create his glory seemed scarcely believable. Only the scars of the war veterans and the empty places in the widows’ beds seemed to attest the reality of those years, and time soon eliminated even these silent witnesses. What remained, in retrospect and in the imagination, was legend and symbol.

The generation of Romantic artists who matured under the reign of Louis XVIII and Charles X had to be content with a petit revolution and regretted not having experienced the true glory of life under Napoléon. Artists, such as Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1898-1863), spent their early careers dealing with contemporary political events. Géricault who, like Gros, measured the Napoléonic wars with two paintings of dashing French cavalry officers, both resplendently dressed, but each portrait of a warrior was very different. The Charging Chasseur (1812) and the Wounded Cuirassier (1814), separated by two short years, span the gap between the glory years just before the disastrous Russian campaign and the year of defeats at the hands of the Alliance of European armies. Part of a transition generation between David and Delacroix, Gros and Géricault swerved away from the Davidian tradition of heroic Neoclassicism, as seen in Napoléon at the Saint Bernard Pass (1801), and into a hybrid of Romanticism combined with realism, overlying classicism. Under the reign of Louis XVIII, artists were not bound to producing propaganda and were freed from Napoléonic censorship. Géricault pointedly criticized the new and incompetent government with his Raft of the Medusa, seen in the Salon of 1819. The theatricalized scene, which included a young Delacroix, posing on the raft, was dramatically Romantic, contemporary, and political. Arriving at the end of France’s time of glory and honor, Géricault’s Raft revealed how dangerous and how forceful art, freed of the dictates of the state, could be.

Théodore Géricault. Raft of the Medusa (Salon of 1819)

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

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 Artistic Revolution in France


By the eighteenth century being part of the beaux-arts rather than being involved in “crafts” was often a matter of class. Artists tended to come from the middle class and shared the aspirations of upward social mobility typical of the bourgeoisie. Eager to please and desiring to succeed, these artists were disciplined by way of the long-standing academic training and system of rewards and punishments. For nearly a century and a half, artistic production, the education of the artists and the quality of the arts was under the auspices of the state. Each artist and every object was evaluated and all artists were trained to respond to patronage and prizes. The academic system, as restrictive as it was, was, if one played by the rules, a stable and predictable means of earning a living. But two social events would impact artists and art, especially in France, and upend the promise of guarantees. The first event was the French Revolution, which forced artists to choose between King or country, aristocracy or citizens, and, which, during the Terror, eliminated the traditional patrons, the Church and the aristocrats. The second event was a long, ongoing process: the rise of the middle class as a group that would dominate the state economically and politically and thus would constitute a new buying public for art. In the decades before the French Revolution, the middle class had made itself known to the artists through the Salon exhibitions, a major cultural event in their time. Although impressed by prestigious history painting, this new class was interested in domestic themed art that reflected their ordinary lives suitable for middle class interiors. If they responded to large works of art or the grandes machines, this public wanted the narratives to be comprehensible and were puzzled by erudite classical themes the artists were rewarded for. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, artists looked, not just to the State for support but also to the patronage of private citizens. Such patronage depended upon the artist obtaining a place in the Salon, gaining notice and finding new collector who would have their own demands. One could dream of making a splash in the Salon, like Jaques Louis David did with The Oath of the Horatii, but the artist was increasingly beholden to the opinions of art critics.

The artist had to master numerous obstacles to achieve success and make a living from a competitive profession. Most young men began the serious study of art as teenagers and spent years achieving mastery, and the Academy would have been the equivalent of a contemporary high school, dedicated to the arts. The elite training was then, as it is today, the key to success. Any artist who wished to be fêted in the Salon had to go through a set of educational and professional motions, including being trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and perhaps winning the Prix de Rome and then, capping off these student years, with the longed-for recognition in the Salon by the established powers–the State, the Church, and the wealthy patrons. The French Revolution upended the state-based system of educating and rewarding artists, but only for a time. During the Revolution, artists either participated in propagandizing the aims and ideals of the revolutionary cause or risked being denounced and imprisoned by zealots. One of the most important painters for the French Royal family, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), proved to be an agile and adroit political opportunist and quickly turned his (royalist) coat and put himself in the service of the Revolution. He even went to far as to sign warrants which led to the imprisonment of his colleagues while he designed and built huge works of public art, rather like the Rose Bowl floats of today, that advertized the Revolution and awed the spectators. At the end of the worst part of the Terror, David joined his imprisoned colleagues in the Luxembourg Palace. He was lucky not to have been beheaded–the fates of his sponsors.

David emerged from prison somewhat chastened but quickly attached himself to the next rising star, Napoleón Bonaparte, already a patron to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1825), who had befriended the young general in Italy. David’s pupils, Jean-Antoine Gros and Anne-Louis Girodet Roussey de Trison, were able to ride out the Revolution in Italy, safely away from the changing fortunes of artists unwise enough to play politics. But to survive in this inverted world of newly minted leaders, the artist had to be wily to survive. The fin-de-siècle was an age of hero worship and Napoleón rewarded those who worshiped him. Once (relative) sanity returned to the streets and government stability replaced civil war and chaos, the new régime, the Directory, quickly restored the system of art education. The École des Beaux-Arts, the Rome Prize, and all of the academic rules and regulations that, if followed, would lead to Salon success, were all resurrected. But the demands upon the artist had changed. The old aristocratic patrons were gone and new powers awaited the artists. Now governed by a militaristic “man of the people,” the state under Napoleón embarked upon nearly two decades of propagandistic art, celebrating the new Emperor and his court and the glories of war and conquest. Neoclassicism, already an important style before 1789, had been employed as the style of the Revolution by David, who was, under Napoleón, the most important artist of the Empire. Responding to the needs of the new military heroes, Neoclassicism retained its carefully classical style—-clear outlines and cool colors and balanced composition–but was drafted into the service of battle paintings, dramatized and exciting narratives of military exploits, suitable to Napoleónic narratives of victory.

It is here, in these military panoramas, that the germs of Romanticism can be discerned. Early Neoclassicism did not favor diagonals and action and motion, but under the Emperor, excitement and drama ruled and a certain Baroqueness slid back into history painting. That said, the official style of the Empire–bombastic and extravagant–was given over to the same traditional role as had always been expected of artists–supporting the established powers. Although during these Napoleónic years, ideas of Romantic aesthetics from Germany were imported to France, art-for-art’s-sake and artistic freedom were still in the future. The artists had to please new masters, the Emperor, the Salon jury, and the bourgeoisie. Most of all, the artists had to conform to the Salon system itself, now refined and, without the possibility of private commissions from aristocrats, was more important and more competitive than ever. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the bourgeoisie, was firmly in social, economic, and political power, and despite the comings and goings of various emperors and kings, would remain in power. This middle class was an art-loving class. They knew little about art but knew that they like to be entertained. Thousands came to art exhibitions, the Salons, which were the only avenue of economic opportunity for the French artist who needed to make a living. Scheduled for every year or every other year, depending on which régime was in power, the Salons were huge exhibitions drawing from artists around the world attracted to the prestige of France. Jostling with the French artists, seeking recognition, Americans and British painters and sculptors, not to mention Italians and Germans, pushed into the prestigious contest. Expecting to be delighted and amused, rather like we are pleased (or not) by contemporary film, the French public crowded into the exhibition spaces by the thousands, freely expressing their more or less uninformed opinions.


Salon of 1785

For the French artist, the annual Salon was the one chance to show and to become known. To be refused—rejected from the Salon–was to be a failure, a refusée, until the following year. Merely being accepted was not a guarantee of success. Paintings were hung floor to ceiling and, of course, each painter wanted his/her work to be hung at eye level and not “skied,” that is, hung high, or hung low. Prominent artists could demand that their works be hung where the public could see them easily but those less well known were at the mercy of the installers. The most successful painters were those who pleased both the public and the Academy juries. Sculpture in the Salons adhered to the Neoclassical style but what the audience saw were small-scale works or casts or maquettes for future public projects. Often the smaller works would be placed upon a crowded table and the sculptors suffered from the same kind of limitations to ideal viewing as the painters.

The Salon was a site of hierarchies. History painting reigned supreme, prized because the difficult and didactic compositions, crowded with ancient notables, mostly partially nude, displayed the artist’s erudition and education and artistic skills. Only an artist educated in the École would be capable of drawing and composing a group of figures. Only an artist educated in the École would be educated enough to understand the minutia of ancient history, literary and historical topics favored by the juries. Other artists, especially women, would be confined, due to lack of academic education to lower ranking genres, such as genre scenes and portraiture and still lives, none of which required knowledge of the nude. In these years before modern art galleries and adventurous collecting, the Salon was the only game in town and artists had little choice but to accept the rigorous rule of a conservative elite, disinclined to be open-minded to new artistic ideas. But such new ideas were already present to those who were alert to new styles and new cultural trends. The clash of realism and romanticism was present in the propaganda art of Gros, the blatant eroticism of Girodet stunned the prudish, and the offbeat choice of content by Théodore Géricault, who loved horses and frequented carnal houses disturbed the politically correct. The French Revolution may have ended in yet another oppressive regime under a new Emperor, but it had introduced the idea of individual rights and freedom. Neoclassicism, as a ruling style, essentially ended with the reign of Napoleón, and an artistic revolution that would be called Romanticism began to emerge. Denied political rights and freedom, artists began to resist the demands for the status quo and the edicts issued by the Salon juries and took a more independent path, seeking to attract the attention of the public. Born of political disillusionment, a new attitude began to take shape. The artist demanded the right to freedom of expression as an art maker, which, in these early years of Romanticism, played itself out mostly along the lines of style and the way in which materials were handled.

Both inside and outside the Academy, there was the pressing and urgent quarrel between the Poussinistes (the proponents of line in art and discipline in society) and the Rubenistes (the proponents of color in art and individual freedom in society). This quarrel was a (political) challenge to the dominance of Neoclassicism and the Salon system, which controlled artists. But the quarrel was more than stylistic; it was generational and cultural and political. The dominant art form–controlled and contained Ne0classicism–was connected to the dominant social system, which controlled and contained the populace. These artistic conflicts, no matter how they are labeled, seem to break down into philosophical positions, which seem to extend far beyond any disagreements as to style or subject matter. Neoclassicism vs. Romanticism is really a conflict about emotion vs. reason, which is really a conflict about which should be supreme in art, color (emotion) or line (reason)? The question of line versus color is really a political conflict about who should rule, the people (feelings) or the state (order) were social conflicts concerning democracy vs. the ruling caste. The conflict over individual freedom opposed to the state’s traditional control over the art makers is really a conflict between the lone, romantic genius artist inventing new forms as opposed to the powers of the Academy. During this era, the beaux-arts had a far more important and prominent place in society than today; and the State government of France kept careful control over artistic production, understanding all too well that an artist could speak directly to the people.

Also read: “The French Academy” and “The French Academy: Sculpture” and “The French Academy: Painting”

Also listen to: “The Academy and the Avant-Garde

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 8: Formalism and Romanticism



What is the impact of methodologies of art history upon the recounting of the history of art? A methodology is a way of telling or constructing the past. This act of re-construction is, in fact, as Hayden White expressed, “a tropic of discourse.” However, a trope can be so completely absorbed into the accepted discourse of received wisdom that it become invisible. When the actual documented history of art is filtered through the invisible trope, this lived history is reshaped according—not to events or to objects—but to the trope itself. In the 1980s, the familiar methodology of formalism, which had presented a very particular account of Romanticism, was challenged by a new method, one which stressed the social and historical context for artistic production.

This podcast delineates the connections between the art historical methodology of Formalism, as developed by Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1947), and the concept of Romanticism. Romanticism was the movement in which the concepts of painting changed from “academic” to “modern.” Until New Art History reintroduced the importance of context, the approach of “art history without names” reigned supreme. How did the uneasy mix of history and methodology change the history of art? What recent corrections were made to retell the history of art history?

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One,” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”


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

Thank you.
[email protected]

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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]

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”

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

Thank you.
[email protected]

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