Neoclassicism: Roman Fever

From about 1780 to 1820, Neoclassic art reflected, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “the glory that was Greece,/And the grandeur that was Rome.” This revival of austere Classicism in painting, sculpture, architecture, and furniture was a clear reaction against the ornate Rococo style. The eighteenth century had been the Age of Enlightenment, when philosopher preached the gospel of reason and logic. This faith in logic led to orderliness and “ennobling” virtues of Neoclassical art.

The trendsetter was Jacques-Louis David (pronounced Dah VEED; 1748-1825), a French painter and democrat who imitated Greek and Roman art to inspire the new French republic. As the German writer Geothe put it, “the demand now is for heroism and civic virtues.” “Politically correct” art was serious, illustrating tales from ancient history or mythology rather than frivolous Rococo party scenes. As if society had overdosed on sweets, principle replaced pleasure and paintings underscored the moral message of patriotism.

In 1738, archaeology-mania swept Europe, as excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum offered the first glimpse of well-preserved ancient art. The faddish insistence on Greek and Roman role models sometimes became ridiculous, as when David’s followers, the “primitifs,” took the idea of living the Greek way literally.

They not only strolled about in short tunics, they also bathed nude in the Seine, fancying themselves to be Greek athletes. When novelist Stendhal viewed the nude “Roman” warriors in David’s painting “Intervention of the Sabine Women, ” he was skeptical. “The most ordinary common sense” he wrote, “tells us that the legs of those soldiers would soon be covered in blood and that it was absurd to go naked into battle at any time in history.”

The marble frieze statuary brought from Athens Parthenon to London by Lord Elgin further whetted the public appetite for the ancient world. “Glories of the brain” and “Grecian grandeur” is how the poet  John Keats described the marbles. Leaders of art schools and of the French and British Royal Academies were solidly behind the Neoclassic movements and preached that reason, not emotion, should dictate art. They emphasized drawing and line, which appealed to the intellect, rather than color, which excited the senses.

The hallmark of the Neoclassical style was severe, precisely drawn figures, which appeared in the foreground without the illusion of depth, as in Roman relief sculpture. Brushwork was smooth, so the surface of the painting seemed polished, and compositions were simple to avoid Rococo melodrama. Backgrounds generally included Roman touches like arches or columns, and symmetry and straight lines replaced irregular curves. This movement differed from Poussin’s Classicism of a century earlier in that Neoclassical figures were less waxen and ballet-like, more naturalistic and solid.

Ancient ruins also inspired architecture. Clones of Greek and Roman temples multiplied from Russia to America. The portico of Paris’ Pantheon, with Corinthian columns and dome, copied the Roman style exactly. In Berlin, the Brandenburg gate was a replica of the entrance to Athens’ Acropolis, topped by a Roman chariot. And Thomas Jefferson, while serving as ambassador to France, admired the Roman temple Maison Carree in Nimes, “as a lover gazes at his mistress.” He renovated his home, Monticello, in the Neoclassical style.


DAVID: PAINTING,  THE PAST. It was on a trip to Rome, when he first saw Classical art, that David had his breakthrough vision. He said he felt as if he “had been operated on for cataract.” He avidly drew hands, eyes, ears, and feet from every antique sculpture he encountered, saying, “I want to work in a pure Greek style.” Before long, David’s disciples were throwing bread pellets at Watteau’s “Pilgrimage to Cythera,” to show their contempt for what they felt was “artificial” art.

David, "Oath of the Horatii," 1784, louvre, Paris. David's "Oath of the Haratii" marked the death of Rococo and birth of Neoclassical art, which should, David said, "contribute forcefully to the education of the public."

In “Oath of the Horatii,” three brothers swear to defeat their enemies or die for Rome, illustrating the new mood of self-sacrifice instead of self-indulgence. Just as French Revolution overthrew the decadent royals, this painting marked a new through contrasting the men’s straight, rigid contours with the curved, soft shapes of the women. Even the painting’s composition underscored its firm resolve. David arranged each figure like a statue, spot-lit against a plain background of Roman arches. To assure historical accuracy, he dressed dummies in Roman costumes and made Roman helmets that he could then copy.

David, "Death of Marat," 1793, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. David painted the slain revolutionary hero like a modern-day Christ.

David, a friend of the radical Robespierre, was an ardent supporter of the Revolution and voted to guillotine King Louis XVI. His art was propaganda for the republic, intended to “electrify,” he said, and “plant the seeds of glory and devotion to the fatherland.” His portrait of a slain leader, “Death of Marat,” is his masterpiece. Marat, a close friend of David, was a radical revolutionary stabbed to death by a counterrevolutionary in his bath. (Before the Revolution, while hiding from the police in the Paris sewers, Marat had contracted psoriasis and had to work in a medicated bath, using a packing box for a desk.) Right after the murder, David rushed to the scenes to record it. Although the background is coldly blank, David’s painting emphasized the box, bloodstained towel, and knife, which, as actual objects, were worshiped by the public as holy relics. David portrays Marat like a saint in a pose similar to Christ’s in Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”

When Robespierre was guillotined, David went to jail. But instead of losing his head, the adaptable painter became head of Napoleon’s art program. From the taut compositions of his revolutionary period, he turned to pomp and pageantry in his paintings of the little emperor’s exploits, such as “Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine.” Although his colors became brighter, David stuck to the advice he gave his pupils, “Never let brushstrokes show.” His paintings have a tight, glossy finish, smooth as enamel. For three decades, David’s art was the official model for what French art, and by extension, European art, was supposed to be.


Following David, the first half of nineteenth-century art was a contest between two French painters: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (pronounced ANN gruh; 1780- 1867), champion of Neoclassicism, and Eugene Delacroix (pronounced duhla KRWAH; 1798-1863), ardent defender of Romanticism. Ingres came naturally so Neoclassicism, for he was the star pupil of David.

Ingres, "Portrait of the Princess de Briglie, 1853, MMA, NY. Ingres's clear, precise forms, idealized beauty, and balanced composition sum up the Neoclassical style.

An infant prodigy, at the age of 11 Ingres attended art school and at 17 was a member of David’s studio. The young disciple never let his brushstrokes show, saying paint should be as smooth “as the skin of an onion.” Ingres, however, went even further than his master in devotion to the ancients. In his early work, he took Greek vase paintings as his model and drew flat, linear figures that critics condemned as “primitive” and “Gothic.”

Then Delacroix and Gericault burst on the scene, championing emotion and color rather than intellect and draftsmanship as the basis of art. Against the “barbarism” of these “destroyers” of art, Ingres became the spokesman of the conservative wing, advocating the oldtime virtue of technical skill. “Drawing is the probity of art,” was his manifesto. He cautioned against using strong, warm colors for visual impact, saying they were “antihistorical.”

The battle sank into name calling, with In Rubens, the hero of the Romantics,” He considered Delacroix the “devil incarnate.” When Delacroix left the Salon after hanging a painting, Ingres remarked, “Open the windows. I smell sulfur.” In turn, the Romantics called the paintings of Ingres and his school “tinted drawing.”

Ingres, "La Grande Odalisque," 1814, Louvre, Paris. This portrait shows Ingres's trademarks of polished skin surface and simple forms contoured by lines, in contrast to irregular dropery

Ironically, this arch-defender of the Neoclassic faith sometimes strayed from his devout principles. True, Ingres was an impeccable draftsman whose intricate line influenced Picasso, Matisse, and Degas (who remembered Ingres’s advice to “draw many lines”). But Ingres’s female nudes were far from the Greek or Renaissance ideal. The languid pose of his “Grande Odalisque” was more Mannerist than Renaissance. Although identified with controlled, academic art, Ingres was attracted to exotic, erotic subjects like the harem girl in “Odalisque.” Critics attacked head and abnormally long back. “She has three vertebrae too many,” said one. “No bone, no muscle, no life,” said another. Ingres undoubtedly elongated the limbs to increase her sensual elegance.

Ingres preached logic, yet the romantic poet Baudelaire noted that Ingres’s finest works were “the product of a deeply sensuous nature.” Indeed, Ingres was a master of female nudes. Throughout his career, he painted bathers, rendering the porcelain beauty of their flesh in a softer style than David’s.

In “Portrait of the Princesse de Broglie,” Ingres paid his usual fastidious attention to crisp drapery, soft ribbons, fine hair, and delicate flesh, without a trace of brushwork. The color has an enamel-like polish and the folds of the costume fall in precise, linear rhythm. Ingres is chiefly remembered as one of the supreme portraitists of all time, able to capture physical appearance with photographic accuracy.


The reclining, or recumbent, female nude, often called Odalisque after the Turkish word for a harem girl, is a recurrent figure throughout Western art. Here is how some artists have given their individual twist to a traditional subject.

Giorgione, "Sleeping Venus" (the Dresden Venus), c. 1510, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden.

The first known recumbent female nude as an art subject was by the Venetian Giorgione, a Renaissance painter about whom little is known. He probably painted “Sleeping Venus” in 1510, the year of his early death from the plague. Titian was said to have finished the work, adding the Arcadian landscape and drapery. Traits associated with this popular genre of painting are a simple setting, relaxed pose propped on pillows, and the absence of a story. Giorgione was handsome and amorous, a keen lover of female beauty, yet he portrays his Venus as a figure of innocence, unaware of being observed.

Goya, "The Nude Maja," 1796-98, Prado, Madrid.

Goya was denounced during the Inquisition for this “obscene,” updated version featuring full frontal nudity. The title means “nude coquette,” and Goya’s blatantly erotic image caused a furor in prudish Spanish society. His friend and patron, the artistocratic but very unconventional Countess of Ala, is believed to be the model. A clothed replica of the figure, in an identical pose but very hastily sketched, also exists. It is said that Goya painted it when the Count was on his way home, to justify all the time the painter had spent in the Countess’ company. Goya was probably inspired by Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus,” a recumbent nude seen from the back. Although an outraged suffragette slashed Velazquez’s “Venus,” Goya’s nude is much seductive, with her soft, smooth flesh contrasted to the crisp brushwork of satin sheet and lace ruffles.

Manet, "Olympia," 1863, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Manet’s “Olympia” also caused a public outcry. With her bold, appraising store and individualized features, this was obviously no idealized goddess but a real person. One critic called her a “female gorilla.” Others attacked Manet’s nonacademic technique: “The least beautiful woman has bones, muscles, skin, and some form of color. Here there i nothing.” “The shadows are indicated,” another wrote, “by large smears of blacking.” Most considered the painting’s sexuality immoral: “Art sunk so low does not even deserve reproach.”

Huge crowds flocked to the Salon to see what the fuss was about. After the canvas was physically attacked, it was hung out of reach, high above  doorway. One viewer complained, “You scarcely knew what you were looking at-a parcel of nude flesh or a bundle of laundry.” Manet became the acknowledged leader of the avant-grade because of “Olympia’s” succes de scandale.

New York painter Larry Rivers (1923-2002) was a member of the generation following Abstract Expressionism that challenged abstract art’s dismissal of realism and developed Pop art. Rivers combined the free, vigorous brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism with subject matter from diverse sources ranging from advertising to fine art. Color, not subject matter, according to Rivers, “is what has meaning. “His version of Manet’s “Odalisque” gives a fresh face to a centuries-old concept.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: