Hesperus as Personification of the Evening∞ Anton Raphael Mengs Oil on Canvas Madrid Patrimonio Nacional
Antiochus and Stratonice∞ Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 1840 Oil on Canvas Musée Condé France
Roger Freeing Angelica∞ Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 1819 Oil on Canvas Musée du Louvre Paris
Revolution in France and America fueled a two-faced portrait of revolution – the melodrama of classical imagery animating glorious democratic ideals and the bloody hands of change.
Neoclassicism was a widespread and influential movement in painting and the other visual arts that began in the 1760s, reached its height in the 1780s and ’90s, and lasted until the 1840s and ’50s. In painting it generally took the form of an emphasis on austere linear design in the depiction of classical themes and subject matter, using archaeologically correct settings and costumes.
Neoclassicism arose partly as a reaction against the sensuous and frivolously decorative Rococo style that had dominated European art from the 1720s on. But an even more profound stimulus was the new and more scientific interest in classical antiquity that arose in the 18th century. Neoclassicism was given great impetus by new archaeological discoveries, particularly the exploration and excavation of the buried Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii (the excavations of which began in 1738 and 1748, respectively). And from the second decade of the 18th century on, a number of influential publications by Bernard de Montfaucon, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Comte de Caylus, and Robert Wood provided engraved views of Roman monuments and other antiquities and further quickened interest in the classical past. The new understanding distilled from these discoveries and publications in turn enabled European scholars for the first time to discern separate and distinct chronological periods in Greco-Roman art, and this new sense of a plurality of ancient styles replaced the older, unqualified veneration of Roman art and encouraged a dawning interest in purely Greek antiquities. The German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s writings and sophisticated the orizings were especially influential in this regard. Winckelmann saw in Greek sculpture “a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” and called for artists to imitate Greek art. He claimed that in doing so such artists would obtain idealized depictions of natural forms that had been stripped of all transitory and individualistic aspects, and their images would thus attain a universal and archetypal significance.
A more rigorously Neoclassical painting style arose in France in the 1780s under the leadership of Jacques-Louis David. He and his contemporary Jean-François-Pierre Peyron were interested in narrative painting rather than the ideal grace that fascinated Mengs. Just before and during the French Revolution, these and other painters adopted stirring moral subject matter from Roman history and celebrated the values of simplicity, austerity, heroism, and stoic virtue that were traditionally associated with the Roman Republic, thus drawing parallels between that time and the contemporary struggle for liberty in France. David’s history paintings of the “Oath of the Horatii” (1784; Louvre, Paris) and “LictorsBringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons” (1789; Louvre) display a gravity and decorum deriving from classical tragedy, a certain rhetorical quality of gesture, and patterns of drapery influenced by ancient sculpture. To some extent these elements were anticipated by British and American artists such as Hamilton and West, but in David’s works the dramatic confrontations of the figures are starker and in clearer profile on the same plane, the setting is more monumental, and the diagonal compositional movements, large groupings of figures, and turbulent draperies of the Baroque have been almost entirely repudiated. This style was ruthlessly austere and uncompromising, and it is not surprising that it came to be associated with the French Revolution (in which David actively participated).