Neoclassicism began around 1750 and ended with the end of the Napoleonic Empire in 1815, as a logical consequence of the Enlightenment culture and an era of great revolutions, it is proposed as an antithesis to the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo. What distinguishes the artistic style of these years is, thanks to the many archaeological discoveries, the adherence to the principles of classical art, or rather, the desire for a return to the ancient and to give life to a new classicism, all favored by the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which offered to the eyes of contemporaries architecture, frescoes and objects of daily use of the two towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The term, neoclassicism was coined at the end of the 19th century and was attributed in a derogatory sense to an unoriginal, cold and academic art.

Among the major protagonists are the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the French painter Jacques-Louis David and the Italian painters Andrea Appiani and Vincenzo Camuccini. This rediscovery of the classical world, as Wincklellman, the greatest neoclassical theorist, states, was intended to emphasize its canons of harmony, noble simplicity and quiet grandeur. Johann Joachin Winckelmann began a careful study of classical antiquity by composing a great work: the History of the Art of Antiquity which was published in December 1763, and which studied antiquity both from a chronological and an aesthetic point of view. For Winckelmann the true art was the Greek one for which “the only way to become great and, if possible, inimitable, is the imitation of the ancients”. Imitation of the ancient meant, for the neoclassical artist, a source to draw on, in form and content, as an aesthetic model for the representation of ideals and contemporary scenes, and was therefore not as for the Renaissance artists, who were also inspired by antiquity, a relationship of spiritual harmony with it.

Neoclassicism and Pre-Romanticism

Although Neoclassicism was generally considered the antithesis of Romanticism, more astute historical interpretations have recently seen in this nostalgic evocation of a lost civilization a phase of the Romantic movement, rather than an opposition to it. As early as the 1770s, the decade of the German Sturm und Drang and other early manifestations of Romanticism, many northern European artists used classical art and literary sources to produce paintings or drawings whose passionate, terrifying or bizarre character reached paroxysmal heights.

This trend is particularly well represented by the Swiss artist Heinrich Füssli, a highly cultured personality, translator of Winckelmann, and attentive to the “romantic” world of Shakespeare and Nordic mythology. The classical subjects Füssli chose were far removed from the heroic or rococo repertoire of most French and Italian neoclassical painters; the artist was particularly attracted to subjects born of a visionary imagination or a torrid sensuality. His interpretation of classical sculpture and painting brings out qualities of superhuman energy or perverse voluptuousness that are not without relation to the Italian Mannerists.

The evocative power in the staging of fantastic and murky elements is found in other artists of Füssli’s generation, such as the Irishman James Barry, the Englishman John Hamilton Mortimer, and the Dane Nicolai Abildgaard: these, like Füssli, search both in antiquity and in the Nordic sagas for irrational involvements and manifestations of the supernatural; despite their different signatures, the style of these artists tends to accentuate grotesque deformations of characters and macabre lighting effects, in keeping with the new Romantic aesthetic of the sublime.

The cultural complexity of the years in which the neoclassical experience is commonly placed makes it impossible to identify a more authentic neoclassical language than others. In fact, from the iconographic point of view, neoclassical painting presented no less variety, since it drew on a vast repertoire, from archaic Greek vases to the sculptures of imperial Rome, from Michelangelo to the Italian Mannerists to Salvator Rosa to Poussin, Le Brun to the Bolognese tradition. However it is possible to recognize in the French painter Jacques-Louis David a moment of synthesis of the multiple intellectual experiences of this period.

His figurative production is a catalyst for the entire neoclassicism and a model for the culture that matures around him. It was through his brilliant creativity that it was possible to make a decisive and clear choice among the many possibilities offered by neoclassicism. This was precisely the role of Jacques-Louis David, Vien’s pupil. Until David’s first stay in Rome, as a graduate Prix de Rome (1775-80), his art remained a tribute to the rococo and lagging behind the classicist canons of the sixties and seventies. But his Roman studies allowed him to renew his style not only because of a greater enthusiasm for the ideal of beauty of classical art, but also because of his intimate knowledge of seventeenth-century Italian painting.

Having simultaneously assimilated the realism and idealism of Roman sculpture, the naturalist lesson of Caravaggio, and the classical lesson of the Carraccis, David was able to reinvigorate the neoclassical tendencies of lesser artists such as West and Hamilton, contributing to them a thorough knowledge of anatomy, a firm sense of geometric construction, and the aura associated with a highly moral purpose.

In the 1780s, equaling in rigor of style and heroic character of the themes, masters such as Jean-François-Pierre Peyron and Jean-Germain Drouais, David executed a series of masterpieces that made him, on an international level, the propagator of a new faith, aesthetic and moral, in antiquity. The Oath of the Horatii, first executed and exhibited in Rome, then in Paris at the Salon of 1785 (Paris, Louvre), thus became the manifesto of the neoclassical movement in painting: the work powerfully combined the heroism of a Roman theme (the oath of allegiance to the fatherland) with a rigorously controlled style that emphasized this ardent proclamation of civic virtue.

By exalting the merits of a strong will and the rigor of a visual order, the Horatii marked the end of the Ancien Régime in painting in Europe, heralding the fervent idealism that provided the intellectual backdrop to the Revolution. Thus David’s neoclassicism was soon associated with revolutionary political activity; his classical dramas composed during the 1980s in a spirit of veneration for Greek and Roman patriotism and self-sacrifice (Hector, Socrates, Brutus) were quickly transposed in the 1990s into a sacralization of modern heroes, such as Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, Marat and Coffin.

The stylistic rigor inaugurated by David brought the search for language to extreme forms of pure sign. John Flaxman published in the nineties very original illustrations for Homer and Aeschylus; they were inspired by the pure lines of the painters of Greek vases that were then collected and were the occasion of frequent publications. By reducing the pictorial language to the purity of the line on a white background, Flaxman’s engravings indicated to artists what the level of formal zeroing should be from which to begin a reconstruction of modern language. This was the starting point for a sort of primitivism with multiple outcomes (William Blake, Philipp Otto Runge).

The German Asmus Jakob Carstens, active in Rome in the nineties, arrives at a style of such severity and abstraction that he even abandons the technique of oil painting for that of tempera without modelling, or for simple line drawing. This search for an increasingly archaic style also characterized the scholarly and artistic milieu gathered around Goethe, in Weimar, around 1800; the artists, illustrating themes taken from Homer or reconstructing lost classical paintings, used an extremely simple pictorial language, which recalled the origins of classical civilization.

At the beginning of the 19th century the neoclassical doctrine in its most radical sense was hegemonic, and most of the works of those years, by Italians like Vincenzo Camuccini or Germans like Gottlieb Schick, can be considered a reflection of styles and themes already consecrated at the end of the 18th century. But the quantity and quality of production remained the privilege of Paris, the most important and most fertile center of Neoclassicism, thanks to David and the hundreds of young artists who came to work in his studio from countries as far afield as Spain, Denmark, the United States and Russia.

After the Sabine women, David’s style moved towards a more mannered and precious interpretation of antiquity, as demonstrated by the light elegance of portraits such as that of Madame Récamier (1800: Paris, Louvre). This tendency towards preciosity was accentuated by David’s pupils, who in turn abandoned the warlike and virtuous genre of the years of the Revolution and transformed David’s principles into a refined and sophisticated style from which a romantic aura often emanated. Already at the Salon of 1793, Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson’s Endymion (Louvre) provided a curious interpretation of a classical theme such as that of Endymion, taken from a sarcophagus, since it took as its only source of light the milky reflection of the moon, and constructed the characters with a soft, sinuous modelling which, combined with the marble quality of the outlines, produces the impression of icy eroticism so frequent in so many neoclassical paintings and sculptures.

Works such as the Endymion belong to that secret, lunar world found in the painting of one of David’s contemporaries who was not, however, among his pupils, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon: his graceful, melancholy art has been alternately associated with neoclassicism and romanticism, and his example shows how far the line between the two apparent antagonists is moving. The growing fascination with remote and mysterious regions was to introduce themes of an exotic romanticism into the Davidian circle. Proof of this is the Death of Atala (Salon of 1808: Paris, Louvre), inspired in Girodet by Chateaubriand’s pathetic tale of the life of Christians among the American Indians; and also the languidly oriental Carthage evoked in Dido and Aeneas (Salon of 1817: Paris, Louvre) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Regnault, David’s main rival. David’s efforts to purify the style and achieve Greek simplicity were echoed around 1800 and in a rather extravagant way, by his more rebellious and younger pupils, called “Primitives” or “Barbus”; led by Maurice Quaï, they took the vocation to primitivism to its extreme consequences by accepting, at least in theory, the most archaic forms attested by Greek arts and letters.
Their radical conception can be found, at a distance, in the art of F. Gérard, whose Cupid and Psyche (Salon of 1798: Paris, Louvre) presents mannered stylizations, smooth and glazed surfaces in the anatomies proper to neoclassical painting; and above all in the work of J. A. D. Ingres, whose early paintings, Venus Wounded by Diomedes (1802 preserved in Basel) and Jupiter and Thetis (1811: Aix en-Provence, Musée Granet) were inspired by the flat, linear images of Flaxman and Greek vases, but to these sources he added a mixture of sensuality and precision of detail that was easily transposed to the Romantic world of his odalisques and oriental bathers.

In Ingres’s art, David’s premises of abstractionism and realism are extensively used and surpassed. Heir to David’s idealist doctrine until his old age, Ingres was the strongest defender of neoclassical principles in the first two-thirds of the 19th century, stubbornly opposing the emerging forces of Romanticism, whose apogee came after 1820, with the young Delacroix. From the Apotheosis of Homer (Paris, Louvre), placed at the Salon of 1827 in comparison with Delacroix’s Sardanapalus (there), to the mural painting the Golden Age of Dampierre Castle (1843-47), Ingres strove to combat the transformation that had taken place in nineteenth-century art and to counterbalance it with his own faith in the ideal of classical beauty, pursued through a meticulous study of ancient iconographic sources, the pre-eminence of drawing over color, and the use of clear, symmetrical compositions. Such principles inevitably stiffened in the hands of academics of lesser talent.

The vitality of neoclassicism was exhausted after 1840, and further interpretations of classicism remained in the hands of academic and conservative painters, who would later radicalize the clash with the realist and impressionist movements. More or less interesting personalities, however, populate this universe enclosed in the search for distant and elusive harmonies. One thinks of the mute, sculptural grandeur of the Greek heroes and heroines of the German Anselm Feuerbach (Iphigenia, 1869: Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie), or of the pale, fragile visions of classical Arcadia in the chalky frescoes of Puvis de Chavannes, or of the almost pornographic scenes in which Venuses and nymphs appear, numerous in the work of the popular painters of the salon such as A.W. Cabanel and A.W. Bouguereau, or, finally, to the anecdotal interpretation of Greek or Roman daily life, reconstructed with “cinematographic” exactitude by painters such as Gustave Boulanger or Jean-Léon Gérôme in France, or L. Alma-Tadema and Frederick Leighton in England.

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