Started: 1750
Ended: 1850
There is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled; I mean by imitating the ancient...especially the Greek arts.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Summary of Neoclassicism

New classics of the highest rank! This was the rallying cry of populations immersed in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment who wanted their artwork and architecture to mirror, and carry the same set of standards, as the idealized works of the Greeks and Romans. In conjunction with the exciting archaeological rediscoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Rome, Neoclassicism arose as artists and architects infused their work with past Greco-Roman ideals. A return to the study of science, history, mathematics, and anatomical correctness abounded, replacing the Rococo vanity culture and court-painting climate that preceded.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Overview of Neoclassicism

Neoclassicism adopted the hierarchy of painting that was established by the French Royal Academy of the Arts in 1669. History painting, which included subjects from the Bible, classical mythology, and history, was ranked as the top category, followed by portraiture, genre painting, landscapes, and still lifes. This hierarchy, was used to evaluate works submitted for the Salon or for prizes like the illustrious Prix de Rome, and influenced the financial value of works for patrons and collectors. The works of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain were revered as the ideal exemplars of history painting, and both artists were primary influences upon Neoclassicism.

Key Artists

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Introduction to: The Enlightenment and Neoclassical Art

Important Art and Artists of Neoclassicism

Death of General Wolfe (1770)

Artist: Benjamin West

This painting shows the death of Major-General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 during the Seven Years' War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. Wolfe was killed by musket fire in the brief battle as he led the British forces to victory, setting in motion the conquest of Canada from the French. We see him lying on the battlefield as he is surrounded and comforted by a group of officers. His figure, creating the base of a pyramidal grouping that rises to the partially furled flag above, and his pale face are lit up with a Christ-like illumination, making him the visual and emotional center of the work. To the left a group of officers stand in attendance, conveying a distress reminiscent of depictions of the mourning of Christ. In the left foreground, a single Indigenous man sits, his chin in his hand, as if deep in thought. Two more officers on the right frame the scene, while in the background the opposing forces mill, and black smoke from the battlefield and storm clouds converge around the intersecting diagonal of the flag. A sense of drama is conveyed as the battle ends with a singular heroic sacrifice.

A number of officers are identifiable, as Captain Harvey Smythe holds Wolfe's arm, Dr. Thomas Hinde tries to staunch the general's bleeding, and Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser of the 78th Fraser Highlanders is shown in his company's tartan. While these identifiable portraits created a sense of accuracy and historical importance, almost all of them were not at the scene, and their inclusion reflects the artist's intention to compose an iconic image of a British hero. The Indigenous warrior has attracted much scholarly interpretation, including the argument that he represents the noble savage, a concept advanced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who extolled the simpler and therefore nobler character of "primitive" peoples. At the same time, his inclusion also places the scene firmly within the New World, for the artist has carefully selected all the significant elements. For instance, in the background a British soldier is racing toward the group, as he carries the captured French flag. As historian Robert A. Bromley wrote, the overall effect is "so natural...and they come so near to the truth of the history, that they are almost true, and yet not one of them is true in fact."

West innovatively reinterpreted the historical painting by depicting a contemporary scene and clothing his figures in contemporary garb. Sir Joshua Reynolds, along with other notable artists and patrons, urged the artist to depict the figures in classical Roman clothing to lend the event greater dignity, but West replied, "The same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist." Infuriated at Wolfe's use of contemporary clothing, King George III declined to purchase the work, and the artist, subsequently, gave it to the Royal Academy where it became widely popular. William Woollett's engravings of the painting found an international audience, and West was commissioned to paint four more copies of the painting. The work, influencing the movement of many artists toward contemporary history painting, paved the way for David's Oath of the Tennis Court (1791) and John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence (1787-1819). Its cultural influence continued well into the modern era, as, during the British Empire, as historian Graeme Wynn noted it, "became the most powerful icon of an intensely symbolic triumph for British imperialism," and in 1921 the British donated the work to Canada in recognition of their service in World War I.

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss (1777)

Artist: Antonio Canova

The work draws upon the mythological story of Cupid and Psyche as told in The Golden Ass (c. 180) a Latin novel written by Lucius Apuleius. Venus, the goddess of love, was jealous of Psyche, widely admired for her beauty, and sent her son, Cupid, so that his arrows would make the girl marry the ugliest of men. Instead, Cupid fell in love with her, and, learning that the two were lovers, Venus sent Psyche to bring back a jar containing a "divine beauty" from the underworld. Though instructed to not open the jar, Psyche did so, only to fall into the sleep of the dead, as the jar actually contained the "sleep of innermost darkness." This sculpture depicts the moment when Cupid revives Psyche with a kiss. The flowing lines of Psyche's reclining form are echoed in the drapery that partially covers her, and Cupid's melting embrace. Dubbed in his time as the "sculptor of grace and youth," Canova here creates a sense of heroic and innocent love, triumphing over death itself.

Canova's innovative sculptural technique allowed him to convey the effect of living skin, feathered wings, realistically folding drapery, and the rough rock at the base. Reflecting a Neoclassical scientific approach, his study of the human form was rigorous, as he employed precise measurements and life casts in preparation for working on the marble.

For his depiction of Cupid, he was inspired by a Roman painting, which he had seen at the excavation site of Herculaneum. Yet, while firmly posited within Neoclassicism, this work's emphasis on emotion and feeling prefigures the Romantic movement that followed.

The statue has a handle near the base, as like many of Canova's works it was meant to revolve on its base, emphasizing the work's movement and feeling. This innovative decentering of a singular viewpoint was faulted by some critics of the time, including Karl Ludwig Fernow, who wrote, "the observer strives in vain to find a point of which to reduce each ray of tender expression to one central point of convergence." Yet this fluidity of perception created a more intimate relationship to the viewer.

Colonel John Campbell commissioned the sculpture in 1787, and both its treatment and its subject became widely popular with later artists, including the leading 19th century British sculptor, John Gibson, who studied with Canova in Rome.

Voltaire (1778)

Artist: Jean-Antoine Houdon

This bust depicts the noted French philosopher and writer, François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, whose wit and intellectual prowess dominated the Neoclassical era. The work is remarkably realistic, its modeling capturing the features of the philosopher toward the end of his life, his thinning hair, the smile lines around his mouth, and his wrinkled brow. Depicted tête nue, or bare-headed without the wig that was fashionable for French aristocrats, the portrait takes on the realism and simplicity of classical Roman busts, allowing the force of the subject's personality to shine forth unimpeded. Houdon captures the sense of Voltaire's shrewd intelligence, as his gaze seems amused with his own interior thoughts.

Count Alexander Sergeyvitch Stronganoff brought this portrait to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, who corresponded with Voltaire was devoted to his work. She commissioned several portraits, as well as Houdon's Voltaire Seated in an Armchair (1781), which depicted the philosopher wearing a toga, as if the embodiment of classical Greek philosophy.

Houdon's innovations included his scientific accuracy, as he employed calipers to measure his subject's features and life casts, and pioneered a technique for sculpting eyes that allowed them to capture the light. As art historian John Goldsmith Phillips described, "He first cut out the entire iris, and then bore a deeper hole for the pupil, taking care to leave a small fragment of marble to overhang the iris. The effect is a vivacity and mobility of expression unrivalled in the long history of portrait painting or sculpture."

Considered the greatest portraitist of the Neoclassical era, Houdon portrayed the intellectual and political leaders of the day including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Capturing not only their exact likeness, he captured their essence. As art historian Johanna Hecht wrote, "The Enlightenment virtues of truth to nature, simplicity, and grace all found sublime expression through his ability to translate into marble both a subject's personality and the vibrant essence of living flesh, their inner as well as outer life." These portrayals have become part of the public consciousness of these figures, reproduced in countless textbooks, plaster copies, and on national stamps and coins. Houdon's portrayal of Thomas Jefferson is used on the U.S. nickel.

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