Artworks and Artists of Neoclassicism

Progression of Art
Benjamin West: Death of General Wolfe (1770)

Death of General Wolfe

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.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada

Antonio Canova: Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss (1777)

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss

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.

Marble - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jean-Antoine Houdon: 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.

Marble on grey marble socle - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horatii (1784)

Oath of the Horatii

Artist: Jacques-Louis David

This image depicts the Horatii, a Roman family, central of which are its three sons, dressed for battle, who extend their right arms in a gesture of allegiance toward their father who holds up three swords. They are about to go to war with brothers from a family of an opposing city. On the right, two women that have family on both sides, arms slack at their sides, swoon toward one another in an attitude of despair, fearing for those that will be killed. In the shadowed background, another woman dressed as if in mourning, consoles the children. The minimal setting with its three rising arches, opening into nearly black shadow, creates a feeling of somber resolve. The painting stresses the importance of patriotism and masculine self-sacrifice for one's country. It became a metaphor for the French Revolution, in which countrymen were enrolled in the idea of killing each other toward the greater good.

When the painting was exhibited at the 1785 Salon, David was acclaimed as the greatest French painter since Poussin. As art critic Roberta Smith wrote, the painting became, "a veritable cornerstone of Neoclassicism. It announced the triumphant return of the grand tradition of Poussinian history painting, and answered the prayers of critics who had been fulminating against the decadence of court painting for years, with Boucher as main scapegoat...[and] gave visual form to the ideas of the French Revolution before the fact."

David's work became widely influential, informing the work of the subsequent generation including Gros and Ingres, as well as influencing the Romantic artists Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, even as their movement rebelled against Neoclassicism.

Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris

Angelica Kauffman: Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing to her Children as Her Treasures (c. 1785)
c. 1785

Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing to her Children as Her Treasures

Artist: Angelica Kauffman

This painting depicts an encounter between Cornelia, clad in brown and white, who was the mother of the future political leaders Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, and a Roman matron, clad in red who sits to the right. The visitor has come to show Cornelia her luxurious treasures, but when Cornelia is asked to show the visitor her own treasures in return, rather than presenting her own box of jewels, she humbly brings her children forward as her greatest gems. Even as a sort of embarrassment crosses the woman's face, Cornelia's point is clear; a woman's most prized possessions are not items of material worth, but her children who will forge the future. The Roman architectural setting is simple but monumental, framing the view of the distant mountains and sky, and also framing the two women, so that Cornelia's gaze and the other woman's surprised expression both inhabit the rectangular space, emphasizing the painting's message of exemplum virtutis, or model of virtue.

Kauffman created her own signature brand of historical painting that focused on female subjects from classical history and mythology. By emphasizing a mother's virtue as the source of her children's virtue, and, by extension, of social and political justice, Kauffman created an interpretation of classical heroism and idealism that included women. At the same time, as art historian Meredith Martin wrote, she sought "to undermine the dominant conventions of the history genre itself, and to provide her audiences with a different means of experiencing history and its representations," and, as a result, played a "significant role in reshaping eighteenth-century European society's attitudes toward creativity, selfhood, and gender identity."

Kauffman was enormously acclaimed when she arrived in London in 1766, as a London engraver remarked, "The whole world is Angelicamad," and she became a founding member of the Royal Academy in 1768. Having arrived from Rome where she was a close friend with Winckelmann and his circle, she "was," as art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "a key populariser of a new, pared-down, archeologically-informed classical manner in Britain." Kauffman's work influenced a number of artists in England including Joshua Reynolds, and she was one of only two women who were founding members of the Royal Academy. Her impact was such that the Romantic artist John Constable remarked that no progress could be made in art until her influence was forgotten. In the 1970's her work was 'rediscovered' by feminist scholars including Linda Nochlin and the Guerrilla Girls.

Oil on canvas - Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia

Jacques-Germain Soufflot and Jean-Baptiste Rondelet: Le Panthéon (1755-90)

Le Panthéon

Artist: Jacques-Germain Soufflot and Jean-Baptiste Rondelet

This photograph shows the monumental façade of the Panthéon, its portico with massive Corinthian columns rising to a triangular frieze, reminiscent of classical Greek temples. The columns with richly embellished capitals draw one's attention upward to the dome, which was influenced by the Renaissance architect Bramante's Tempietto (1502). At the same time, the vertical lift of the columns, contrasting with strong horizontal lines, creates an overwhelming effect of orderly grandeur dominating the view of Paris. As architectural historian Dennis Sharp wrote, the design exemplifies a "strictness of line, firmness of form, simplicity of contour, and rigorously architectonic conception of detail."

King Louis XV commissioned the building, originally known as Church of Sainte-Geneviève, to fulfill his 1744 vow that, if he recovered from a serious illness, he would rebuild the church, dedicated to the patron saint of Paris. Soufflot used a Greek cross plan, influenced by the designs of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Paul's Cathedral in London, both churches that he hoped the Panthéon would rival. By drawing upon a number of influences, he reflected the Enlightenment view that, as history followed an orderly and linear progression, past examples could be studied in order to extract the best solutions. At the same time, he innovatively used a triple dome, which, through an oculus in the inner dome, allowed a view into the second dome painted with Antoine Gros's fresco The Apotheosis of Saint Genevieve (c. 1812). After Soufflot's death in 1780, his student Jean-Baptiste Rondelet completed his design, though the façade underwent further changes during the Revolution.

The original church had a vast crypt, containing the relics of Sainte Geneviève and other religious notables, but, subsequently, has become a secular mausoleum for those designated as "National Heroes," including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and, later, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola. The monumental edifice was the first of many Neoclassical buildings that became symbols of national pride and identity, as other nations, including the United States, widely adopted the style for official buildings.

Paris, France

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon (1801)

Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon

Artist: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

This Neoclassical painting depicts a scene from Homer's Illiad (8th century B.C.E.). The epic poem describes the Trojan War, when King Agamemnon sent Odysseus along with other Greek warriors, to try and persuade the famed warrior Achilles, shown on the left, to rejoin the battle against the Greeks. Emphasizing the classical nude, a powerful contrast is created between the hard muscularity of the men coming from the battlefield, and the languid sensuality of Achilles and his friend Patroculus, sinuously posed at his right. Insulted by Agamemnon's taking of the young woman Briseis, Achilles had withdrawn from the battle, and in this work his body language, as he springs forward, creates a moment of psychological drama. Odysseus, his red cloak, symbolizing passion and war, stands with arm outstretched as if appealing to reason. Between the two groupings, the view opens to a landscape where a group of warriors are training, while in the left background, a young woman looks out of the shadows, her presence evoking the original cause of the quarrel. Each detail is telling, as the lyre symbolized the immortality granted by songs of praise, and Patroculus wears the helmet of Achilles, prefiguring events to follow.

Trained by Jacques-Louis David in the Neoclassical style, Ingres won the Prix de Rome in 1801 with this painting. The competition's topic was to depict warriors preparing for battle. Ingres showed his knowledge and mastery of Neoclassical subjects by depicting Homer's precise description and drew upon a sculpture by Pseudo-Phidias for its historically accurate cloak. Ingres added his own signature contribution by emphasizing the psychological moment, and subtly exaggerating the men's physiques for sensual and emotional impact. As art historian Carol Ockman wrote, "Ingres drew on a wide range of visual and literary representations... But ...transformed these models, first by conflating their historical and mythological vocabularies and then by positioning his own figures within a complex bipartite composition, which... subverts, at least in part, the very gender binarism he intends to inscribe."

Oil on canvas - École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France

Thomas Jefferson: Monticello (1772-1809)


Artist: Thomas Jefferson

This photograph shows the west portico of Thomas Jefferson's renowned plantation home, exemplifying a Neoclassical style influenced by the designs of the Venetian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The portico employs four colored columns rising to a triangular pediment to create a grand but harmoniously ordered entrance, emphasizing the octagonal dome that was based upon the Temple of Vesta in Rome. The octagonal dome became a defining element of Jefferson's architecture. Here, he innovatively elongated the dome and made the windows half clear and half mirrored glass to allow for more light. He employed a radical zigzag design for the roof, creating interlocking pieces of sheet iron. The columns, too, were of unique design; though they resemble traditional stone columns, they are actually made of specially curved bricks. The central portico with its vertical orientation emphasizes the flow of the building, so that it seems to have two wings, its horizontal order created in part by the symmetrically placed white framed windows against the reddish brown stone. The building creates a sense of harmonious ease, presiding over the surrounding landscape.

Jefferson inherited the plantation, about 5000 acres, from his father when he was 26. He built the house on the summit of a hill, overlooking the plantation where slaves first cultivated tobacco, then wheat. The name is Italian, meaning "little mount," and the house we see today was actually Jefferson's redesign of the house according to Neoclassical principles, which he studied during his tenure as Minister of the United States to France in 1784. His design became widely influential, setting the standard for wealthy country estates and residences.

The site is a National Historic Landmark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is featured on the back of the United States nickel. During his Presidency, Jefferson's architectural ideas also informed official architecture, as he appointed Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design the Bank of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Capitol building in a Neoclassical style, which became known as "Federal architecture."

Stone, bricks, wood, sheet iron - Albemarie County, near Charlottesville, Virginia

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Neoclassicism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 09 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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