Neoclassical Art and Its Greatest Artists

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There was one man who seriously contributed to the rise of Neoclassical art:  the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winkelmann, considered by many to be the founding father of art criticism.  He published in 1764 his masterwork, the Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums ("The History of Art in Antiquity"), which was recognized at the time as a new and permanent addition to world literature.


In it, he spoke famously of Ancient Greek art’s “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”, the key words for the age. 

"Madame Raymond de Verninac", Jacques-Louis David

His ideas were transmitted everywhere in Europe through his very close friendship with the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, considered the greatest living artist of his day.  One of the most important of these concepts was one Wilkelmann also stated famous in the "History of Art in Antiquity": “The only way we can become great, yes, inimitable, if it is possible, is by imitation of the Greeks."

Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in the luxurious decadence of his pygamas.  Statue of Homer to the right; engraving of a statue of an Antinous before him.

He didn’t mean that we should just copy blindly, however.  Still in his “History” he goes on to say:  “what is imitated, if handled reasonably, may take on another nature, so to speak, and become one’s own.”

The name for the movement his ideas sparked, Neoclassicism, spread even further in Europe following Winkelmann’s perusal of the archaeological findings at Herculanum from 1738 and Pompeii 1748.

Interestingly, it was also the reflection of a rising social strong up: the wealthy middle class created by the political revolution in France or the Industrial Revolution in England, many of them collectors.

Neoclassical art was also philosophical. With this return to Antiquity came the desire to get serious once again. Emulating 5th century Greece or Republican or Imperial Rome, meant taking for model a (perceived) time of ethics and virtues, as well as aesthetics, a noble utopia that aligned well with the values of the Enlightenment.

When was it?  All told from about 1762 about 1830, when Romanticism gradually came into fashion.

It can seem hard to tell the difference between Neoclassical art and 17th century Classicism.  Once again, figures are clear and sharply drawn, no soft blurring of color at the edges. The framing is usually rectangular, with the background forming a backdrop parallel with the surface of the painting; figures are few, usually in profile, looking like a frieze on a Greek temple.  Think Wedgwood.

Figures are idealized and all look like Greek statues come to life, busily representing the nobility of their spirit with their beauty.

Nobility is expressed as well in the choice of allegorical subjects and edifying stories, especially taken from Homer or Greek or Roman history. Logic, reason and grandeur are important, so architecture becomes more important for the setting than Nature.  All those picturesque landscapes disappear, and instead columns and pilasters, temples and Antique interiors, stage the composition.

Josiah Wedgewood introduced his Neoclassical unglazed jasparware in 1774: white reliefs on a blue or black background.  On this perfume bottle, a young couple face a seated elderly woman; on the other side, two women make an offering on the altar of Love.

No more libertine frivolity of Rococo here; subjects are dressed in the majestic robes of Antiquity; nudity is no longer erotic, but noble and reserved for men, with scabbards or shields discreetly screening their private parts!

Greatest Artists of Neoclassical Art

57. The German Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) was considered the greatest living artist of his day. He channeled throughout Europe the ideas of Johann Winckelmann, the great art historian and archaeologist, especially the concept that drove Neoclassicism: “The only way we can become great...is by imitation of the Greeks."

58.  Benjamin West (1738-1820) was the first great painter to come from America to European shores. He established himself in London after spending 3 years in Rome.

59.   Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) was the official painter of the French Revolution and the French Empire; his portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte are iconic.

60.  I consider that Frenchman Jean-Auguste Ingres (1780-1860) belongs to Neoclassical art owing to his clarity and line, but with an attention to sensuality that sets him apart in this age of sober virtue.

Click here to look at Neoclassical paintings on the Wiki Commons website.

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