Neo-Classicism

Neo-Classicism, a reverence for the Classical tradition

Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637-38, oil on canvas, 185 cm × 121 cm (72.8 in × 47.6 in) (Louvre)

In opposition to the frivolous sensuality of Rococo painters like Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the Neo-classicists looked to Nicolas Poussin for their inspiration. These Neo-classicists appreciated his Greco-Roman subject-matter, clarity of representation, stable compositions, and logic. They believed that strong drawing was rational, therefore morally better. They believed that art should be cerebral, not sensual.

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 1784 (Musée du Louvre)

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 1784 (Musée du Louvre)

The Neo-classicists, such as Jacques-Louis David (pronounced Da-VEED), preferred the well-delineated form—clear drawing and modeling (shading).  Drawing was considered more important than painting. The Neo-classical surface had to look perfectly smooth—no evidence of brush-strokes should be discernable to the naked eye.

France was on the brink of its first revolution in 1789, and the Neo-classicists wanted to express rationality and sobriety that was fitting for their times. Artists like David supported the rebels through an art that asked for clear-headed thinking, self-sacrifice to the State (as in Oath of the Horatii) and an austerity reminiscent of Republican Rome.

Neo-classicism was a child of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment), when philosophers believed that we would be able to control our destinies by learning from and following the Laws of Nature (the United States was founded on Enlightenment philosophy).  Scientific inquiry attracted more attention. Therefore, Neo-classicism continued the connection to the Classical tradition because it signified moderation and rational thinking but in a new and more politically-charged spirit (“neo” means “new,” or in the case of art, an existing style reiterated with a new twist.)

Neo-classicism is characterized by: clarity of form; sober colors; shallow space; strong horizontal and verticals that render that subject matter timeless, instead of temporal as in the dynamic Baroque works; and, Classical subject matter—or classicizing contemporary subject matter.

Jacques Louis David’s, The Death of Marat

By 1793, the violence of the Revolution dramatically increased until the beheadings at the Place de la Concorde became a constant, leading a certain Dr. Joseph Guillotine it invent a machine that would improve the efficiency of the ax and block and therefore make executions more humane. David was in thick of it. Early in the Revolution he had joined the Jacobins, a political club that would in time become the most rabid of the various rebel factions. Led by the ill-fated Georges Danton and the infamous Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins (including David) would eventually vote to execute Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antionette who were caught attempting to escape across the border to the Austrian Empire.

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Jacques Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793 (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels)

At the height of the Reign of Terror in 1793, David painted a memorial to his great friend, the murdered publisher, Jean Marat. As in his Death of Socrates, David substitutes the iconography (symbolic forms) of Christian art for more contemporary issues. The Death of Marat, 1793 an idealized image of David’s slain friend is shown holding his murderess’s (Charlotte Corday) letter of introduction.

The bloodied knife lays on the floor having opened a fatal gash that functions, as does Marat’s very composition, as a reference to the entombment of Christ and a sort of secularized stigmata (reference to the wounds Christ is said to have received in his hands, feet and side while on the cross). Is David attempting now to find revolutionary martyrs to replace the saints of Catholicism (which had been outlawed)?

By 1794 the Reign of Terror had run its course. The Jacobins had begun to execute not only captured aristocrats but fellow revolutionaries as well. Eventually, Robespierre himself would die and the remaining Jacobins were likewise executed or imprisoned. David escaped death by renouncing his activities and was locked in a cell in the former palace, the Louvre, until his eventual release by France’s brilliant new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte. This diminutive Corsican had been the youngest General in the French army and during the Revolution had become a national hero by waging a seemingly endless string of victorious military campaigns against the Austrians in Belgium and Italy. Eventually, Napoleon would control most of Europe, would crown himself Emperor, and would release David in recognition that the artist’s talent could serve the ruler’s purposes.