The style that most successfully fulfilled the Enlightenment demand for an art of edifying moral virtue was Neoclassicism.  Classical art had already been “rediscovered” in the Renaissance, but over the centuries it had become ornate, exuberant, and theatrical, and in the 18th century it had become frilly, precious, and frivolous.  So Neoclassicism was a kind of “back to basics” return to origins, and a welcome alternative to the “decadent” style of the Rococo.

Antonio Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, c. 1800 Vatican Museums

Enlightenment thinkers admired Classical art for its clarity, simplicity, and lack of fussy ornament.  Johann Winckelmann, who pioneered the study of art history as a scholarly discipline, extolled what he called “the noble simplicity and sedate grandeur” of Greek statues, and he especially admired their emotional restraint (a relief from the overblown drama and theatricality of Baroque and Rococo art).  For Enlightenment thinkers, classical art seemed virtuous and noble, and therefore provided a welcome alternative to aristocrats in fancy dress, engaging in amorous pursuits.  Neoclassicism, in contrast, was regarded as an ideal vehicle for expressing the Enlightenment values of reason, logic, and moral rectitude.  The fact that the first democracies were established in ancient Greece and Rome only added to the appeal.

Louis Jean Desprez, The Temple of Isis at Pompeii, 1788

The rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum did much to stimulate renewed interest in Classical art, as did the “Grand Tour” which became an obligatory part of every gentleman’s education.  Wealthy aristocrats arranged guided tours to ancient archaeological sites, and amassed large collections of antique art for private study and enjoyment.  Study of “The Classics” became a staple of educational curricula, as the newly formed modern democracies self-fashioned themselves as the direct descendants of ancient democratic Athens and Republican Rome.

Giovanni Panini, Ancient Rome, 1787. Metropolitan Museum

Giovanni Panini’s Ancient Rome is a perfect example of the 18th century fascination with classical architecture and sculpture.  It portrays a grand gallery with pictures of famous Roman monuments, including the Pantheon, the Colosseum and Trajan’s Column.   Amongst the sculptures in the collection are the Farnese Hercules, the Laocoön, and the Spinario.  The rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome had began in the Renaissance, where it inspired a new approach to religious subject matter, but in the 18th century the Classical past replaced religion altogether, and was admired as the “birthplace” of modern science, rationality, and morality.

Angelica Kauffmann, Cornelia Pointing to Her Children as Her Treasures, 1785

Angelica Kauffmann was a Swiss artist who trained in Rome, and established her career in England (she was one of the founding members of the English Royal Academy of Art).  This painting depicts a story from ancient Republican Rome.  Cornelia was the mother of the Graachi , two brothers who later became leaders of a popular reform movement in Rome.  In this scene a family friend drops by to show off her jewelry.  The friend asks Cornelia to show her jewelry, and Cornelia responds by pointing to her sons as “her jewels.”

Cornelia’s motherly virtues and simple dress made her the kind of “exemplar of virtue” that Enlightenment thinkers demanded as an alternative to the frivolous themes of Rococo art.  The simplicity, clarity, and balance of the Neoclassical style was also embraced as a morally superior alternative to the sensual style of the Rococo.

Jacques Louis David, Self Portrait, 1794 Louvre

Jacques Louis David
Jacques Louis David became the leading painter of the Neoclassical style in France.  After studying in Rome, he developed a radically simplified and austere style based on his study of ancient classical art.  His new style was embraced by Enlightenment critics as a much needed corrective to the melodrama of the Baroque, and his electrifying subjects of stoic virtue and manly valor were praised as a welcome alternative to the frivolous and often licentious themes of Rococo art:

“Neoclassicism triumphed—and became inseparably linked to the revolution—in the work of Jacques-Louis David, a painter who also played an active role in politics. As virtual artistic dictator, he served the propaganda programs first of radical revolutionary factions and later of Napoleon. As a young man David had worked in the delicate style of his teacher François Boucher, but in Italy he was influenced by ancient sculpture and by the seventeenth-century artists Caravaggio and Poussin, adopting their strong contrasts of color, clear tones, and firm contours. David gave his heroic figures sculptural mass and arranged them friezelike in emphatic compositions that were meant to inspire his fellow citizens to noble action.”
18th-19th-Century France – Neoclassicism, National Gallery of Art 

Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
Metropolitan Museum

David’s subjects focused on the noble deeds of great men from classical history, presented as exemplars of moral virtue.  Socrates is a perfect example, because he was literally a “man of ideas,” who heroically stood up for his beliefs.

Socrates had been a vocal critic of the Athenian government, and he was imprisoned for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and “corrupting the youth.”  He was given the choice of renouncing his views or death, and he chose the latter.  In this scene, David shows the philosopher in his prison cell, surrounded by his pupils.  Shackled to his bed, he continues to expound his views (literally, teaching to the end!), as he reaches for the fatal hemlock juice.  His pupils surround him and react with a range of emotions.  Only Plato, seated stoically at the foot of the bed, seems to be in control of his emotions.

Exhibited at the Salon of 1787 (on the eve of the French Revolution), David’s painting was widely interpreted as a protest against the corruptions of the French state (which had taken many political prisoners to stifle mounting reform efforts).  The picture was a clarion call to the French nation to stand up for its ideals, and to fight for what it believed to be right.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the leaders of the American Revolution, was reportedly present at the picture’s unveiling.

Read a description of the trial and Socrates’ last days:

Jacques Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784

This painting is based on a heroic story from ancient Rome:  the three sons of Horace (the Horatii) swear an oath on their father’s sword to fight against the Curatii brothers, from the neighboring city of Alba.  The women of the household are weeping because one of the men’s wives is a sister to the Curatii brothers, and one of the Horatii sisters is betrothed to one of the Curatii brothers (talk about complicated!).

In spite of these familial bonds, the picture extolls the men’s unflinching determination to fight for their nation, and it is for this reason that it became a symbol of the French Revolution:  like the Horatii brothers,  the citizens of France were called upon to renounce their personal emotions in pursuit of a higher ideal of democracy and freedom.

David’s Oath of the Horatii, Smarthistory 

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

The Reign of Terror
David became a member of the radical Jacobin party during the “Reign of Terror,” when thousands of French citizens, including the King and Queen, were executed by guillotine:

“The Terror was designed to fight the enemies of the revolution, to prevent counter-revolution from gaining ground. Most of the people rounded up were not aristocrats, but ordinary people. A man (and his family) might go to the guillotine  for saying something critical of the revolutionary government. If an informer happened to overhear, that was all the tribunal needed. Watch Committees around the nation were encouraged to arrest “suspected persons, … those who, either by their conduct or their relationships, by their remarks or by their writing, are shown to be partisans of tyranny and federalism and enemies of liberty” (Law of Suspects, 1793). Civil liberties were suspended. The Convention ordered that “if material or moral proof exists, independently of the evidence of witnesses, the latter will not be heard, unless this formality should appear necessary, either to discover accomplices or for other important reasons concerning the public interest.” The promises of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were forgotten. Terror was the order of the day. In the words of Maximilien Robespierre, “Softness to traitors will destroy us all.”
The Reign of Terror, HistoryWiz

Joseph Bose, Portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, 1793 Musée Carnavalet, Paris
Joseph Bose, Portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, 1793 Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Jean-Paul Marat, the editor of the Jacobin newspaper L’Ami de peuple, was one of the leading instigators of the Reign of Terror.  He used his newspaper to incite public violence, and in in 1793 he was murdered in his bathtub by a royalist sympathizer, named Charlotte Corday.

“Marat, friend of Robespierre, Jacobin deputy to the Convention, and editor-in-chief of L’Ami du Peuple, was a fiery orator; he was also a violent man, quick to take offense. Some saw him as an intransigent patriot; for others he was merely a hateful demagogue”
Neoclassicism and the French Revolution, Boston College

French Revolution 4/9

Jacques Louis David, Death of Marat (63” X 49”), 1793

David was commissioned by the Jacobin government  to commemorate his friend’s death.  He depicted the journalist in his medicinal bath, clutching the letter from his murderer in his hand, as blood drips from his wound.  His skin is pale and unblemished, and his face betrays nothing of the violent temper for which he was renowned.  The light bathes his serene face in a soft golden glow, set off by the dark background, while his right arm dangles limply over the side of the tub, recalling the arm of Christ in Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Painted on the grand scale of history painting, David’s image of Marat is like a modern Pieta, where a martyr of the revolution has taken the place of Christ.   It is worth pausing here to fully take in how far we have traveled since the beginning of this class, when Mary Jesus and the Saints were really the only acceptable subject matter for art.  First, we saw private individuals showing up as donor portraits, small in scale, and piously praying towards an image of the Virgin; then we saw the emergence of the secular portrait, and grand portraits of Monarchs or epic heroes from the classical past.  Yes, we also saw genre scenes — but never have we seen modern individuals depicted in the kind of heroic scene that was commonly reserved for religious and classical subjects (the same thing is happening in Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolf).  This is the moment when we have truly entered the modern world, and modern heroes have now taken center stage.

Yet Marat was, in many ways, a terrorist.  As Simon Schama writes:

“If there’s ever a picture that would make you want to die for a cause, it is Jacque-Louis David’s Death of Marat. That’s what makes it so dangerous – hidden away from view for so many years.

I’m not sure how I feel about this painting, except deeply conflicted. You can’t doubt that it’s a solid gold masterpiece, but that’s to separate it from the appalling moment of its creation, the French Revolution. This is Jean-Paul Marat, the most paranoid of the Revolution’s fanatics, exhaling his very last breath. He’s been assassinated in his bath. But for David, Marat isn’t a monster, he’s a saint. This is martyrdom, David’s manifesto of revolutionary virtue.”
Simon Schama, Power of Art

Monica Hahn, Art History in a Hurry – Death of Marat

Jacques Louis David, Death of Marat (Smarthistory)


Web Resources:

Neoclassicism, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

Neoclassicism, National Gallery of Art 

Neclassicism, Smarthistory 

Next lecture

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.