Painting and Sculpture

Neo-classical paintings can generally be differentiated from the baroque and rococo works that preceded them by the austere linear design of the composition, or by their subject matter. This would depict historical or mythical classical subjects using archaeologically correct settings and costumes. Equally, portraiture was a genre of painting that developed through neo-classicism, as those who pursued the antique ideal sought their likenesses painted in classical settings.

Rome was the centre of the artistic world; many expatriate painters gathered around German Johann Winckelmann, held to be one of the founding fathers of art history. His Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works (1755) marks him out as a key figure in the development of neo-classicism. Winckelmann's artistic circle included the German Anton Raphael Mengs, the Scot Gavin Hamilton and the American Benjamin West.

French painter Jacques-Louis David is recognized as the great genius of neo-classical painting. His Oath of the Horatii (1784-5) celebrates the theme of stoic patriotism. The picture's box-like architectural space and frieze-like arrangement of figures reflect neo-classical concern for compositional logic and clarity. David went on to become the leading painter in France over several decades, his work symbolizing the spirit of the French revolution. One of David's most successful pupils, and the inheritor of his role as leading interpreter of the classical tradition, was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

By the early 1790s painters began to emulate the flat, silhouetted figures of Greek vase painting. The foremost exponent of this style was the English artist John Flaxman, whose simple line engravings for editions of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and Dante's Commedia (1793), completely replaced traditional perspective, lighting, and modelling with two-dimensional linear design. The style was immensely successful and widely imitated. Flaxman himself, essentially a sculptor and modeller, was practised in this approach through his bas reliefs and ornamentation made for Wedgwood.

Sculpture had been profoundly influenced by ancient art since the Renaissance. Thus, neo-classical principles had a less revolutionary impact on it than on the other arts. In general, neo-classical sculptors tended to avoid the dramatic twisting poses and the colored marble surfaces characteristic of late baroque or rococo sculpture, preferring crisp contours, a noble stillness, and idealized white marble forms.

Statues and busts, whether antique, 18th century copies of the antique, or modern works in the ‘antique manner', were in great demand. The collector, or fashionable customer who wished to be ‘à la mode', shipped large numbers of pieces in marble or bronze back from Italy. Wedgwood responded by producing busts in his black basalt body, which emulated Roman busts excellently, to grace the libraries of fashion-seeking customers.

The earliest neo-classical sculpture was produced by artists in direct contact with Winckelmann's circle in Rome -18th century sculptors such as John Tobias Sergel, who on his return to his native Sweden carried the new style to northern Europe, and the Englishmen Thomas Banks and Joseph Nollekens, who introduced the style to their homeland.

The dominant figure in the history of neo-classical sculpture, however, was the Italian Antonio Canova, who became a member of the Rome circle in 1780. Rejecting his earlier baroque manner, he sought to capture the severity and ideal purity of ancient art. Theseus and the Dead Minotaur (1782) portrays the calm of victory rather than active conflict; the work was Canova's first attempt at the new style, and it brought him immediate fame.

After Canova's death, the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen inherited his position as Europe's leading sculptor. His many international commissions, notably by British collector Thomas Hope, sustained strict neo-classicism as the dominant mode in sculpture until the mid-19th century.





Flat, linear compositions like this became fashionable among artists, inspired by Greek vase paintin, © Wedgwood Museum

Flat, linear compositions like this became fashionable among artists, inspired by Greek vase paintin
© Wedgwood Museum