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Neoclassical Painting

Neoclassical Painting

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will examine Neoclassical painting.

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Tutorial

An overview of Neoclassical painting.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about neoclassical painting.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives will be listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the influence of the academies and academic art on the Neoclassical style, and identify examples of Neoclassical painting.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. The first key term is academy or academie, in French-- the formal study of drawing or casting the human form. Academic art-- a style of painting or sculpture created in European schools adhering to strict standards, especially under Neoclassicism and Romanticism. History painting-- a type of large painting with scenes from classical history, Christian history, or mythology that displays a narrative story and is characterized by having many people rather than a single portrait as the subject.

The big idea for today is that the Neoclassical style was highly influenced by the art academies of the time, which emphasized the virtues of patriotism and heroism as some of the most important themes a painting could depict.

The artwork that we're looking at today dates from between 1770 and 1793.

We'll be traveling today to London, England, and Paris, France. There's so much going on during this time and so many influences, it may be hard to keep track of what Neoclassicism really is, at its core. The artistic style of Neoclassicism, in a nutshell, is described as consisting of a subdued palette, an emphasis on sculptural form, simplicity, and clarity. And you'll notice these characteristics in the artwork we'll explore today.

Now, ever wonder how these artists became so good? Innate talent is definitely part of it but this talent was usually honed and refined in some sort of school, whatever it may be, in which a master instructed the student in a specific field.

Now, during Medieval times, this took place within what is called the guild system. Academies replaced the Medieval guild system during this time and influenced the art, the tastes, and the subject matter that was considered acceptable for the time. Now, this was more of a formalized method of education. Academies were state- or government-sponsored, so the range of artistic styles and subject matter would be limited of the artistic training on what was considered essential.

Now, there was a hierarchy of artistic subjects, which I've shown you here. And it begins with, at the top, the most important-- or at least considered the most important area-- was history painting, including mythology scenes, followed by portraiture, third, genre scenes, fourth, landscape, and, bringing up the rear, is still life.

Training for artists in an academy would begin with a copying of plaster casts or molds of real people, particularly their faces, and eventually transitioning to the drawing of live nude models. Now, we can see an example of this in this painting called the "Academicians of the Royal Academy". It provides us with an idea of what the training make have looked like-- although, keep in mind that this is an idealized picture.

The room is decorated with numerous examples of classical art. In the background, you can see it on the shelves. Notice how the room is filled with men only. Now, this is because of the nude figure here. Women wouldn't have been allowed to view a live nude figure in the interest of propriety.

And there's a sense of chatter you get from the painting, as if the room is filled with sounds of conversation. I also can't help but notice the figure of the youth in the foreground holding his leg, which recalls classical depictions of sandal removal from antiquity, like you see there.

The American-born artist Benjamin West's contribution to Neoclassicism was important. He took the ideas of classicism but depicted them within a modern, for the time, context and, in a sense, immortalized the subjects of his paintings as figures of patriotism and heroism. Now, West takes artistic liberties within that depiction of the death of General Wolfe during the French and Indian War, or Seven Years' War if you're European. It's an idealization and creates a much more impressive depiction of the general's death, which serves to elevate the incident from a melancholic depiction of a war casualty to a noble depiction of a fallen hero.

Now, the work from the female artist Angelica Kauffman is a great example of early Neoclassicism. She was highly regarded for her work with history paintings. Of Swiss origin, she spent a great deal of time working out of London during the 18th century and was actually one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy in London.

Her painting of "Cornelia Pointing to Her Children" references a second century BC anecdote in which a visitor shows Cornelia her precious jewels or treasures and then asks to see Cornelia's, at which time she gestures to her children. It's a depiction of the virtue of motherhood, set within a classical composition, and enhanced by the use of a warmer pallet that seems to evoke the warmth of the figure of Cornelia.

Now the painting and artwork of the artist Jacques Louis-David is considered to be some of the finest examples of Neoclassical painting. Now, his paintings almost function as a Neoclassical checklist. So let's use this image of "The Oath of the Horatii" as an example.

History painting, including mythology scenes-- check. The subject matter in this scene is believed to be an invention of David's, which itself was based on ancient Roman texts. Now, three sons of Horace holding the swords swear to represent Rome and fight to the death against representatives from the neighboring city-state of Alba in order to settle a border dispute.

Now, just like in a play, the figures are arranged as if on a shallow space of a stage. Notice how the background is dark, forcing your attention to the foreground. Subdued pallet of color-- check. Also notice how the background has architectural details in the use of columns and rounded arches, which are references to classical architecture.

Idealized figures, based on classical sculptural forms and figures-- check. Clean lines and simplicity of form-- check, check. This composition isn't busy. The figures are arranged in such a way that the viewer doesn't have to search to find the story. It's clearly articulated visually.

The "Death of Marat" is arguably David's most famous work. It's definitely the image I most closely associate with the artist. Jean-Paul Marat was a journalist and important figure during the French Revolution. He suffered from a very painful skin condition near the end of his life, which required him to take medicinal baths where he did most of his writing. As you can see, there was a makeshift desk situated over the tub.

Now, he is credited as having incited more radical action during the revolution by his writings and was killed by Charlotte Corday who feared that Marat's writings were contributing to an increase in violence. You can see the stab mark on his chest, speaking of violence.

Now, David succeeds in immortalizing the figure of Marat, just as West had with General Wolfe. As opposed to Baroque depictions of death that were often quadratic, the murder here is downplayed. We're seeing it after it happened, almost an afterthought.

Instead, once again, we see the noble death of a fallen hero-- depending on who you talk to. Even his writing desk next to his bathtub seems to commemorate the event. It's a marker for the man in the tub and the man who immortalized him in this painting.

So this brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objective to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the influence of the academies and academic art on the Neoclassical style? Can you identify examples of Neoclassical painting?

And once again, the big idea for today is that the Neoclassical style was highly influenced by the art academies of the time, which emphasized the virtues of patriotism and heroism as some of the most important themes a painting could depict.

That's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Neoclassical Painting"

Key Terms

Academy

Or academie in French, the formal study of drawing or casting the human form.

Academic Art

A style of painting or sculpture created in European schools adhering to strict standards (especially under Neoclassicism and Romanticism).

History Painting

A type of large painting with scenes from classical history, Christian history, or mythology that displays a narrative story, and is characterized by having many people rather than a single portrait as the subject.


Citations

Academicians on the Royal Academy; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Portraits_of_the_Academicians_of_the_Royal_Academy,_1771-72,_oil_on_canvas,_The_Royal_Collection_by_Johan_Zoffany.jpg Oath of the Horatii; Publci Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jacques-Louis_David,_Le_Serment_des_Horaces.jpg; Death of General Wolfe; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Benjamin_West_005.jpg Death of Marat; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Death_of_Marat_by_David.jpg; Image of Art Academy Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Institut_France.jpg; Image of Cornelia Public Domain http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/angelica-kauffman/cornelia-africana-1785

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Academy

    Or academie in French, the formal study of drawing or casting the human form.

  • Academic Art

    A style of painting or sculpture created in European schools adhering to strict standards (especially under Neoclassicism and Romanticism).

  • History Painting

    A type of large painting with scenes from classical history, Christian history, or mythology that displays a narrative story, and is characterized by having many people rather than a single portrait as the subject.