Neoclassicism to Romanticism:
The revolutionary age in French art
French Revolution (1789) was not just an isolated political event, a
popular (and largely bourgeois) uprising against the enduring power of
a faded monarchy, it was just the most dramatic expression of a much
larger social and cultural change that transformed not just France, but
the whole of Europe and North America in the latter half of the 18th
David - the Oath of the Horatii - Louvre, Paris
Since the early 17th century, French art
had evolved between the baroque and rococco, and the academic and
classical. Sevententh century "Classicism",
as exemplified by the works of Claude Lorrain, was
essentially an aesthetic movement. It took the mythology and stories of
the ancient world, and used and embellished them to create an
idealised pictorial world.
was more intellectual, a product – like the French
Revolution with which it is often associated – of the Age of
Enlightenment. It turned to Antiquity for aesthetic inspiration but
also for intellectual and human values.
As an architectural style Neoclassicism evolved in France in the early
century; but it was not until after 1760 that it took a hold in the
arts, notably as a reaction to the perceived frivolity and decadence of
baroque and rococco painting. Its leading figures were the artistic
elite of France during the age of Revolution, and the turmoil that
ensued as the Republic became the Consulate, then the Empire until the
monarchy was restored in 1814.
neoclassical art is finely represented in the works of a number of
painters, two stand out in particular. Jacques-Louis David, sometimes
called the master of the neoclassical school in France, and his pupil
Jean Auguste Ingres.
David, who was trained in the classical tradition, studied in Rome
before returning to Paris. His monumental painting the Oath of the Horatii (Paris,
Louvre), with its severity and geometric precision, is generally
considered as the archetypal work of French Neoclassicism. Elected to
the French parliament after the Revolution, David reigned over art in
France, establishing Neoclassicism as a kind of official style of the
French Revolution. Another of his most famous paintings is the Death of Marat, one
of the revolutionary leaders of France, also in the Louvre.
Napoleon came to power in 1804, David became a fervent Bonapartist and
Neoclassicism became even more closely associated with the styles of
the "Empire" than it had with the first Republic. His huge canvases
glorifying Napoleon are among the more remarkable works that today hang
in the Louvre. But he was not the only one to glorify the Emperor.
Detail from Napoleon at Austerlitz, by François
Palace of Versailles
Among David's pupils were Gros and Gérard,
whose monumental paintings can also be seen in the Louvre and other
French museums. But the second great master of Neoclassicism was Ingres, whose work
is generally on a smaller scale, and more refined. Ingres is best
remembered for his portraits.
However, Ingres was only 35 when the Empire came to an end.
Neoclassicism, by then, had come to be seen as conservative and
academic, no longer as revolutionary; and while its artists and
sculptors still had many decades of popularity ahead of them,
up-and-coming artists were looking for something different. Art was
evolving, coming out of the studio and out of the academy, and the
first great school af art to successfully challenge the establishment
Princesse de Broglie, by Ingres.
Metropolitan Museum of New York
was all about mood and feeling, drama and emotions, not about precision
perfection. As a movement, it had begun at the start of the "Gothic"
England, then in Germany, in the mid 18th century. At a time
Neoclassicism was reigning supreme in Imperial France, artists like
Turner in England and Caspar David Friedrich in Germany were producing
a radically different kind of art. One of the first to move across the
divide in France was Thédore Géricault.
His massive Radeau de la
a historical tableau comparable is size and object to the great works
of Gros and Gérard, is altogether different in theme and
depicts not some heroic event in contemporary French history, but the
aftermath of a shipwreck, with the survivors calling out for help.
The Raft of the Méduse, by Theodore Géricault.
But if Géricault was the precursor, the
established himself as the figurehead of French romantic art was
born 1798. By the mid 1820s, the battle between the "classicists" and
the "romantics" was firmly engaged. Neoclassicism was by then the art
establishment, academic and institutional, Romanticism was the art of
the innovators. It was a pop revolution. For the next three decades,
France was the cultural battleground between the traditionalists and
Delacroix's iconic Liberty
leading the People, celebrating the second French
Revolution of 1830, is totally different from the neoclassic depiction
painted by Vallain
in 1793.. Romanticism blossomed with Delacroix in
art, with Baudelaire and Victor Hugo in literature and Berlioz in music
- to name but four; and by the middle of the nineteenth century it had
won the day.
Liberty leading the People, by Delacroix. Paris, Louvre
Few people today have even heard of the
institutional painters of mid-19th century France; but Delacroix, who
sought inspiration in emotionally charged scenes and exotic
as an inspiration to others who took art into new territory in form and
subject-matter. Though Delacroix did not teach pupils, his work was
widely admired by the innovators in French art, including later
Romantics like Fantin
Latour, Naturalists like Courbet, and
virtually all of the Impressionists.
Earlier periods :
and architecture in Mediaeval France
French art in the
To be continued:
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