A short history of French art - 4

From Neoclassicism to Romanticism

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French art
From Neoclassicism to Romanticism

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The revolutionary age in French art

Oath of the Horatii
David  - the Oath of the Horatii -  Louvre, Paris
The 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 century.
    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.
Nanine Vallain - Liberty - 1793.  Paris, Louvre
    Neoclacissism was more intellectual, a product – like the French Revolution with which it is often associated – of the Age of the 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 18th century; but it was not until after 1760 that it took a hold in the visual 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.
   While French 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.
  After 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.
Oath of the Horatii
Detail from Napoleon at Austerlitz, by François Gérard.  Palace of Versailles

  Among David's pupils were Gros and Gérard, several of 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.
Princesse de Broglie
Princesse de Broglie, by Ingres.
Metropolitan Museum of New York  
   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 was Romanticism.
Romanticism was all about mood and feeling, drama and emotions, not about precision or perfection. As a movement, it had begun at the start of the "Gothic" revival in England, then in Germany, in the mid 18th century.  At a time when 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 Méduse, a historical tableau comparable is size and object to the great works of Gros and Gérard, is altogether different in theme and emotions. It depicts not some heroic event in contemporary French history, but the aftermath of a shipwreck, with the survivors calling out for help.
Raft of the M�duse
The Raft of the Méduse, by Theodore Géricault.  Paris, Louvre

  But if Géricault was the precursor, the artist who rapidly established himself as the figurehead of French romantic art was Eugéne Delacroix, born 1798. By the mid 1820s, the battle between the "classicists" and the "romantics" was firmly engaged. Neoclassicism was by then the art of the 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 the innovators.

  Delacroix's iconic Liberty leading the People, celebrating the second French Revolution of 1830, is totally different from the neoclassic depiction of Liberty 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 PeopleLiberty 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 landscapes,  served 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.

Where to see art from the Age of Revolution

Paris: the Louvre (particularly for 18th century) and the Musée d'Orsay (for 19th century)
Paris: Musée Delacroix  (in the Latin quarter)
Montauban : Musée Ingres

The About-France.com
history of art in France :

Later periods


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Photos: all photos on this page are in the public domain.

The period from 1760 to 1840
saw massive changes in France and Europe, and they were not just political. In art, this was the start of the modern era as artists moved from copying from the past to developing  new ways

Death of Marat
David -  the Death of Marat.  Paris, Louvre

Map of France

Napoleon, by Ingres
Napoleon, by Ingres.  Paris, Musée des Invalides

The death of Sardanapolos
Delacroix : detail from the Death of Sardanapalus.  Paris, Louvre

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