The history of the two movements to be dealt with in this chapter
covers roughly a century, from about 1750
Paradoxically, Neoclassicism has been seen as the opposite of
Romanticism on the one hand and as no more than one aspect of it on the
other. The difficulty is that the two terms are not evenly matched, any
more than are "quadruped" and "carnivore." Neoclassicism is a new
revival of classical antiquity, more consistent than earlier
classicisms, and one that was linked, at least initially, to
Enlightenment thought. Romanticism, in contrast, refers not to a
specific style but to an attitude of mind that may reveal itself in any
number of ways, including classicism. Romanticism, therefore, is a far
broader concept and is correspondingly harder to define. To compound the
difficulty, the Neoclassicists and early Romantics were exact
contemporaries, who in turn overlapped the preceding generation of
Rococo artists. David and Goya, for example, were born within a few
years of each other. And in England the leading representatives of the
Rococo, Neoclassicism, and Romanticism—Reynolds,
West, and Fuseli—shared
many of the same ideas, although they were otherwise separated by clear
differences in style and approach.
If the modern era was born during the American Revolution of
and the French Revolution of
1789, these cataclysmic-events were preceded by a
revolution of the mind that had begun half a century earlier. Its
standard-bearers were those thinkers of the Enlightenment in England,
France, and Germany—David
Hume, Francois-Marie Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Heinrich Heine,
proclaimed that all human affairs ought to be ruled by reason and the
common good, rather than by tradition and established authority. In the
arts, as in economics, politics, and religion, this rationalist movement
turned against the prevailing practice: the ornate and aristocratic
Rococo. In the mid-eighteenth century, the call for a return to reason,
nature, and morality in art meant a return to the ancients. After all,
had not the classical philosophers been the original "apostles of
reason"? The first to formulate this view was Johann Joachim
Winckelmann, the German art historian and theorist who popularized the
famous concept of the "noble simplicity and calm grandeur" of Greek art
(in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works
published in 1755).
His ideas deeply impressed two painters then living in
Rome, the German Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779)
and the Scotsman Gavin Hamilton
(1723-1798). Both had strong
antiquarian leanings but otherwise limited artistic powers. This may
explain why they accepted Winckelmann's doctrine so readily. Mengs'
importance lies principally in his role as a propagator of the
"Winckelmann program," since his paintings amount to little more than
weak paraphrases of Italian art. He left Rome in
1761 after executing his major work, a ceiling
fresco of Parnassus inspired by Raphael, and went to Spain, where
he vied with the aging Tiepolo.
It is a measure of Italy's decline that leadership should pass to the
Northerners who gathered in Rome, which remained a magnet for artists
from all over Europe. The only Roman painter who could compete on even
terms with the foreigners was Pompeo Batoni
(1708-1787), a splendid technician who continued
the eclectic classicism of Carlo Maratta
but is remembered today chiefly for portraits of his
English patrons. This vacuum helps to account for the astonishing
success of Mengs and Hamilton. Toward the end of Batonis career the
Italian school was eclipsed once and for all by the French Academy in
Rome under Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809),
its head from 1775
To French artists, a return to the classics meant, of course, the style
and "academic" theory of Poussin, combined with a maximum of
archaeological detail newly gleaned from ancient sculpture and the
excavations of Pompeii. Vien himself Was a minor artist, who reduced
history painting to genre scenes of ancient lite, but he was a gifted
teacher, and it was his pupils who were to establish French painting as
the inheritor and self-proclaimed guardian of the great tradition of
Village Bride (fig. 857),
like his other pictures of those years, is a
scene of lower-class family life. What distinguishes it from earlier
genre paintings (compare fig. 803)
is its contrived, stagelike character, borrowed
from Hogarth's "dumb show" narratives (see figs.
But Greuze had neither wit nor satire. His
pictorial sermon illustrates the social gospel of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
that the poor, in contrast to the immoral aristocracy, arc full of
"natural" virtue and honest sentiment. Everything is intended to remind
us of this, from the declamatory gestures and expressions of the actors
to the smallest detail, such as the hen with her chicks in the
foreground: one chick has left the brood and sits alone on a saucer,
like the bride who is about to leave her "brood." The Village Bride
was acclaimed a masterpiece, and the loudest praise came from Denis
Diderot, that apostle of Reason and Nature. Here at last was a painter
with a social mission who appealed to the beholder's moral sense,
instead of merely giving pleasure like the frivolous artists of the
Rococo! In his first flush of enthusiasm, Diderot accepted the narrative
of Greuze's pictures as "noble and serious human action" in Poussin's
In France, the anti-Rococo trend in painting was at first a matter of
content rather than style, which accounts for the sudden tame around
A disciple of Vien, David had developed his Neoclassical
style in Rome during the years 1775-81.
Upon his return to France, he quickly established
himself as the leading Neoclassical painter, overshadowing all others by
far, so that our conception of the movement is largely based on his
accomplishments. In The Death of Socrates (fig.
1787, he seems more "Poussiniste"
than Poussin himself (compare fig. 809).
The composition unfolds parallel to the picture
plane like a relief, and the figures are as solid and immobile as
statues. David has added one unexpected element: the lighting, sharply
focused and casting precise shadows. It is derived from Caravaggio, as
is the firmly realistic detail. (Note the hands and feet, the furniture,
the texture of the stone surfaces.) Consequently, the picture has a
quality of life rather astonishing in so doctrinaire a statement of the
new ideal style. The very harshness of the design suggests that its
creator was passionately engaged in the issues of his age, artistic as
well as political. Socrates, refusing to compromise his principles, was
convicted of a trumped-up charge and sentenced to death. About to drink
poison from the cup, he is shown not only as an example of Ancient
Virtue, but also as the founder of the "religion of Reason." Here he is
a Christlike figure amid his 12
The Village Bride. 1761.
Oil on canvas, 91.3 x 118
cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris
Diderot modified his views later, when a far more gifted and rigorous
"Neo-Poussinist" appeared on the scene:
The Death of Socrates. 1787.
Oil on canvas, 129.5 x
196.2 cm. The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York
David took an active part in the French Revolution, and for some
years he had controlling power over the artistic affairs of the nation
comparable only to Lebrun's a century before.
During this time he painted his greatest picture.
The Death of Marat (fig.
859). David's deep emotion
has made a masterpiece from a subject that would have embarrassed any
lesser artist, tor Marat, one of the political leaders of the
Revolution, had been murdered in his bathtub. A painful skin condition
required immersion, and he did his work there, with a wooden board
serving as his desk. One day a young woman named Charlotte Corday burst
in with a personal petition, and plunged a knife into his chest while he
read it. David has composed the scene with a stark directness that is
awe-inspiring. In this canvas, which was planned as a public memorial to
the martyred hero, classical art coincides with devotional image and
historical account. However, classical art could offer little specific
guidance here, even though the slain figure probably derives from an
antique source, and the artist has drawn on the Caravaggesque tradition
of religious art far more than in The Death of Socrates. It is no
accident that his Marat reminds us so strongly of Zurbaran's
St. Serapion (see fig. 775).
Jacques-Louis David. The Death of Marat.
Oil on canvas, 165 x 128.3
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgiquc, Brussels
in The Death of General Wolfe (fig.
860). West traveled
to Rome from Pennsylvania in 1760
and caused something of a sensation, since no American
painter had appeared in Europe before. He relished his role of
frontiersman. On being shown the Apollo Belvedere (see fig.
reportedly exclaimed, "How like a Mohawk warrior!
He also quickly assimilated the lessons of
Neoclassicism, so that when he left a few years later, he was in command
of the most up-to-date style. West stopped in London for what was
intended to be a brief stay on his way home, but stayed on to became
first a founding member of the Royal Academy, then, after the death of
Reynolds, its president. His career was thus European rather than
American, but he always took pride in his New World background.
The martyrdom of a secular hero was first immortalized by
We can sense this in The Death of General Wolfe, his most
famous work. Wolfe's death in
which occurred in the siege of Quebec during the French
and Indian War, had aroused considerable feeling in London. When West,
among others, decided to represent this event, two methods were open to
him. He could give a factual account with the maximum of historic
accuracy, or he could use "the grand manner," Poussin's ideal conception
of history painting, with
figures in "timeless" classical costume. Although he had absorbed the
influence of Mengs and Hamilton, he did not follow them in this painting—he
knew the American scene too well for that. Instead, he merged the two
approaches. His figures wear contemporary dress, and the conspicuous
figure of the Indian places the event in the New World for those
unfamiliar with the subject. Yet all the attitudes and expressions are
"heroic." The composition, in fact, recalls an old and hallowed theme,
the lamentation over the dead Christ (see fig.
522), dramatized by
Baroque lighting (see fig. 777).
West thus endowed the death of a modern military
hero with both the rhetorical pathos of "noble and serious human
actions," as defined by academic theory, and the trappings of a real
event. He created an image that expresses a phenomenon basic to modern
times: the shift of emotional allegiance from religion to nationalism.
No wonder his picture had countless successors during the nineteenth
(1738-1815), moved to London just two years
before the American Revolution. As New England's outstanding portrait
painter, he had adapted the formulas of the British portrait tradition
to the cultural climate of his hometown. In Europe, Copley was at last
able to attain his ideal of history-painting in the manner of West. His
most memorable work is Watson and the Shark (fig.
861). As a young man,
Watson had been dramatically rescued from a shark attack while swimming
in Havana harbor, but not until he met Copley did he decide to have this
gruesome experience memorialized. Perhaps he-thought that only a painter
newly arrived from America would do full justice to the exotic flavor of
the incident. Copley, in turn, must have been fascinated by the task of
translating the story into pictorial terms. Following West's example, he
made every detail as authentic as possible (here the black man has the
purpose of the Indian in The Death of General Wolfe) and utilized
all the expressive resources of Baroque painting to invite the
beholder's participation. Copley may have remembered representations of
Jonah and the Whale, which include the elements of his scene, except
that the action is reversed: the prophet is thrown overboard into the
jaws of the sea monster. The shark becomes a monstrous embodiment of
evil; the man with the boat hook recalls an Archangel Michael fighting
Satan; and the nude youth, resembling a fallen gladiator, flounders
helplessly between the forces of doom and salvation. This kind of moral
allegory is typical of Neoclassicism as a whole, and despite its charged
emotion, the picture has the same logic and clarity found in David's
Death of Socrates.
The Death of General Wolfe. 1770.
Oil on canvas, 151 x 213.7
cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
West's gifted compatriot,
Singleton Copley of Boston
A founding member of the Royal Academy, she spent
15 years in London among the
group that included Reynolds and West, whom she had met in Winckelmann's
circle in Rome. From the
antique this disciple of Mengs developed a delicate style admirably
suited to the interiors of Robert Adam,
which she was often commissioned to adorn. Nevertheless,
Kauffmann's most ambitious works are narrative paintings, of which the
artist John Henry Fuseli (see page 673)
observed, "Her heroines are herself." The
Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of
Poetry (fig. 862), one of her finest paintings, combines both
aspects of her art. The subject must have held particular meaning for
her. The prototype of the allegorical "friendship
' pictures showing two female
figures that remained popular into the Romantic era (see fig.
it is eloquent testimony to women's
struggle to gain recognition in the arts. The artist has assumed the
guise of Design, attesting to her strong sense of identification with
Singleton Copley. Watson and the Shark.
Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 229.2
cm. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
One of the leading Neoclassicists in England was the Swiss-born painter
The Artist in the Character of
Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry.
1782. Oil on canvas. The Iveagh Bequest,
who painted portraits of racehorses (and sometimes their
owners) for a living, developed a new type of animal picture full of
feeling for the grandeur and violence of nature. On a visit to North
Africa, he is said to have seen a horse killed by a lion. Certainly this
image haunted his imagination. Lion Attacking a Horse (fig.
863) can be
seen as an animal counterpart to Copley's Watson and the Shark,
and it has similar allegorical overtones as well. People have no place
in this realm, and the artist identities himself emotionally with the
horse, whose pure whiteness contrasts so dramatically—and
sinister rocks of the lion's domain. Thunderclouds racing across the sky
reinforce the mood of doom. The poor horse, frightened also by the
approaching storm, seems doubly defenseless against these forces of
destruction. We respond to the horse in the same way as to the
unfortunate Watson: with mixed fascination and horror.
Although it looks forward to Romanticism, Stubbs' effort at endowing
his animals with nearly human action and emotion was the beginning of a
larger investigation that was characteristic of the Enlightenment. He
later made a series of drawings for a book of comparative anatomy—including
one that could well be used to illustrate Plato's dictum of human beings
as featherless bipeds—which
emphasizes the similarities in physiology and psychology between people
and animals. His scientific curiosity and comprehensive approach relate
him to the attempt by Diderot in his massive Encyclopedic to
unite knowledge and philosophy into a single, coherent system.
Stubbs. Lion Attacking a
Oil on canvas, 102
x 127.6 cm.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
to which it was closely related. As the term
implies, the picturesque was a way of looking at nature through the eyes
of landscape painters. The scenery of Italy and the idyllic landscapes
of Claude contributed to the English appreciation of nature. In
articulating sentiments inspired by these examples, English nature poets
such as lames Thompson further validated the aesthetic response to
nature, often through references to mythology. The picturesque was soon
joined by wilder scenes reflecting a taste for the sublime—that
delicious sense of awe experienced before grandiose nature, as defined
by Edmund Burke in Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the
Sublime and the Beautiful of 1756.
After touring the rugged lake region of England in
1780, William Gilpin
claimed, however, that the picturesque lay somewhere between Burkes
extremes, since it is neither vast nor smooth but Unite and rough. The
picturesque later came to include a topographical mode and a rustic
mode, but remained fundamentally a way of manipulating nature to conform
to artistic examples.
THE PICTURESQUE AND THE SUBLIME.
Picturesque landscape painting was as distinctive to the Enlightenment
as the English garden
helped to originate the picturesque, soon tired or these models, which
he felt could produce only stereotyped variations on an established
theme. The direct study of nature, important though it was, could not be
the new starting point either, for it did not supply the imaginative,
poetic quality that for him constituted the essence of landscape
painting. As a teacher, Cozens developed what he called "a new method of
assisting the invention in drawing original compositions of landscapes,"
which he published, with illustrations such as figure
864, shortly before his
death. What was this method? Leonardo da Vinci, Cozens noted, had
observed that an artist could stimulate his imagination by trying to
find recognizable shapes in the stains on old walls. Why not then
produce such chance effects on purpose, to be used in the same way?
Crumple a sheet of paper, smooth it; then, while thinking generally of
landscape, blot it with ink, using as little conscious control as
possible. (Our example is such an "ink-blot landscape") With this as the
point of departure, representational elements may be picked out in the
configuration of blots, and then elaborated into a finished picture.
Cozens' blotscape, then, is not a work of nature but a work of art. Even
though only half-born, it shows, if nothing else, a highly individual
Because it relies on art, the Cozens method still falls within the
pieturesque, while the sweeping nature of his attempt places it within
the Enlightenment, with its love of systems. Needless to say. however,
it has far-reaching implications, theoretical as well as practical, but
these could hardly have been understood by his contemporaries, who
regarded the "blot-master" as ridiculous. Nevertheless, the "method" was
not forgotten, its memory kept alive partly by its very notoriety. The
two great masters of Romantic landscape in England, John Constable and
William Turner, both profited from it, although they differed in almost
every other way.
Landscape, from A New Method of Assisting the Invention in
Drawing Original Composition of Landscape, 1784-86.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York