Set on a stage of revolution and Enlightenment, the Neo-Classical period presents a broad and interesting topic. Jacques Louis David was the first political painter, and a true revolutionary, but one cannot disengage his art work from the social and political systems of the period. Therefore, this essay will present an overview of the social context and systems of Pre Revolution France, Neoclassicism and how David’s work was influenced by it and how his work influenced it. Also important to note are the art work that influenced Neoclassicism.
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Social and Artistic Climate in the 18th Century
Neoclassicism refers to the style of painting, sculpture, decorative arts and architecture used from about 1773. Neoclassicism was, at first a reaction to the “triviality” of the Rococo style, which was seen as selfish, decadent and with no regard for society. Throughout the seventeenth century, and during the Rococo period, the French Academy promoted a more classical style. It was because of this that French artists of the late eighteenth century accepted the New Classicism that was to be the next popular style.
The Neo-classical period was influenced by two major features:
The first was the heavy influence of Nicolas Poussin (1593/4 – 1665). Cardinal Barberini commissioned Poussin to make drawings of all the classical art and architecture he could find, which had a great impact on his subsequent work. His work was ordered and idealised, he did not, “record nature as he found it, but instead organised natural elements and figures into idealised compositions” (Stockstad and Cateforis: 784).
An example of his classically arranged Landscape is Landscape with Saint John on Patmos (1640, Oil on Canvas). In the late seventeenth century, Poussin’s notes and work became the Academy’s final authority and model for later painters.
The second noted influence on the New Classical period was the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the paintings, sculptures and jewellery that were brought forth from these sites. These mines of wealth motivated an interest in Greco-Roman art, which is the mark of Neoclassicism. Within the recovered works, people saw a physical perfection and moral health which was a dominant theme of the Enlightenment.
New perceptions of society based in the Athesian commonwealth and the Roman republic was beginning to form, and later these themes became symbols of freedom and democracy (the basis of Romanticism). The artistic assumption of the time was the idea that, one must raise beauty over morality and that beauty lies in shape and contour, not in colour, which only assisted beauty. This principle simplified the Neo-Classical forms.