Wednesday, February 16, 2022

18th C Neoclassical Art

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Jacques-Louis David  Oath of the Horatii-1784
oil on canvas, 10'x14' Louvre Museum, Paris
French Neoclassicism
Form:  The composition of this painting is organized in a clear symmetrical format in which all the attention is focused on the center of the image on the three swords the central figure holds aloft. 

The three arches organize the composition in such a way that it is meant to be read from left to right, almost as if it is a triptych from Renaissance Italian painting.

The composition is also modeled on classical Greek or Roman relief sculpture as one would find on the Ara Pacis or the friezes of the Parthenon.  The painting space is literally modeled after figures in the composition in Greco Roman relief sculptures in that their is very little background and the figures, which are somewhat spot lit stand out from a very sparse background.  The Roman arches are also meant to be read sculpturally.

The style in which David painted this is very hard edged and realistic, although painted before the invention of photography, this painting seems to look almost photographic.

 

Iconography:  Everything about this painting is meant to refer to the classical world.  The formal elements and clothing clearly look classic (sometimes referred to as "antique") but the actual content of the image also refers to a historical event as well.

According to the Brittanica:
The Horatii were a Roman legend, two sets of triplet brothers whose story was probably fashioned to explain existing legal or ritual practices. The Horatii were Roman and the Curiatii Alban, although an alternative version reversed this order. During the war between Rome and Alba Longa in the reign of Tullus Hostilius (traditionally 672-642 BC), it was agreed that settlement of the dispute should depend on the outcome of combat between the two groups of brothers.

In the contest two of the Horatii were quickly killed; but the third, feigning flight, managed to slay his wounded pursuers one by one. When the survivor entered Rome in triumph, his sister recognized among his trophies a cloak she had made for one of the Curiatii to whom she was betrothed. She could not conceal her grief and was killed by her brother, who declared, "So perish any Roman woman who mourns the enemy." For this act Horatius was condemned to death, but he was saved by an appeal to the people.

The tale might have been devised to provide an august origin for the legal practice that granted every condemned Roman the right to appeal to the populace. Alternatively, perhaps it was used to explain the ritual of the tigillum sororium ("sister's beam"), the yoke under which Horatius had to pass to be purified of his crime.

Context:  David probably painted this as a "call to arms" for his fellow Frenchmen.  David probably interpreted the story of the Horatii as the ultimate tale of patriotism and sacrifice, o ne which he believed the French people needed to learn a message from.  In some ways, David was one of the leaders and propagandists for the French revolution and his paintings were seen almost as lessons or advertisements to the French citizens to act in a self-sacrificing manner and also to suggest some sorts of reforms in French government based on classical ideas such as those found in Republican Rome above and also those found in Athens during it's "Golden Age".
 


Jacques-Louis David Oath Tennis Court 1791
Form: The drawing on the left is an unfinished sketch made by David to commemorate and plan a larger painting of the same theme.  There are some unfinished paintings based on this drawing as well.

Iconography and Context:  The people represented in this drawing were some of the people who took the famous "Oath of the Tennis Court" which according to the Brittanica, was a 

(June 20, 1789), dramatic act of defiance by representatives of the non privileged classes of the French nation (the Third Estate) during the meeting of the Estates-General (traditional assembly) at the beginning of the French Revolution. The deputies of the Third Estate, realizing that in any attempt at reform they would be outvoted by the two privileged orders, the clergy and the nobility, had formed, on June 17, a National Assembly. Finding themselves locked out of their usual meeting hall at Versailles on June 20 and thinking that the king was forcing them to disband, they moved to a nearby tennis court. There they took an oath never to separate until a written constitution had been established for France. In the face of the solidarity of the Third Estate, King Louis XVI relented and on June 27 ordered the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly.
Many of the people represented in the drawing and subsequent paintings however, were not on hand and David would add or subtract individuals from his drawing and the subsequent paintings as some rose and others fell out of political power.
David Oath Tennis Court 1791
Form:  This is just a sketch because David never had a chance to complete the painting.  The overall design of this image reflects a Neoclassical sense of composition and a Renaissance sense of perspective.

The picture plane is arranged symmetrically with the most important figure, proclaiming the oath, in the center.  The use of perspective also focusses on this figure.

Iconography:  This painting was meant to be a patriotic call to arms but was never completed because the cast of characters kept changing and David was probably unsure as to how to complete it.  There is an unfinished oil version of it.
 

This amazingly rich sketch by Jacques Louis David is one of the most famous works from the French revolutionary era. The thrust of the bodies together and toward the center stand for unity. The spectators, including children at the top right, all join the spectators. Even the clergy, so villified later, join in the scene. Only one person, possibly Marat, in the upper left–hand corner, turns his back on the celebration. And, in fact, David is commemorating a great moment of the Revolution on 20 June 1789, in which the deputies, mainly those of the Third Estate, now proclaiming that they represent the nation, stand together against a threatened dispersal. 

The Tennis Court Oath was a result of the growing discontent of the Third Estate in France in the face of King Louis XVI's desire to hold on to the country's history of absolute government. The deputies of the Third Estate were coming together for a meeting to discuss the reforms proposed by Necker, the Prime Minister. These reforms called for the meeting of all the Estates together and to have vote by head instead of by estate. This would have given the Third Estate at least nominally a stronger voice in the Estates General. The men of the Third Estate were ardent supporters of the reforms, and they were anxious to discuss these measures. When the members of the Third Estate arrived at their assigned meeting hall, Menus Plaisirs, they found it locked against them. The deputies believed that this was a blatant attempt by Louis XVI to end their demands for reform and they were further incensed at the King's duplicity. Refusing to be held down by their King any longer, the deputies did not break up. Instead they moved their meeting to a nearby indoor tennis court.

A debate quickly ensued about how the Third Estate was going to protect themselves from those in positions of authority who wanted to destroy them. Some deputies believed that they should retreat to Paris where the people would be more likely to protect them from the King's army. Mounier warned that such a step would be blatantly revolutionary and politically dangerous. Therefore, Mounier proposed that the Third Estate adopt an oath of allegiance. The proposed oath was to read that they would remain assembled until a constitution had been written, meeting wherever it was required and resisting pressures form the outside to disband. The proposal was a success and the later named Tennis Court Oath was promptly written and immediately signed by 577 (only one man, Martin Dauch, refused, saying that he could not do anything which his King had not sanctioned).

The Tennis Court Oath was an assertion that sovereignty of the people did not reside in the King, but in the people themselves and their representatives. It was the first assertion of revolutionary authority by the Third Estate and it united virtually all its members to common action. It's success can be seen in the fact that a scant week later Louis XVI called for a meeting together of the Estates General for the purpose of writing a constitution.
http://campus.northpark.edu/history/WebChron/WestEurope/TennisCourt.html
 


Jacques-Louis David.Death of Marat. 1793.
oil on canvas, 5'5"x4'2" 
Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
French Neoclassicism
Form: This painting is a depiction of a nude man who is slumped down into a cloth draped bathtub on which a board has been placed across as an impromptu kind of desk.  He holds in hands, a letter on which the name "Charlotte Corday" is clearly written.  He has a small would just under his collar bone and a knife lies in the forground of the image.

The anatomy of the the figure is idealized and very muscular and almost appears to mimic the idealized muscular structure of Greco Roman sculpture.

The composition is also modeled on classical Greek or Roman relief sculpture as one would find on the Ara Pacis or the friezes of the Parthenon.  The painting space is literally modeled after figures in the composition in Greco Roman relief sculptures in that their is very little background and the figures, which are somewhat spot lit stand out from a very sparse background.

In terms of value structure David is very much of a caravaggisti in this painting.  He uses tenebrism and heightened chiaroscuro. 

The style in which David painted this is very hard edged and realistic, although painted before the invention of photography, this painting seems to look almost photographic.

Context: According to the Brittanica, 

On July 13, Charlotte Corday, a young Girondin supporter from Normandy, was admitted to Jean-Paul Marat's room on the pretext that she wished to claim his protection and stabbed him to death in his bath (he took frequent medicinal baths to relieve a skin infection). Marat's dramatic murder at the very moment of the Montagnards' triumph over their opponents caused him to be considered a martyr to the people's cause. His name was given to 21 French towns and, later, as a gesture symbolizing the continuity between the French and Russian revolutions, to one of the first battleships in the Soviet Navy.
Iconography:  This image depicts Marat as a martyr for the French Revolution and has often been referred to as the "pietĂ  of the Revolution."  This was entirely intentional on the part of David who uses light in much the same way as Caravaggio does to symbolize "enlightenment" or divine light.  The dramatic lighting and references to the heroic classic past are meant to elevate and heroicize Marat as a figure who died in the service of something greater than himself.  The depiction of his body as also heroic is a direct reference to the idea of kalos in ancient Greek art.

David, Death of Socrates, 1787
Form: The anatomy of the the figures are idealized and very muscular and mimic the idealized muscular structure of Greco Roman sculpture.

The composition is also modeled on classical Greek or Roman relief sculpture as one would find on the Ara Pacis or the friezes of the Parthenon.  The painting space is literally modeled after figures in the composition in Greco Roman relief sculptures in that their is very little background and the figures, which are somewhat spot lit stand out from a very sparse background.

In terms of value structure David is very much of a caravaggisti in this painting.  He uses tenebrism and heightened chiaroscuro. 

The style in which David painted this is very hard edged and realistic, although painted before the invention of photography, this painting seems to look almost photographic.

Iconography and Context: According to: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/neocl_dav_soc.html

At the height of his youthful popularity and enthusiasm, part of a close circle of friends (including Chernier, Lafayette and Lavoisier) who were pushing for radical political reform, David painted this unusual historical picture in 1787. Commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, leaders in the call for a free market system and more public discussion, this picture depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates. Condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his teaching methods which aroused scepticism and impiety in his students, Socrates heroicly rejected exile and accepted death from hemlock.

For months, David and his friends debated and discussed the importance of this picture. It was to be another father figure (like the Horatii and Brutus), unjustly condemned but who sacrifices himself for an abstract principle. By contrasting the movements of the energetic but firmly controlled Socrates, and his swooning disciples, through the distribution of light and dark accents, David transforms what might have been only a fashionable picture of martyrdom to a clarion call for nobility and self-control even in the face of death.

Here the philosopher continues to speak even while reaching for the cup, demonstrating his indifference to death and his unyielding commitment to his ideals. Most of his disciplines and slaves swirl around him in grief, betraying the weakness of emotionalism. His wife is seen only in the distance leaving the prison. Only Plato, at the foot of the bed and Crito grasping his master's leg, seem in control of themselves.

For contemporaries the scene could only call up memories of the recently abandoned attempt at reform, the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and the large number of political prisoners in the king's jails or in exile. David certainly intended this scene as a rebuke to cringing souls. On the eve of the Revolution, this picture served as a trumpet call to duty, and resistance to unjust authority. Thomas Jefferson was present at its unveiling, and admired it immensly. Sir Joshua Reynolds compared the Socrates with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's Stanze, and after ten visits to the Salon described it as `in every sense perfect'.


David Death of Socrates 1787
 
 

THE RIACE BRONZE c460-450 BCE 
Classical Greek 
bronze w/ bone, glass paste, 
silver & copper inlaid,h. 200cm 
Reggio Calabria: Museo Nazionale

Horatio Greenough 
George Washington (1804)
American Neoclassical

 
 


Raphael School of Athens 1509-1510
fresco

Form:  The overall design of this image reflects a Neoclassical sense of composition and a Renaissance sense of perspective.

The picture plane is arranged in a sculptural frieze like band that takes its cue from antique sculptural friezes such as those found on the Ara Pacis and the Parthenon.  Like its classical counterparts, the image is constructed so that most of the figures are placed in the foreground and even though there is the creation of deep space, the background is not as important as the figures. 

It is also classic in that the composition is arranged symmetrically with the most important figure, proclaiming the oath, in the center.  The use of perspective also focusses on this figure.

David's work also exhibits a Caravaggesque flair for chiaroscuro and tenebrism.

Iconography:  This image uses all of the classical iconography we see in Oath of the Horattii but David adds to it by depicting Socrates as bearded and aged but with a youthful and beautiful torso much like The Young Warrior from Riace (c 460-450 BCE).  The juxtaposition of the beard which symbolizes youth against the body, which symbolizes kalos (Greek for beautiful and moral. Is a way of portraying Socrates as an ideal philosopher.  Davis also quotes Raphael's School of Athens to demonstrate that Socrates is dying for a higher ideal. Notice that even in America this same iconography was used for this portrait of George Washington.

The story of the Socrates death is extremely relevant and echoes many of the same qualities and aspects of David's Oath.  Socrates who lived in Athens in the fifth century was one of the greatest philosophers to have lived.  Primarily his function was to teach the aristocratic youths of Athens how to think and he did this by asking his students questions.  The types of questions he asked were consistently those of the "why" variety in which he often challenged the status quo.  For this and other reasons he was accused of treason by the Athenians.  The accusation leveled at him was that he was corrupting the youth of Athens with his credo "question authority."

According to the Brittanica,

In 399 Socrates was indicted for "impiety." The author of the proceedings was the influential Anytus, one of the two chiefs of the democrats restored by the counterrevolution of 403; but the nominal prosecutor was the obscure and insignificant Meletus. There were two counts in the accusation, "corruption of the young" and "neglect of the gods whom the city worships and the practice of religious novelties." Socrates, who treated the charge with contempt and made a "defense" that amounts to avowal and justification, was convicted, probably by 280 votes against 220. The prosecutors had asked for the penalty of death; it now rested with the accused to make a counterproposition. Though a smaller, but substantial, penalty would have been accepted, Socrates took the high line that he really merited the treatment of an eminent benefactor: maintenance at the public table. He consented only for form's sake to suggest the small fine of one mina, raised at the entreaty of his friends to 30.

The claim to be a public benefactor incensed the court, and death was voted by an increased majority, a result with which Socrates declared himself well content. As a rule at Athens, the condemned man "drank the hemlock" within 24 hours, but, in the case of Socrates, the fact that no execution could take place during the absence of the sacred ship sent yearly to Delos caused an unexpected delay of a month, during which Socrates remained in prison, receiving his friends daily and conversing with them in his usual manner. An escape was planned by his friend Crito, but Socrates refused to hear of it, on the grounds that the verdict, though contrary to fact, was that of a legitimate court and must therefore be obeyed. The story of his last day, with his drinking of the hemlock, has been perfectly told in the Phaedo of Plato, who, though not himself an eyewitness, was in close touch with many of those who were present.
Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Socrates choice to drink the hemlock is portrayed by David.  Why do you think he chose to depict this scene and why?


Horatio Greenough George Washington (1841)
(Installed in the Rotunda 1841 and moved to the east Capitol Grounds in 1844. Transferred to Smithsonian Institution in 1908.)
American Neoclassical
Form: The anatomy of the the figure is idealized and very muscular and almost appears to mimic the idealized muscular structure of Greco Roman sculpture.

Iconography: Clearly Greenough was using the iconography and symbolism established by neoclassical artists in the 19th century.  Here Washingston literally looks like a Greek god which is meant to canonnize him.

The hand pointing up is almost certainly a reference to Rafael's depiction of Plato from the "School of Athens."

 

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