Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), author of Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Art, wrote eloquently about the trend that would become Neoclassicism in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When Thoughts was published in 1755 in Dresden, Germany, two famous artists of the movement were not yet on the art scene. Jacques-Louis David was a small boy in 1755, and Antonio Canova wouldn’t be born for two more years.
According to Honour and Fleming (2005):
“‘The only way to become great and, if possible, inimitable,’ he [Winckelmann] wrote, ‘is by imitation of the ancients’ – not by the straightforward copying of antiquities, of course, but by emulating their essential aesthetic and moral qualities…”
Neoclassicism began in the 1760s, surged to its greatest point in the 1780s and 1790s, and persisted until the middle of the next century. This movement is understood through the creative works of the painter, Jacques-Louis David, and the sculptor, Antonio Canova. Neoclassicists treated subjects of classical antiquity (i.e. the Greeks and Romans) that had already been reinvented in the Renaissance. They also portrayed great figures like the founding fathers of the new American state with great dignity and patriotism, including Jean-Antoine Houdon’s statue, George Washington (1785-1796).
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) was educated at the Academy in Paris and the French Academy in Rome. In The Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785), David shows a classical story from early Rome. This painting was commissioned by the French king, Louis XVI. The painting balances strong, masculine qualities of Roman warriors with the submissive, peaceful nature of their female relatives. David shows how the Neoclassicists paid particular attention to the archaeological and clothing details of his chosen subject.
Antonio Canova is a famous sculptor who was born in 1757. He first visited Rome in 1779. In 1781-1783, he completed Theseus and the Dead Minotaur, carved from a block of white marble. This piece shows how Canova followed the advice of Winckelmann’s friend, Gavin Hamilton, a Scottish artist, to make the statue static instead of in motion. Canova also created Cupid and Psyche (1787-1793), a beautiful Cupid with wings is locked in a graceful embrace with the beautiful Psyche. The base of the sculpture is decorated with classical drapes that briefly cover Psyche’s female parts. This beautiful work has powerful diagonal lines reminiscent of Bernini. Canova died in 1822.
Neoclassicism offers a modern interpretation of the classical works of the Greeks and Romans. In the decades following the Enlightenment, Western Neoclassicists gave a new look at what knowledge had survived from antiquity.