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1. Introduction 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 Davids work was influenced by it and how his work influenced it.
Also important to note are the art work that influenced Neoclassicism. 2. Social and Artistic Climate in the 18 th Century 2. 1. Neoclassicism 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 idealized, he did not, record nature as he found it, but instead organised natural elements and figures into idealized compositions (Stockstad and Categories: 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. (Metals: 152 - 156) 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 Athenian 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. (Plan: 70, 71) 2. 2.
The Academy The first academy was started by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498. It was designed as a gathering of people to discuss art and science. This evolved to the instruction of these subjects by means of an apprenticeship system; masters teaching students. Later, the Academy adopted a policy of exclusion to non members, offering only students the opportunities to be given commissions, exhibitions and prestige.
Also, artists could only gain recognition for their art by the guilds if they had studied at the Academy. During the seventeenth century, the French Royal Academy was established. Salons (exhibitions) were regularly held to promote the attending students, and the Prix de Rome, or the Rome Prize was established (an award that granted the winner an opportunity to study in Rome, the work of the grand masters). To keep the students working on the styles preset by the academy, a jury was established to preside over the Salons. Work that did not conform to the Academy's standards and values was rejected.
In 1661 King Louis XIV, gave the academy his benefaction, and he appointed his Prime Minister as the Vice Protector of the Academy. The Ministers opinions of art and architecture were strong and the Kings preferences were also imposed on the artists production and style. (Stockstad: 778, 944) Although it was not the first European arts academy, none before it exerted such dictatorial authority. (Stockstad: 778) In 1793 after the French Revolution, the Academy became the Institute de France under Jacques Louis David, who established a wide spread teaching network to encourage Neoclassicism. 3. Biography of David David was born in Paris to a wealthy merchant family in 1748. His father died while he was young, and two of his uncles took responsibility for his upbringing. In 1776, David began his studies at the Royal Academy in France and like many of his counterpart students; he set out to win the Prix de Rome.
He participated in the competition for five years before he finally won the Rome scholarship for his painting Antiochus and Strato nice (1774, Oil on canvas). In this painting he adopted the style of Poussin as apposed to his previous Baroque styled work; which may have been attributed to the Academy's austere stylistic approach. He spent five years in Italy (1775 - 1780) where he was strongly influenced by classical art, basing his form and gesture on Roman sculpture. Mythology became a subject of particular interest to David, and on his return to Paris in 1780; he began to work on art that depicted it. In 1871 David was made an associate member of the academy for his masterful depiction of one of the greatest military commanders of Rome, Belisarius, in oils, Belisaire demandant l'among (1781, Oil on canvas).
Not long after that, he was made a full Academician (a member of an academy or society concerned with the arts or sciences). After his appointment, he began a series of paintings that illustrated an air of anti Rococo traditions. The most prominent of these being the Oath of Horatii (1784 - 85, Oil on canvas), which was a commission by Louis XVI as part of a program to depict French History in art. This painting later became an emblem of the revolution. It also became foremost model for historical Painting for the next two hundred years. (Stockstad: 970 - 971) The Oath if Horatii, along with the Death of Socrates (1789, Oil on canvas) and Brutus (1789, Oil on canvas), became politically significant, because the content reflected the Roman republican virtues and promoted the idea of moralizing France. This style of Neo-classicism became identified with the revolutionary movement in France and answered an ethical demand (Gilmore Holt: 2).
David played an active role in the political events preceding, during and after the Revolution. He was a member of the Jacobins, a class of democrats that set out to destroy the aristocratic institutions. To David, this included the Academy, as its stringent standards left artists restricted in their work. The Jacobin leaders managed to bring the Monarchy to an end, but they began their own Reign of Terror (1793 - 4), wherein they executed as many as 40 000 people who opposed them in their pursuit for democracy. The Jacobins commissioned a tribute to one of their fallen leaders Jean-Paul Marat who was assassinated. His painting, Marat Murdered (1793, Oil on canvas) was the product of that charge.
Shortly after, Robespierre (Jacobin leader) and his closest supporters were overthrown and executed and David was arrested twice and only just escaped with his life. This period saw the end of Davids political radicalism, but an advance in his work. The self portrait (1794, Oil on canvas), which was painted in prison after the fall of Robespierre, and the Intervention of the Sabine Woman (1799, Oil on canvas) are two of the most prominent works of this stage in his life. In 1797 David met Napoleon Bonaparte, and shortly after his first encounter he became Napoleons official court painter. He also presided over the Institute de France, spreading his views on Neo-classical art.
Some of the noteworthy works done in these years include: Bonaparte Crossing the St. Bernard Pass (1800, Oil on canvas), Napoleon in His Study (1812, Oil on canvas), the very large work spanning 6 metres by 9 metres, Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine (1808, Oil on canvas). 1815 saw Napoleons downfall and David was exiled. He fled to Brussels, where he continued to work on his favourite subject matter, Mythology. Jacques Louis David died in his studio in Brussels in 1825. (Gilmore Holt: 1 - 4) 4. An Analysis of Davids Work 4. 1. Oath of Horatii This story is taken from a Roman legend depicting a series wars between Rome and Alba.
The tale speaks of how a decision was made to end the disputes between the two cities in an unusual form of combat, to be fought by two groups of three champions each. The two groups are the three Horatii brothers and the three Curiatii brothers. The problem lay in the fact that one of the Curiatii sisters was married to a Horatii, and one of the sisters of the Horatii, was engaged to one of the Curiatii brothers. Despite this, the Horatii father insists that the brothers fight and they obey. Davids image depicts the three brothers pledging an oath to the state with their father. Because this work was a commission from King Louis XVI, it reflects much of his taste and values; even so, the King was sympathetic to the Enlightenment.
Davids Oath succeeded in creating honour in the passionate ideals of sacrificial nobility and transformed these virtues into inspiration. It is for this reason the painting became a symbol of the Revolution and became a sort of recruitment poster for the Revolution. David finally decided to treat the beginning, rather than the denouement of the action, seeing that initial moment as being charged with greater intensity and imbued with more grandeur. (web) The work represents Neoclassicism at its best. The grand moral ideals of the roman republic and Frances possibilities are reflected in the clear sculptural form. There clear and definite outlines, common to the period and the simplicity of the forms that create a stylistic impression of grandeur. All these factors contributed to the success of this painting.
Ultimately David creates a sense of a new acceptable, patriotic and moral order. (web) 4. 2. Marat Murdered Marat was a leader of the French Revolution of 1789, and many accounts of his life portray him as a violent man. He was partially responsible for the deaths of many people during the Reign of Terror. He was assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday, who was later executed. David painting shows Marat shortly after being stabbed. This painting became more than just a remembrance of a friend, but also an historical record of the revolutionary's death.
Simplicity and soberness of the composition allowed David to create a sense of martyrdom and spirituality in the face of the dead man. While there is a definite Neo-Classical (Poussinesque) influence on this painting, it bares a striking resemblance to the Baroque painting by Zurbaran entitled Saint Serapion (1628, Oil on canvas). David was in full control of the art of France by this stage. 5. Conclusion From conformist to revolutionary, David dominated the face of art during the Neo-classical period and for many years after.
His extensive teaching network perpetuated his ideals and values into many students who continued in his line. David personally trained many of the important artists that emerged in the early 1800 s. His authority is evident in The portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belly (1797, Oil on canvas), by Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, one of his pupils.
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