European art movement mostly dominated by France which aimed to reproduce the Antique style.
1. The forerunners: Mengs and Vien (1750-1780)
The discovery of Pompeii in 1748 and the excavations which followed launched a major breakthrough in the history of art as several frescoes were found nearly intact in former Roman houses. Greco-Roman painting had been so far idealized and for the first time painters could directly take their inspiration from genuine Antique paintings.
Two painters were in Rome at this moment, the German
Mengs and the Frenchman Vien (as a Prix de Rome recipient). They both created a new style at odds with the prevalent Rococo by drawing straight lines and epurate shapes and colours, and which also recalled the works of Raphael and Poussin (hence the name of Neoclassicism, after the school of the latter). The classical style of the previous century had never totally vanished, thanks to Pompeo Batoni, who besides became the most wanted portraitist in Rome at that time. Mengs was rejoined by his friend Winckelmann, an archaeologist and art historian, who theorized the new style in his History of Ancient Art, written in 1764.
However, the shift with Rococo remained unfinished as Mengs continued to paint the same subjects as the other artists, with just a visual difference. Besides, Mengs later moved to Madrid to work for the Spanish Court where his style was as much appreciated as
Tiepolo's. His early death in 1779 also prevented him from going further in copying the Antique.
Portrait of Charles Joseph Crowle by Batoni (left), Parnassus by Mengs (centre left) Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People by Vien (centre right),
Mars and Venus by Lagrenée the Elder (right)
On the other hand, Vien returned to France and was admitted into the Academy where he taught his art. He was soon followed by
Lagrenée the Elder, whose prolificacy helped to spread the new style through the Salon. Encouraged by the philosophers of the Enlightment, for whom Neoclassicism matched their conception of the rational civilisation, the style took off rapidly in 1770s. Among them, Diderot pushed for its recognition as he considered the Antique style to be morally better than the meaningless Rococo; even the new royal couple, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette patronized Neoclassicism. Therefore, a second generation of painters emerged during the decade, with artists such as Suvée, Berthélemy, Vincent, Lagrenée the Younger, Peyron, Regnault, and David - the most famous of them.
2. David and the Revolution (1780-1800)
David had greater ambitions for Neoclassicism than the mere graphical change with rococo hitherto proposed. He wanted to add a moral value to arts in order to inspire virtuous behaviour and devotion to the public good, with the obvious purpose of denouncing the general corruption which ruled the final years of the Ancien Régime. His works exhibited in the Paris Salons in the 1780s gained so much success that he forced all the other painters to either follow him, or be left forgotten; as a result, late Rococo and
Fragonard were immediately swept away.
The most striking of his works was The Oath of the Horatii (left), displayed in 1785, which can be considered as the Neoclassical manifesto. The composition was organised in a symmetric frieze, with all the characters on the same level taking static poses, and a chiaroscuro highlighting the dramatic effect of the Horatii brothers' sacrifice - a typical subject of the movement. Indeed, David and his followers abandoned Christian subjects to devote almost exclusively to Greco-Roman mythology and history, whose events inspired the actors of the French Revolution which started in 1789.
The revolutionaries considered the Roman Republic as a golden age which they tried to recreate, notably by getting rid of all the royal institutions. In the case of the arts, they suppressed the Academy of Painting and Sculpture at the request of David, who had been elected MP of the Republic in 1792. He also organised republican national ceremonies and much of the propaganda for the new régime - like many of his fellow artists; as France was at war, both domestically and against Europe, they focused on classical stories of sacrifice for the public safety. Arts and politics had never been so bound together.
The Death of Marat by David (left), Marius at Minturnae by Drouais (centre), The Genius of France between Liberty and Death by Regnault (right).
David's workshop was the major art centre of the Western world, being filled of
students from Europe and America. During the 1780s, he taught nearly
all the painters of the third neoclassical generation, such as
Gérard, Girodet, Meynier, Drouais, Guérin and Fabre, and including many women (for example, Benoist, Lemoine, or Ducreux), who followed the earlier examples of Vigée-Lebrun and Angelica Kauffman. Female artists mostly produced
portraits and followed the hype of representing the sitter in Antique
dress and interior, with many full-length portraits.
Portrait of Lavoisier and his Wife by David (left), Portrait of a Negress by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (centre-left), Portrait of Madame Récamier by Gérard (centre-right), Self-Portrait with Vigée-Lebrun by Marie-Victoire Lemoine (right).
However, during the final years of the century, David faced a rebellion in his workshop which was led by a radical group called the Barbus (the "Bearded Ones"), whose members wanted to go further in reproducing the Antique - especially the Greek pottery style.
Quays and his friends (Broc, Duqueylard, Franque...) even criticized their master for having stopped halfway in this quest. Fed up by their critics, David finally expelled them from his workshop and therefore condemned their careers. Thus, only very few works from this group are known (Quays did not leave any); from these surviving paintings, we can see that they used unmelted colours with strong contrast, and characters in unusual positions.
The Death of Hyacinth by Broc (left), Ossian Reciting his Songs by Duqueylard (right)
3. The Empire Style (1800-1820)
After the failure of the Barbus group, the Neoclassic style moved backwards and softened its severity, matching the historical background. At the end of 1799, Napoléon took power and
de facto ended the Revolution. By now, the idealisation of the Roman Republic and its political liberty became irrelevant, and could even face the pernickety censorship of the new régime.
Napoleon nevertheless appreciated the style as he considered himself a new Roman Emperor. He notably refounded a national art academy, called the
Académie des Beaux Arts, in order to put the arts at his service. He therefore commissioned many large canvases celebrating his accomplishments - principally his victories - to David and especially Gros, the specialist of the genre. However, his influence in the arts was more visible in architecture (with so many monuments built according to the Antique style) and furniture thanks to the national manufacture of the Gobelins.
The Coronation of Napoleon by David (left), Napoleon at Eylau by Gros (right).
Meanwhile, artists still continued to paint mythological scenes, but in a much more charming way than before, with many love subjects. The introduction of warm Venetian colours, which they discovered after the conquest of Italy by France, allowed such a change as it eased the coldness of the previous stage. Girodet,
Prud'hon, Guérin and also David in his later years, led this trend which lasted until the end of the 1810s.
Mars Disarmed by Venus and the Graces by David (left), Apollo (centre left) and Dance of the Graces Directed by Apollo (centre) by Girodet, Aurora and Cephalus by Guérin (right).
Eventually, Neoclassicism, which was closely associated with Napoleon, faded after his defeat at Waterloo (1815) and was replaced by
Romanticism throughout Europe. Moreover, after the restoration of the Bourbons, David went into exile in Belgium for having voted for the death of Louis XVI and he could not exercise his influence in Paris any longer. His student
Ingres nevertheless pursued nearly alone the neoclassical style in France until the Second Empire and made the link with the Academic style.