As a response to Rococo’s frivolities and hedonism, Neo-Classicism came to the art world with an intellectual impulse. The movement was initially boosted by Illuminist philosophers, that originated in France. Denis Diderot and Voltaire were the principal philosophers of this movement. The regime and the moral laxity of the Rococo were frowned upon by the Illuminists, and they required a more rational and moral art. They also criticized the Rococo artists for interpreting the Classic world with erotic fantasies of nude goddesses.
The Neo-Classical initially came to revitalize the authentic Greek and Roman spirit and was inspired by literary narratives and stories, but it soon turned into much more. Johann Winckelmann, a German erudite, proclaims the superiority of the Greek art in his written theory about the Renaissance, calling all artists to explore a more intellectual side. Anton Mengs was inspired by Winckelmann’s ideas and paints frescos that portray the story of Parnassus on the ceiling of the new Villa Albani, a passing point for British academic scholars that traveled through Europe to study the Classic Masters. These works were considered essential for the propagation of the Neo-Classical art. Also, archeologists had recently discovered Pompeii, making real Classic ruins available to the public.
With time, new characteristics and meaning are being developed in the Neo-Classical art. This movement becomes the primary foundation to the artistic elite. The painting entitled The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David shows how the French Revolution influenced this movement. Moral lessons and the need to show something grand and heroic were affected by the atmosphere of the Revolution. This painting shows Socrates surrounded by his apostles, right before taking the poison sentenced to him for corrupting the minds of the youth. A bright and almost holy light shines over him. David's pupils continue in his footsteps, in particular, Antoine-Jean Gros, who portrays the Neo-Classical style with Romanticist influences.
David also paints The Oath of the Horatii, considered the first masterpiece of the Neo-Classicism, another painting of a heroic figure and his self-sacrifice, as Horatii swears to defeat his enemies or die for his country. The composition used reminds viewers of a frieze used in Roman architecture.
In contrast to this, we have The Death of Marat, one of the most groundbreaking paintings of this time, for it is, in some ways, a rupture from the Classic world. Done during the French Revolution and celebrating a hero of this revolution, David was able to insert this in a contemporary scene. There is no need for a Christian or aristocrat martyr, for Marat embodies the revolutionary martyr. This painting represents the rupture from the church and the aristocracy, as France starts a constitutional republic in communion with the people.
Not too long after, the government made by the revolution fell apart, and Napoleon takes place as France’s leader. This radical change affects the movement, for the moral features of the Republic loses a to a new focus: the splendor of the Roman Empire. An imperial style is taking place to show the grandiosity of the Napoleonic regime. Antonio Canova shows this in his grand statue of a nude and idealized Napoleon.
Another notable sculptor of the time was Bertel Thorvaldsen. John Flaxman, an illustrator, and sculptor achieved clarity and temperance in his work, all with linear perfection. He was able to capture the Classic world simply in his reliefs, making him very famous for decorative art. Neo-Classicism, similar to Rococo, had a strong production of decorative art. James Wyatt was also an artist from Great Britain specialized in interior decoration.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was one of the most famous painters of the time. He was able to develop exquisite painting techniques to present all kinds of texture and surface but lacked consistency in representing anatomy figures. Las Grande Odalisque is an example of this distortion of the body, suggesting a painting from the Mannerism movement. This piece was commissioned by Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples. The way Ingres portrays tranquility and pays attention to the contours shows his loyalty to the Neo-Classical style. The figure’s pose recalls David’s Madame Recamier, influenced by the thematic of the Orientalism, quite popular amongst the Romanticist artists. Although Ingres developed exaggerated drawings with soft finishing, as seen in Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne, an excellent example of the Neo-Classicism, his love for exotic themes and Orientalism, shows a Romanticist influence. Even with these affinities, Ingres will deny the Romanticist ideas until his death.