Neoclassicism and Romanticism
The Styles of Jacque-Louis David and Theodore Gericault

Art History Project Semester 2

Due: March 19th/2003

Throughout the history of mankind, human expression has revealed itself in a variety of ways. Different eras have brought about changes in society as well as in art. Varying styles have given way to entire movements in art history. Each movement evolved as a reaction to the ideals of the movement before it. An example of two such movements is Neoclassicism and Romanticism.

Neoclassicism is a movement in art history the occurred in the eighteenth century. It is defined as the ‘new classical era’ because it shares many of its characteristics with the Classical movement that occurred before it. Neoclassical art represents “an attainable ideal” (AP Art History). Neoclassical artists looked to the past for inspiration. The art combines ideas of “grandeur, nobility, virtue and superiority” (Art: The Way It Is). It uses classical subject matter, often either mythological or historical, in a style indicative of Greek or Roman culture.

The Neoclassical movement in art history was made possible due to a rising social position of the new middle class. Until this point in history, no middle ground between the rich and the poor existed. It was near the end of the eighteenth century that the middle class finally gained social and political power. This movement allowed for the new class to influence the style of art that was being produced.

Neoclassical art reveals many philosophies of the Enlightenment. It is characterized by a great sense of clarity and balance. Like the Classical movement it is modelled after, art in this period depicts serious subject matter and uses an “economy of means” (Art: The Way It Is).

The works of Jacque-Louis David embody all of the ideals of the Neoclassical era. His paintings “reflect the classical virtues of stoicism, masculinity and …patriotism” (Art Hist: Neoclassicism). David was born in1748 and died in 1825. He was a French painter who first studied with Boucher. Boucher soon realized that David would benefit more under a different teacher, so he sent him to study with Vien. In 1776, David and Vien travelled to Italy. It was here that David won the Prix de Rome. It was also in Italy that David “came into contact with the initiations of the Classical revival”(Web Museum). He went back to Paris in 1780 and established himself as a strong, neoclassical painter.

David was also greatly involved in the politics of his day. He had a great amount of sympathy for the French Revolution. He mirrored these political opinions in works such as ‘The Death of Marat’ (1793), and “Napoleon at His Study (1812). David was even appointed as Napoleon’s official painter.

David’s painting “‘The Oath of the Horatii’ (1786), was perhaps the most important French Neoclassic picture” (Art: The Way It Is). It embodies many of the ideals found in the art of this time. It deals with Classical and Republican issues, and depicts great patriotism. The subject matter is very serious. It deals with three brothers who swear an oath to fight for Rome and win, or die trying (Art: TWII). The painting is very static and balanced. It reveals a great deal of clarity, not only in it’s content, but in the techniques used to paint it. The brush strokes are flat and almost undetectable to the observer.

The strong separation between the genders is another trait common in late eighteenth century art. The men are at the focus of the picture while the women are huddled together in a corner. The men are shown as strong heroes while the women have no important role to play in the painting.

‘The Oath of the Horatii’ was painted just before the Revolution and was strongly identified with due to the climate of the times. David is often considered the most influential neoclassical painter because of his “severity (and) the purity of his demonstration of neoclassical doctrine” (AP-Art Hist).

Romanticism came in response to the ideals of the Neoclassicists. Many of the characteristics found in the prior, are mirrored in Romantic art. Romanticism also embraces concepts such as nobility and virtue but while Neoclassicism “envisioned an attainable ideal”, the romantics search for “a world beyond the limits of society and human adaptability” (Art Hist-Romanticism).