A study on neoclassical sculpture and the interpretation of classical antiquity
Neoclassicism was an 18th-century momentum that was a reaction to the latter years of the frivolity and superficiality of the Baroque and Rococo era, and represented the ‘true style’ of classical art, paying homage to Greco-Roman art. Interest in classical antiquity grew popular during this time through the age of enlightenment, where there was a radical change in politics, science and art. In the context of the industrial revolution, and through the new science of archaeology, interest in the classical style of harmony, simplicity and proportion grew as remnants of the buried world of greek and roman art/architecture were made available to the public. Such first-hand observation and reproduction of antique works came to dominate European culture. Through historical knowledge on the context of the time and through analysis of some of the most prolific works presented, it can be understood why classical antiquity was such an influential and significant facet of neoclassical sculpture.
A major contributor to the revival of classical thinking was through major excavations which resulted in the rapid growth of collections of antique sculptures. Up until this point in the 18th century, knowledge of the ancient classical era was spread through writings or ruins which resulted in the romanticisation of the classical reality. As a consequence of excavations, it was found that the ideal expectations in writing did not match the reality found by archaeologists. Thousands of artefacts were excavated, which many were published as engravings, and were influential in spreading the new taste. Furthermore, public access was also a major contributor to the spread. Accessibility of museums and reports of extensive travel expeditions broadened the publics’ historical perspective and stimulated a passion for the ancient past.
In Italy, through the chaos of acquiring knowledge of the classical era, emerged Antonio Canova, the greatest and most successful sculptor of the Neoclassical era who was famous for his marble sculptures of delicate nudes. Upon his arrival to Rome, he became a sudden convert to
the ways of neoclassicism, and this transition is evident in his work and reaction of his contemporaries. Until this point in his career, his work represented the late Baroque idiom where figures were minutely depicted. After meeting Gavin Hamilton, a Scottish painter who was an authority in neoclassicism after the death of Winckelmann in 1768, Canova was commissioned to create a representation of the battle of ‘Theseus and the Minotaur’4(FIG-1). Instead of displaying the battle itself, Canova, under
Hamilton’s advice presented the triumph of Theseus. Theseus is not in battle but in reflection upon it, and his torso has the reductive simplicity of early Greek sculpture. This is significant as it marks the end of the frivolity of the Baroque style and instead prioritises the victory, through simplicity
and lifelikeness which brings the sculpture back to its classical roots. The composition adheres to the principles of the Greco-Roman style of using marble, proportionality and representations of the ‘ideal form.’
The interest in idealism grew significantly through the ideals of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and his thoughts on beauty. He brought this new historical dimension to understanding the classic art of antiquity. In the ‘History of the Art of Antiquity’, he explains the reasons why Greek representations of art were of the highest order. He emphasises the importance of proportion and accuracy and says that representations of man should not be “what he appears to us, but what he is; not a view of his
body, but the outline of his shadow”. He says that the Greeks achieved grandeur through the discussion of proportion which naturally leads to the inquiry into exactness that gave confidence to the art, therefore Greek art is regarded with the highest beauty. The superiority of art among the Greeks can be seen as a culmination of the political and professional climate of the time which can be related to the rise of neoclassicism in the sense that the period grew out of the industrial revolution and the age of enlightenment. As a result of Winckelmann’s writings, classical artistic tradition is not just a timeless ideal but a front for a revival and perfection of the Greek classical style. His historical perspective on the ancient arts paved the way for the vast archaeological activity in Greece which further influenced the manifestation into contemporary sculpture.
Leochares’s Apollo Belvedere(FIG-2) is commonly seen as one of the finest exemplars of the Greek ideal excavated and is celebrated within the Neoclassical world. It was championed by Winckelmann and would become the inspiration for Canova’s ‘Perseus Triumphant’(FIG-3). Canova displays the triumphant Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa. It was said that the weight, proportions and expressive character of the Apollo Belvedere that inspired Canova for this masterpiece. It embodies that values of classicism with respect to the way in which Canova has depicted the human figure. There is a strong emphasis on simplicity and symmetry where the focus is put on the static nature of the figure. The posture is comparable as it displays a similar stance, with similar positioning of the arms and the direction the figures are facing. Furthermore, the detail in the
drapery has a sense of accuracy and lifelikeness to it. Though more detailed in Apollo Belvedere, both statues achieve a sense of unity and purity.
Interest in Classical antiquity is further evident in Sculptures produced for
American audiences in the aftermath of the American Revolution and George Washington’s presidency. Washington at the forefront of the revolution is remembered as a hero, where statues and busts were often created to commemorate him. Thomas Jefferson commissioned Jean Antoine Houdon to complete a monumental statue of Washington in Virginia(FIG-4). His depiction of George Washington is an astonishing example of classical subject matter through various facets of the design such as the triumphant pose and classical pillar which acts as both classical feature and physical support. However, unlike other depictions of Washington, he is wearing contemporary clothing. Washington did not want to be seen in a toga or other classically inspired clothing contradicting what Houdon wanted. Though this is true, Houdon captured the duality of Washington: the private citizen and the public soldier. His stance mimics that of the contrapposto seen in Polykleitos’ Doryphoros(FIG-5) and is comparable to ‘Resting Faun, Capitoline’(FIG-6). It is evident in the clarity of the marble, the contours of the carving, that Houdon was alluding to the classical subject matter. Polykleitos is credited for liberating the traditional rigidity of frontal poses and depicting figures in a more dynamic fashion. This is significant as it set the cannon for the classical ideal.
In contrast, Giuseppe Cerrachi adopts the more traditional approach by depicting Washington in classical iconography. Ceracchi’s ‘Bust of George Washington’(FIG-7) depicts him as a Roman emperor with short wavy hair, wearing a toga, which is pinned by a rosette brooch. Though the distinct features of the bust show explicit classical inspiration, the subject is still recognisable as George Washington. The significance here is that the bust shows how classical antiquity can be physically present in order to represent the characteristics of the figure being commemorated.
On top of classical iconography, harmony and clarity in the design are prominent features of portraying classicism. Canova’s ‘Psyche Revived by Cupids Kiss’(FIG-8) is a vivid embodiment of Winckelmann’s Ideal. The composition is based on smooth rhythmic lines, light movement of the figures, and graceful gestures. The decorative approach makes this one of Canova’s most balanced and elegant sculptures. The unity of the two figures
creates a cyclical effect upon the beholder making them get lost in the movement. Additionally, the purity and colourlessness in the marble express a sense of living flesh. French art historian Quatremère de Quincy describes the work as ‘not being carved and polished but rather caressed and kissed into life.’ The purity of the white Carrara marble displays the characteristics of the classical ideal, however, it can be argued that the addition of colour could have added to sculptures depiction of classical roots. Many Greek and Roman sculptures were often coloured despite the monochrome appearance of the survivors, but the common conception was that purity shows the classical roots the best.
The question of how the ideals of classical antiquity manifested itself into neoclassicism is the result of a culmination of artists and critics expressing the values of Greek and Roman art and also a reaction to the context of the time. As a result of the age of enlightenment the development of new technologies, the western world grasped a deeper understanding of the classical era through true visual representations and was able to spread the ideas of the neoclassical taste. Furthermore, the quest to find ideal beauty through simplifying and symmetry naturally alludes itself to the classical
forms and is evident in the sculptures discussed.
“Sculpture should endeavour as much as possible to express by both the deportment and bearing of the figure, the life and character of the person” Leon Batista AlbertiRecommend0 recommendationsPublished in