Picture this. You’re a rational being from the 1760s… Well that’s it. That’s all you had to picture to understand the foundation of the art movement called Neoclassicism.
Neoclassical art began in Europe and North America in the 1760s as a get-away from the previously dominant Baroque art which focused on ornamentation and make-believe beauty. Order, symmetry and simplicity were the key features of this budding line of thought. The patrons of Neoclassicism believed themselves to be “People of the enlightenment” wherein they heavily gravitated towards practical experience and observation as their source of understanding of the world rather than biblical preaching of the church adorned with overwhelming ornamentation and rather gaudy approach.
Rational thinkers took inspiration from the scholarly world of archaeology, literature and classical arts. Heavily inspired by Greek and Roman arts for their democratic ideas and like minded ideals, the Neo Classical artists worked for attaining skill in human anatomy same as Roman and Greeks minus the grandeur and ornamentation. One can draw parallels between neoclassicism and renaissance in the sense of themes, composition and structure though in the case of Neoclassical art, the lines seemed to be more defined and less hazy when compared. The difference is stark when you refer to Mona Lisa and find it a little difficult to mark the line where her face separates itself from the background which was a deliberate technique to add certain softness to the overall look and feel of the artwork also known as sfumato. This was a strict no-no during the Neoclassical art era.
The themes of neoclassicism revolved around patriotism, sacrifice, courage, honour, human rights, mythology, antiquity, liberty and equality. It was truly a woke movement for that time you might think. But was it?
Let’s take the example of the illustrious painting by Jacques-Louis David; Death of Marat. Now, a little background. Marat was a key figure in the French revolution who was killed in his bathroom. The iconography through the painting served as kind of a mascot to inspire more revolutionaries. Here’s where it gets tricky. David; being a neoclassical painter, took major liberties while painting Death of Marat. First, Marat’s corpse is set in a bathroom which looks very ordinary so as to relate him to the common fork while truth being that Marat led a luxurious lifestyle. Second, Marat is depicted to be a handsome and healthy individual which was far from true considering his skin condition with rather nasty rash all over his skin which some scholars associate with an attempt to use Neo-Classical art for propaganda wherein the story was yet again tweaked for the sake of the message which is now sighted as a common phenomenon in the Neoclassical art.
All in all, Neoclassical art was an idea of liberty, democracy, freedom, righteousness and rationality slowly succumbing to motives, propagandas, glorifications and unsaid rules leaving us with a gradation of art to be pondered upon for centuries to come.