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The art of the French Revolution

Neo-Classicism was the established artistic style in most of Europe during the end of the 18 th century and the first half of the 19 th century. In retrospect, this movement could not have been more out of place in the historical sense. Emerging in a political and social upheaval that would soon turn into the French Revolution, the Neo-Classicists attempted to bring the art world back in time. Gaining strength alongside the radical philosophies in France , the Neo-Classicists kept up a very stoic, almost puritan reserve. Lacking the militant fervor of the politicians and revolutionaries, these artists were still essentially of the same opinion- that the New France would reconfigure itself in the social, moral and state principles of the Roman Republic .

Art as a moral platform for the 'new citizen'

Filled with a new kind of patriotism, they tried to instill new life into the classic definition of citizenship and the noble qualities inherit in the relationship between a man and his country. Coming up against the gaudy frivolity of the Rococo period and style, it heralded a return to a noble history and far more serious social values. The most famous painter of this style is Jacques-Louis David and the most famous sculptor is undoubtedly Antonio Canova. The Baroque had already borne the message of a break in the almighty power of the Church and the 'new science' came into consciousness. During the Rococo period these scientific advances continued and flourished. In the field of archeology, the ancient, Italian city of Pompeii was discovered and with it a wealth of historical revelations never known before. It is therefore a logical extension of this very educated century to create art that is for the first time truly secular, truly rooted in knowledge of history and culture. The acclaimed creed of this style's artists and designers was a more realistic and historically factual depiction of well-known historical events. This style seeped into all the important medias- architecture, painting and sculpture. They drew their greatest inspiration from the historical period that they considered the epitome of Western culture- the Classicism of Greece and Rome .

A return to the values of Classical Greece and Rome

The theoretician and art historian Johan Winckelmann was the founding father of this school of thought and much of this art relates to his theories. He held the belief that the art of the Classic world was divine in simplicity and the mathematical ratios that it set down for various art mediums. The perfect harmony, the structured sense of proportion that is accompanied with a philosophical and social mentality to match, drew the Neo-Classicists to an attempted revival of that period. Past glory would awaken the present potential for glory, such as David's paintings “The Death of Marat”, “The Oath of the Horatti”, “The Death of Socrates” and “Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons”. The standards that this creed implies were not met with great success. Many of the paintings done by David were scenes of mythological heroism, done in the symbolic colors of nobility and grace, but they have little to do with the social climate in France at the time. Later he would become the propaganda painter of Napoleon Bonaparte and his civic ideals would tarnish with service to the French dictator. This style is, however, is the first artistic movement in the West to directly implement an artistic theory into practice and this would certainly become a hallmark signature of artistic evolution in the centuries after the Revolution.


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