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European Art: Neoclassicism  
 
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Neoclassicism refers to the classical revival movement in European art, architecture, and interior design from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. The movement was inspired by the discovery of artifacts excavated from the ancient Italian ruins of Herculaneum (first excavated in 1709) and Pompeii (first excavation in 1748).

Each country in Western Europe contributed a unique aspect to the interest in classical revival, but France and England were the most prolific in terms of producing art and architecture in the neoclassical style.

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In England, neoclassicism was associated with the aristocratic and industrial ruling classes and became useful to their aims of building an empire.

In France, the new interest in classical revival was linked to political concerns and moral issues associated with the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789. In French art, Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) created and led an entire school of painting based on neoclassical principles.

Male-Female Roles

Neoclassical themes often centered around classical stories of heroic male deeds and virtues. The activities and expectations of men and women were strictly divided. Males are shown in public roles and depicted as heroic and stoic. Conversely, women and femininity were confined to the realm of the private and domestic spheres.

The sharp divisions between the sexes was also reflected in the neoclassical style itself. Neoclassical paintings are characterized by a severe linearity, rational compositions, direct lighting, and strong acidic colors. Male figures are usually given angular and sculptural qualities, while females are typically rendered in soft, curvilinear forms.

Because of the dominant position of males in both art and society, the neoclassical style is often referred to as masculine and is set in distinct opposition to the period and stylistic sensibility that preceded it, the rococo. In neoclassicism, the male body is burdened with a range of political, social, and sexual meaning.

Male Homosexuality and Neoclassicism

Male homosexuality and its erotic undercurrents played a major role in the aesthetic formation and content of neoclassicism. The artist's studio became the primary site for understanding, developing, and disseminating neoclassicism as politics and as erotics.

The pedagogical and erotic intimations of man-boy coupling as had been practiced in ancient Greece were transplanted to and imitated in the artist's studio. The all-male environment of David's studio, for example, fostered a complex relationship among the young male students and elevated the master to the status of father figure.

The environment was competitive and the neophytes constantly vied for David's attention and favor. The overtones of the patriarchal male figure surrounded by younger male disciples can best be seen in David's 1787 Death of Socrates (New York, Metropolitan Museum), a painting in which homoeroticism and are part of the story being told.

Winckelmann

An important influence in developing the homoerotic aesthetic in neoclassicism was the noted scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), who, in his mid-eighteenth-century writings on ancient art, gave intellectual justification to the erotics of neoclassicism.

Winckelmann sublimated his homosexuality into intense sensual descriptions of male Greek sculptures. His description of the corporeal splendor of the Apollo Belevedere (Vatican Museums, Rome, ca Fourth century B.C.) is perhaps the most notorious example of this practice:

". . . a mouth shaped like that whose touch stirred with delight the loved Branchus. The soft hair plays about the divine head as if agitated by a gentle breeze, like the slender waving tendrils of the noble vine; it seems to be anointed with the oil of the gods, and tied by Graces with pleasing display on the crown of the head."

Neoclassical Sculpture

Neoclassical style and subject matter were not confined to painting. In sculpture, the most famous exponents of neoclassicism were the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844). Both artists created works of male beauty and sensuality based on classical sources.

Canova's Theseus and the Centaur (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1804-1819) and Thorvaldsen's Jason (Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, 1802-1803) are just two examples of marble works portraying Greek gods and heroes that convey the sensuousness of the male form.

The suspension of heroic action and the frozen contemplation of male bodily beauty are underscored by the smooth and polished marble surfaces that heighten the sensual quality of the figures. Both works are based on the beau idéal (beautiful ideal)--a tenet of neoclassical sculpture that sought to combine the most beautiful parts of antique statuary and the most beautiful aspects of living models. The beautiful ideal attempted to satisfy a need, at once intellectual and erotic, to forge in art a representation of the beautiful male body.

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Top: Hercules Hurling Lichias into the Sea (1795) by Antonio Canova.
Above: Odalisque and the Slave (1840) by J.A.D. Ingres.

  
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