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Neoclassicism: 18th - 19th century

Ever since the Renaissance, successive generations of artists and architects have turned to classical models for inspiration. Even at the height of baroque (the least classical of styles in mood or line) contemporary grandees are often depicted in togas. Military heroes, however foolish they may look, strutt in the stiff ribbed kilt of the Roman legionary.

During the 18th century a quest for classical authenticity is undertaken with new academic vigour. There are several reasons. Archaeological sites such as Pompeii are being excavated. And interest is shifting from the Roman part of the classical heritage to the Greek.


Ancient Greek sites in southern Italy (in particular Paestum) and in Sicily begin to be studied in the 1740s. In 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German archaeologist and a key figure in the Greek Revival, publishes a work on Greek painting and sculpture in which he argues that the art of Greece provides the best example of ideal beauty.

The avant-garde greets this notion with enthusiasm. Over the next century Greek themes increasingly pervade the decorative arts. Greek porticos and colonnades grace public buildings. Greek refinement becomes the ideal for neoclassical sculptors and painters.


Rome is the centre of neoclassical sculpture. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova arrives to set up his studio in 1782. He is soon producing beautifully modelled nudes in the Greek style - such as Theseus with the minotaur, now in the Victoria and Albert museum, or Perseus with the head of Medusa in the Vatican. The flesh is modelled with a slightly chilly perfection, more noticeable in female figures (such as the famous Graces done for Woburn Abbey, in which three languid ladies share a sentimental moment).

In 1802 Canova is invited by Napoleon to visit Paris, beginning an extraordinary relationship with the Bonaparte dynasty.


The neoclassical ideal is now so powerful that Napoleon is willing to be sculpted by Canova, larger than life and naked, in the role of Mars the god of war. It is one of the pleasant ironies of history that this 11-foot-high marble nude with the face of Napoleon is presented to the duke of Wellington after the battle of Waterloo, and stands now at the bottom of the stairs in Apsley House.

The Bonaparte link results also in one of the most famous of all neoclassical statues. Canova sculpts the emperor's sister, Pauline Borghese, reclining naked to the waist on a chaise longue. Just as her brother is Mars, she is posing as Venus - holding in delicate fingers the apple which she has been awarded for her beauty in the judgement of Paris.


Pauline Borghese's smoothly sinuous flesh, and the plumped-up cushions on which she rests, are miracles of carving in marble - a skill in which Canova is unequalled among neoclassical sculptors.

The other most successful member of the school is a Dane, Bertel Thorvaldsen, who arrives in Rome in 1797 and is given encouragement by Canova. Twenty years later Thorvaldsen is employing some forty assistants in his Roman workshop. Even before the end of his life a museum devoted to his works is established in Copenhagen.


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