NEOCLASSICISM
While the delicacy of aristocratic life in the first part of the eighteenth century may seem foreign to us, it is
worth remembering how many of the social, political, and philosophical ideas that we embrace today took
shape in that century. The eighteenth century is known as the Age of Enlightenment. The great thinkers of
the age—Voltaire, David Hume, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and so many others—were skeptical
of the claims of religion and inherited power. They used their keen observations and equally keen wit to
look for the rational explanations of every aspect of the natural world, human psychology, and even the
nature of God.
Of the many important ideas that took shape in the eighteenth century, perhaps the one with the most far-
reaching consequences was the development of the modern notion of democracy—a belief that all people,
no matter what their station in life, should participate in government. Inherent in this belief was the idea
that people could throw off governments that did not serve their needs, and the century ended with
revolutions in America and France.
Although rococo dominated the art world in the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century, it also
coexisted with other styles. Classicism never completely disappeared, although it was most often seen in
academic history painting, which was not in great demand in the early eighteenth century. Toward the end
of the eighteenth century, when the strife that would lead to the French Revolution was gathering strength,
both the king and the revolutionaries looked to classicism as a style that could inspire their followers.
DAVID
AND
NEOCLASSICISM
IN
FRANCE
Jacques-Louis David is the painter whose work most clearly exemplifies the neoclassical style. As a young
man, David worked in Rome for about five years where he learned about Roman art, as well as the styles
of Caravaggio, Carracci, and Poussin. David rejected the rococo style and called for a return to history
painting that reached a perfect balance between naturalism and idealism.
The Oath of the Horatii illustrates an episode in early Roman history, which involved two neighboring clans,
the Horatii and the Curatii. When a feud developed between the two families, the men of the Horatii
(pictured on the left) had to choose between loyalty to their father and loyalty to their own families because
they had married Curatii women (pictured on the right with one of the Horatii sisters). The painting clearly
shows that loyalty to the paternal family is the more noble loyalty of the two, even if it means sacrificing
the love of one’s wife and children. The Horatii father is positioned in the center of the painting facing his
three sons; all the men stand upright, the tension of their bodies expressing unwavering strength. The
women and children are collapsed in grief, contemplating the battle that will surely result in the deaths of
either their husbands or own brothers and fathers.
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