Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784 (photo By Jacques-Louis David – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

The Neoclassical style was in many ways a style of both the American and French Revolutions. It also can be seen as a direct reaction against the Rococo, and the softness and frivolity of that style. Neoclassicism is marked by crisp lines, more earth tones in the colors, and narrow stage-set compositions. There is also in this style a use of the architectural settings of antiquity, as well as some of the stories and themes, but in a new context from the Renaissance. There are less of the gods and goddesses of antiquity, and more of the political stories. This style would also be adopted by Napoleon in his quest to turn the early 19th century French empire into a recreation of the Roman Empire.

There are, as a comparison of the sculptures by Antonio Canova, the leading sculptor of the Neoclassical style, and Clodion (Claude Michel), the leading sculptor of the Rococo, vast differences between the 2 styles, which were competing for popularity at the end of the 18th century. The sculpture by Canova, Cupid and Psyche, is crisp, linear, and the eroticism is very toned down. Clodion’s work, Nymph and Satyr Carousing (The Intoxication of Wine), is highly erotic, with an emphasis on textures and movement not seen in Canova’s more static work.

Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche, 1793 and Clodion (Claude Michel), Nymph and Satyr Carousing (The Intoxication of Wine), c. 1780-1790 (photos By Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jacques-Louis David was a leading artist working in this style, and was training by Joseph-Marie Vien, winning the prestigious Prix-de-Rome at the Salon in 1774. His 1784 Oath of the Horatii, pictured above, based on a story from the early years of the ancient Roman Republic, could be seen as either a call for a new style of art, or a manifesto of the Revolution. Here, in contrast to the Rococo, the lines are clear and crisp, the colors more earthly, and the setting of the work is both overtly Classical and incredibly shallow, making it appear that the figures are acting on a shallow stage. This also contrasts with the bourgeois Realism of artists like Chardin and Greuze, who had been championed by philosophes such as Diderot. But the story tells of the crushing of a pro-monarchy faction by a pro-Republic one, and so can be read in a more political fashion. Now, the men on the left become the Republicans, the Revolutionaries beginning to be active in Paris after the success of the American Revolution. They stand straight and strong, willing to heroically sacrifice themselves for the good of the Republic. The women on the right are curving and at least partially in shadow, speaking to the view of the French Revolutionaries (David included), that the aristocracy was like women in France, soft, weak, overly emotional, and ineffectual. The late 18th century French view of women was that they should remain more in the home and on the sidelines, which may account for the hatred of the Queen, Marie-Antoinette. David used other moments from Greek, specifically 5th century Athenian, and Roman history to exemplify the heroic self-sacrifice that became a theme in the years leading up to the Revolution in France. One of these is The Death of Socrates, where Socrates is portrayed as a hero in the center of his grieving followers, including Plato, about to drink the hemlock that will lead to his death. This is not the Socrates described by the ancient Greeks as being ugly, dirty, and looking like a satyr, but a muscular, idealized figure about to sacrifice himself for the good of Athenian democracy. The setting here is again narrow, with muted colors and crisp lines. Another example is the painting of The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, which is thematically similar to The Oath of the Horatii. Here, Brutus sits in shadow as the bodies of his sons are brought in after he had them killed in the forum for supporting a pro-monarchy plot. Brutus sits below a statue of the goddess Roma, not looking as the headless bodies are brought in, and his wife, daughters, and a servant, all women, are reacting emotionally on the right. Both Brutus and the Horatii show the cost of heroic self-sacrifice, but also the triumph of the Republic, democracy, reason, and morality.

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, 1787 and The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789 (photos By Jacques-Louis David –, Public Domain, and By Jacques-Louis David – [1], Public Domain,

After the Oath of the Tennis Court at Versailles, depicted by David in an unfinished work, and the rise of the Jacobins and Robespierre, David aligned himself with that faction, even voting for the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793. The fall of Robespierre in 1794 landed David in jail, but in between, he also memorialized the assassination of his friend and fellow Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, who was killed in his bath by the Girondin Charlotte Corday. David painted this death as a religious scene, ironic since the Jacobins were fervent atheists, and included Corday’s name on the note in Marat’s hand. This work is in keeping with David’s themes of the 1780s and 1790s of heroic self sacrifice. Death_of_Marat_by_David

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793 (photo By Jacques-Louis David –, Public Domain, and By Jacques-Louis David – [1], Public Domain,

The American Revolution, of course, preceded the French Revolution, and in many ways, helped to cause the French Revolution. The intent, after the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, was liberation from monarchy, which is in stark contrast to the original intent of the French Revolution, which began as a quest for governmental reform. The new American Republic required both a political break and a break in architectural style, going from “Colonial Georgian” to Federal style. The new Federal style was really Neoclassicism, as the new Republic saw itself as the heirs to Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic, although the development of Federalism as a style of government set this new Republic apart from any previous one. These American Revolutionaries wore homespun clothing and refused to wear powdered wigs, making them distinctive in elite 18th century society, as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Thomas Jefferson shows. Houdon depicts Jefferson in the same manner as an ancient Roman portrait bust, down to the realistic wrinkles, set jaw, and receding hairline.


Jean-Antoine Houdon, Thomas Jefferson, 1789

This work dates to the period when Jefferson served as the first Ambassador of the new United States of America to France, where he was popular with the salonnières of Paris, and traveled around France to see some of the Roman ruins in the south of the country. These informed some of his most important building designs of the new Republic, as did his copies of Vitruvius and Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture. Jefferson often used his structures as an opportunity to both use the older, European structures as a model, and show that the new Republic could use local materials to build structures just as grand, as with his Plantation home at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, which is built to copy Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, but with some major changes, such as the use of red brick and timber that would have been locally-produced building materials. Monticello_2010-10-29


Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Albemarle County, Virginia, 1769-1784, rebuilt and enlarged 1796-1809 (photo by By YF12s – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Jefferson also designed the Virginia State Capitol building, or at least the central portion of it, in Richmond, to mimic the late Roman Republican Temple of Portinus in Nîmes, France, built in the late 2nd century BCE. The new temple in this American democracy was the Republic, a sentiment which can also be seen in the new Capitol Building built in the brand new capital city of Washington, D.C. This structure, designed originally by William Thornton, with modifications by architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sr. and Charles Bulfinch, can be seen as a Neoclassical homage to the Pantheon and Greco-Roman temple design, but now these structural designs were being used to hold the bicameral legislature of the US.

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, 1785-88 and Roman, Temple of Portunus, Nimes, France, late 2nd century BCE (photos By Anderskev – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and CC BY-SA 3.0,


William Thornton, with modifications by architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sr. and Charles Bulfinch, US Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., built 1793-1800, with later additions (Photo by By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Another of Jefferson’s contributions was the founding of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, one of the first universities to be founded in the new US after the Revolution. He wanted this institution to reflect his Humanist views, as well as the idea of universal education (well, at least for white men), and so made it possible for anyone (who was a white man) to go to the school. The centerpiece of the original portion of the University was the Rotunda, the original library of the school. This is a direct imitation of the Pantheon, but the gods here are now knowledge and education.

Thomas Jefferson, Rotunda, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1822-26 and Roman, The Pantheon, Rome, 117-125 (photos By Aaron Josephson; cropped by Ibn Battuta [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By KlausF – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

The new US Congress and Presidents also commissioned a number of art works to commemorate and glorify the events leading up to and surrounding the Revolution, as well as some of the prominent figures of those events. John Trumbull was commissioned by President Madison to paint 4 large works to be installed in the Capitol Rotunda. One of these is The Declaration of Independence, which is meant to depict the moment when the document was signed in Liberty Hall in Philadelphia, the decisive moment when the Revolutionaries chose to completely break with England. A number of the signers were still alive in 1818 when this was painted, and Trumbull took care to attempt to show each of their faces. The effect of this, though, is stilted, and seems to be a less realistic view of the actual event. Another commission was from the U.S. Congress, and was to be a statue of Washington. Horatio Greenough was given the commission, and produced a work that was inspired by Phidias’s Early Classical sculpture of Zeus in the temple at Olympia. This was something that Congress was not necessarily looking for, as it turned the first president into a god. The portrait of Washington by Houdon from the 1788-1792 was more in keeping with the less grandiose manner of Presidential depictions, and the Neoclassical American emphasis on the Roman Republic.john_trumbull_-_declaration_of_independence_-_wga23100
John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, 1818 (photo by John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Horatio Greenough, George Washington, 1832-41, Antoine Chryostome Quatremère de Quincy, Reconstruction of Zeus at Olympia, 1815, and Greek coin depicting statue of Zeus at Olympia, 1st century CE (photos By ‘Matthew G. Bisanz, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, Virginia State Capitol Building, 1788-1792 (photo By User:AlbertHerring (Image taken by me for Wikipedia) [CC BY 3.0 (, GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France, taking the title of First Consul, a direct reference to Roman political systems. Napoleon was the from a minor noble family in Corsica, and had distinguished himself in the wars in Europe that broke out after the rise of the Jacobins. In 1804, he crowned himself emperor. One of the most important artists associated with Napoleonic rule was Jacques-Louis David, the famous Jacobin. It is ironic that such a fervent anti-monarchist could support a dictator who declared himself emperor, but David seems to have thought that only a strong hand could fix the problems in First Republic France. In 1800, Napoleon invaded Italy by crossing the Alps, and David painted a portrait of this occasion, faux-engraving “Bonaparte” on the rocks next to “Hannibal” and “Karolus Magnus,” the Carthaginian general and Charlemagne, impressive company for an audacious military leader. Napoleon is shown easily controlling the rearing warhorse as he crosses the Alps with his army behind him. A later portrait by David of Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries Palace in Paris shows a military leader, this is right before his disastrous invasion of Russia, but working on the Napoleonic Code, which took the old laws of France and replaced them with a distinctly paternalistic system. These portraits are in contrast to one painted by David’s student, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which depicts Napoleon on his throne. Here we have Napoleon as the deified Roman emperor on his imperial throne. He is characterized as a ruler imbued with the power of imperial Rome and sanctioned by God. But, this was also one of Napoleon’s least favorite portraits of himself, as his limbs and head are very much out of proportion.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon at Saint Bernard Pass, 1800 and Napoleon in His Study, 1812 (photo By Jacques-Louis David – Unknown, Public Domain, and By Jacques-Louis David – The York Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon on His Imperial Throne, 1806 (photo by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon also began to construct monuments in Paris that were modeled after some in Rome. If Rome had been the capital of the old Roman Empire, and all roads led to it, then Napoleon was going to make Paris the capital of the new Roman Empire, and all roads would now lead there. In the Place Vendôme, formerly Place Louis XIV, he constructed a column out of bronze that was modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome. This Colonne de la Grande Armée was meant to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz, and the bronze came from cannons seized at that battle from the combined armies of Europe. This was a commemoration of one of the most decisive battles of the Napoleonic Wars, and one won by Napoleon. Another commemoration of this battle was the Arc de Triomphe, which was modeled on Roman Imperial triumphal arches, although on a much more grand scale.

Germain Boffrand and Jules Hardouin Mansart; column by Vivant Denon, Jacques Gondoin and Jean-Baptiste Lepère, Place Vendôme, Paris, 1687-1720; column 1807-1810 and Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin et al, Arc de Triomphe, Paris, 1806-1836 (photos By http2007 – FlickR, CC BY 2.0, and By Guilhem Vellut from Paris, France (Arc de Triomphe @ Paris) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon’s family was also commemorated with elaborate portraits. Many of them ruled the puppet governments in countries he conquered, and one such sibling as Paolina Bonaparte Borghese, who ruled parts of Italy with her husband, Camillo Borghese. She was known for her extra-marital affairs, and went so far as to have Antonio Canova depict her as Venus Victorix, nude and resplendent as she reclined on a couch holding the golden apple. Her sister, Marie Anne Elisa Bonaparte, also named as ruler to parts of Italy by their brother, commissioned a portrait from David’s student Marie-Guillemine Benoist, which shows the Grand Duchess wearing a crown and dressed in sumptuous clothing as she reclines atop a coronation robe. This is an interesting contrast to the portrait of an Afro-French woman also painted by Benoist. This work, Portrait of a Negress, which shows the woman dressed in white, but with one breast exposed, can be read in one of two ways. Either Benoist, a woman of aristocratic heritage, was responding to the ideas inherent in the racism of the time that women of African descent were more sexual and more sexually available, or this is a protest, in a small way against that. Napoleon had not yet reinstated slavery in the French Empire, and so this woman would have possibly been free (it was revoked from 1794-1802). She looks out at the viewer with a wary expression, exposed by not engaged. Certainly, it is a contrast to the image of a fully clothed princess.

Antonio Canova, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese as Venus Victrix, front and rear views, 1805-1808 (photos by Antonio Canova [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By user:shakko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Marie Anne Elisa Bonaparte, c. 1810 and Portrait of a Negress, 1800 (photos By Marie-Guillemine Benoist – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and By Marie-Guillemine Benoist – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

The Neoclassical style bridged the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming the dominant style in a period of profound changes. This is also the beginnings of a mix of styles and movements, often competing with each other in the arts.


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