“For a hundred years, sir, the world was humbugged by the so-called classical artists.” So claimed an outraged Thackeray, when surveying the modern French school of painting in his Paris Sketch Book of 1840. “The intolerable, stupid classicalities,” he explained, “only weighted the pupils down, and cramped their hands, their eyes, and their imaginations; drove them away from natural beauty, which, thank God, is fresh and attainable by us all, today, and yesterday, and tomorrow; and sent them rambling after artificial grace, without the proper means of judging or attaining it.”
Thackeray’s condemnation of what we now call, with greater historical refinement, Neoclassicism or Romantic Classicism, was not short-lived. From the 1830s, when Thackeray saw the Neoclassic style in its waning phases, down to the 1960s, when hardly any art of the past evokes hostility or condescension, most artists, critics, spectators, and art historians have treated Neoclassicism as a largely lamentable episode that slowed the pulse of Western art with the static rhythms and glacial temperatures of Greco-Roman models unfeelingly imitated.
But in spite of the persistence of a common distaste for Neoclassicism (which, in its most extreme recent forms, can follow Thackeray’s empirical lead and suggest that David’s and Ingres’s portraits are the only part of their work worth saving), a counter-current of enthusiasm for the look and for the often complex content of Neoclassic art has been gradually swelling in the past few decades, especially among those art historians who have tried to remove it from an aesthetic vacuum of deadly purity and to re-locate it in the midst of that dense ferment of new ideas, new feelings, and new forms which characterizes the multiple revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If the inspiration of Greece and Rome was hardly a handicap to Diderot and Goethe, Alfieri and Shelley, Gluck and Berlioz, why should it have been so to such artist-contemporaries as David, Canova, Flaxman, and Schinkel? And even if its most fervent admirers must admit that the Neoclassic ideal produced vast quantities of second-rate art, isn’t the same true of any other modern style, whether Impressionism, Cubism, or Abstract Expressionism, whose highest qualities we judge by its major masters, not by its minor disciples?
The way to dispel lingering prejudices about Neoclassicism is all too obvious—to be affirmative rather than negative about it, which means to try to find out what these artists wanted to do and why; to approach David and Canova through their own goals, not those of Cézanne and Rodin; to disclose the rich allusions that Greco-Roman art, history, and mythology might have had for the period; to discern in what essential ways classical art was altered when it was translated into a Neoclassic vocabulary—in other words, to bestow upon Neoclassicism those favors of sympathy and knowledge that modern art history has generally granted unhesitatingly to any preceding style.
Hugh Honour’s paperback, Neoclassicism (the spelling of the word—Neo-classicism, Neoclassicism, NeoClassicism—varies almost as much among modern writers as its interpretation), is…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.