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The Fantastical Neoclassical

L’Antiquité rêvée: innovations et résistances au XVIIIe siècle

an exhibition at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, December 2, 2010–February 14, 2011, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 20–May 30, 2011.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Guillaume Faroult, Christophe Leribault, and Guilhem Scherf. Paris: Louvre éditions/Gallimard, 500 pp., €45.00
Not all the works on view at the Louvre are traveling to Houston, where the exhibition, titled “Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century,” is supplemented with works from the Houston collections and elsewhere. The English-language catalog accompanying the Houston exhibition is also published by Louvre éditions/Gallimard ($45.00).
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Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The High Priest Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirrhoe, 10.1 x 13.1 feet, 1765

The Comte d’Angiviller, Louis XVI’s fine arts supremo, knew his man when in 1775 he picked the painter Joseph-Marie Vien to head the Académie Royale’s program in Rome. It was time to reimpose some control on the headstrong young Frenchmen studying at the Palazzo Mancini, the Académie’s Rome headquarters: and Vien, nearing sixty, was exactly the type of painter a reformist bureaucrat could work with. “Accommodating, prudent and wise,”1 Denis Diderot had called him, reviewing the previous decade’s Salons. Diderot had also deemed Vien’s Marcus Aurelius Giving Aid to the People—nine square yards of columns, tunics, and hand gestures—“harsh, dry, and flat.”2

But then the sheer self-important dullness of the fellow would surely be of value in disciplining his charges—the prizewinning young painters who went, four each year, from the modern metropolis of Paris to breathe the air once breathed by the ancients, by Raphael, and by Poussin. Vien indeed took to his new responsibilities with zeal: he proposed to d’Angiviller that during their five-year intensive drawing course, the future leaders of French art should be made to wear special uniforms.

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Château de Fontainebleau
Joseph-Marie Vien, The Girl Selling Cupids, 3.2 x 4 feet, 1763

Three decades earlier, Vien had been such a prizewinner himself. Then, on his return to Paris in 1750, he had fallen under the wing of the Comte de Caylus, an eminent antiquarian and art-world busybody. They enthused together over the excavations that had recently begun, three days’ ride south of Rome, at Pompeii. The critic got the painter to attempt reviving the ancients’ encaustic wax technique for painting—an experiment that led nowhere—then lent him freshly published volumes of engravings after Pompeian murals. From these Vien derived a set of canvases that made something of a splash in the Salon of 1763. One of them, The Girl Selling Cupids (La Marchande d’amours), featured in “Antiquity Rediscovered,” the Louvre’s recent exhibition of eighteenth-century European art. It sets a hawker and her female clients more or less frieze-wise against a columned wall, in a manner adapted from Poussin. The three women seem dopily demure cousins to those monotonous nudes painted by the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux—but look again, and you realize that this is a Pompeian sex-toy party.

Diderot disapprovingly smirked at the phallic gesture the salesgirl’s cupid figure is making, and the way one woman’s hand has covertly reached for her skirts. The canvas displays the debonair professionalism that pervades Parisian art of the ancien régime: its play of tints, pale rose against deep greenish umbers, is exquisite; but it’s a wholly daft confection, a whimsical jeu d’esprit you would surely hardly wish to repeat.

And yet art histories regularly cite the picture as a foundation stone of something called “neoclassicism.” Insofar as there is a narrative to “Antiquity Rediscovered”—an exhibition given permanent form by a handsome and scholarly five-hundred-page catalog—it recounts the reasons why Vien, this assiduous mediocrity, could look back as a venerable senator under the reign of Napoleon and congratulate himself on fomenting a cultural revolution. “Insofar,” I say, because the exhibition’s curators, in their sophistication, have come up with a historical scheme so multidimensional that it cannot really be reduced to a narrative sequence. In the process, they effectively explode the very art-historical category that, to judge by its title, you might suppose the exhibition was seeking to define. The revival of ancient art, it turns out, is but one of “the different artistic currents gathered up under the far from satisfying name of neoclassicism.”

Besides, if we talk of “antiquity rediscovered” we refer to a process in continual evolution since the days of Petrarch. From the early sixteenth century, when Michelangelo was inspired by the unearthing of the Laocöon and Raphael by that of the Domus Aurea, that process has pivoted on Rome. A fresh impetus came in the 1630s when Poussin attempted archaeological exactitude in his history paintings, while his fellow expatriate in the eternal city, François Duquesnoy, worked to unite ancient Greek and Christian values in his statue Saint Susanna.

The Louvre exhibition opened with early-eighteenth-century works that took up the project from there. There were portrait busts with Roman tonsures from Hanoverian England, one of several European states hankering to style itself on Augustan Rome, and there was Cupid Whittling His Bow from Hercules’s Club by Edme Bouchardon, a winner of the Prix de Rome for sculpture. Here was a masterpiece of the 1740s that surpassed its antique prototype (a Roman copy after Lysippos) by virtue of its acute inner tensions and the uniquely crisp textures conferred on its marble: surely Bouchardon was in fact giving his own superb artistic riposte to the Bernini masterpieces he’d seen in Rome.

Louis XV took umbrage at it (was he himself not the Hercules whose club was being vandalized?), but it was exactly the type of art that Vien’s mentor Caylus longed for—ambitious, deeply historically informed, a world away from the tinted titillatory froth pumped out all over contemporary Paris by the omnicompetent, exultantly nonintellectual François Boucher.

Caylus’s painter protégé was hardly the man, though, to reverse that tide. The Girl Selling Cupids earns a place in history books partly because it navigated 1760s currents in decor. The pretty furnishings Vien dreamed up for his imaginary Pompeian boudoir fed into the repertory of contemporary cabinetmakers—gilt garland swags, fluted urns, lion’s-paw table legs. Notionally, all such accessories were “Greek,” a label that became chic in Paris after the designer Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain used it to launch a collection in 1757. It had an edge on the more familiar “Roman”: it sounded rangier, better informed.

The Louvre exhibition showed this goût à la grecque cross-breeding with the already extant exoticism of chinoiserie—a pair of Kangxi vases cheekily sandwiched between lion’s feet and Ionic capitals—and rubbing shoulders with the incipient taste for Egypt. France’s master designers, in contrast to their coolly elegant British colleagues such as Robert Adam, were irrepressibly fantastical, and the move onward from rococo, the style associated with Boucher, did nothing to dim their appetite for spatial and structural paradoxes.

One motive behind that move, it’s true, had been an oft-expressed yearning for “simplicity.” Bouchardon, according to one critic in 1746, possessed a “noble and masculine simplicity of the Antique” that set him apart from his contemporaries. Another, in 1751, found something “Greek” about the “extreme simplicity”3 with which Eustache Le Sueur had painted a hundred years before. Evidently here was a rallying cry that combined nostalgia for the grand siècle of Louis XIV with contemporary gender anxieties.

Women, many conservatives complained, ruled the roost nowadays: underneath the ubiquity of Boucher, one could see the power of his patron Mme de Pompadour, the king’s mistress. But how far could one break free from this modern metropolitan complexity? When it came to history painting, the most honorific of the arts and the cause about which such critics felt most anxious, all but Caylus agreed that there was no help to be had from the frescoes unearthed at Pompeii: here, the ancients stood exposed as rank inferiors, with their ignorance of perspective.

And in fact most French history painting of the 1760s and 1770s pushed onward unabashedly with the sophistications of the immediate past. The whole imaginative weighting of “Antiquity Rediscovered” resettles around one magnificent example. The High Priest Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirrhoe was the painting with which Jean-Honoré Fragonard launched his public career in 1765. It is a huge canvas, over ten feet high: wildly operatic, employing gilt sphinxes and garlanded urns to dramatize a recherché Greek legend, and as masterful in its invention of light and color as anything in Italian painting after Titian. From an offstage setting sun, a shell-burst of radiance plunges between some temple’s dark pillars, its shimmer shaking down to reveal a host of altar ministrants.

The light-explosion’s epicenter is the bared bosom of an intended sacrificial victim, the fair Callirrhoe: and yet the glare travels on from her prone body to catch the arm of the administering priest Coresus, which curlingly thrusts a dagger in his own breast instead. If the gods require blood, for the love of her he wills it must be his own. This whole melodrama, one intuits—this orgasmic suicide, and analogously this vast voluptuous canvas—is an offering so as to gratify, and yet at the same time it is an utterly gratuitous act. It heads nowhere but inward; it is mere art.

Here was a masterpiece that got its due. The crown immediately bought it and ordered from Fragonard a sequel. The enthusiastic Diderot, noting how crowds swarmed around Coresus at the Salon, also noted that it had the evanescence of “a beautiful dream.”4 Which was shrewd: for having made his point, Fragonard saw no point in making it again. He would never produce a sequel, and after twenty-five years of brilliant, insouciant, but much-smaller-scale production, he would drop his brushes to end up as an obscure functionary at the post-revolutionary Museum of the Louvre.

That museum’s present curators now line up this great hero manqué of French history painting with artists such as Goya, born fourteen years later: and this is not unreasonable, for both were building up their art on an appreciation of the best in recent Italian painting, above all on Tiepolo. (Goya was represented in the exhibition by Hannibal Crossing the Alps, a recently rediscovered and rather hammy apprentice piece done while in Italy in 1771.) More contentiously, they label this vein of artistic development “neobaroque.” That suggests that there was something revivalistic about it, which I don’t see as true.

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Musée du Louvre, Paris
Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horatii, 10.8 x 13.9 feet, 1784

And yet, undeniably, Paris would shoulder that line of work aside by the time of the Revolution. How is it that as of 1789, “modern” and “antique” had become synonymous? The petticoat-bestrewn reign of Louis XV drew to a close in 1774. The succeeding administration’s cultural intentions were soon articulated by d’Angiviller: titillation must make way for edification, for a sober, constructive, and virile public spirit. D’Angiviller knew that Vien would make a serviceable vehicle for these directives. But he could hardly dream how they would bear fruit: for among’s Vien’s charges, as he made his way to Rome in 1775, was the young Jacques-Louis David. The story of how, driven by unaccountable inner compulsions, David veered away from his early allegiance to Boucher, via a personal submission to Vien and an extended immersion in modern Roman painting ranging from Caravaggio to Poussin, has often been told, but its dénouement—the 1784 Oath of the Horatii, hung near the end of the exhibition—still retains a power to shock.

The massive government-commissioned canvas, even larger than Coresus, hums with malign electricity at every point of its close-woven surface: a psychic convulsion in high definition, the Demoiselles d’Avignon as painted by Magritte. The “harsh, dry, and flat” for which Diderot berated Vien stand revealed as three virtues, and segregation of the sexes has become the order of the day. To this side, let the brothers bond, consigning themselves to patria and patriarch: to that side, let the sisters grieve, prophetically. For at the end of this episode of archaic Rome—looking past the tribal combat immediately to follow—brother will slay sister. There, at last, you have the “simplicity” you asked for—or at any rate, you have an art event that was, as one of the astonished visitors to the 1785 Salon expressed it, “absolutely new.”

  1. 1

    Denis Diderot, “The Salon of 1767,” translated by John Goodman in Diderot on Art (Yale University Press, 1995), Vol. 2, p. 30. 

  2. 2

    Diderot, “The Salon of 1765,” in Diderot on Art, Vol. 1, p. 36. 

  3. 3

    Jean-Baptiste de La Curne de Sainte-Pallaye, in a translated text included in the anthology Art in Theory 1648–1815, edited by Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger (Blackwell, 2000), p. 580. 

  4. 4

    Diderot, “Salon of 1765,” Diderot on Art, Vol. 1, p. 148. 

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