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Art of classical antiquity, in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, has been much revered, admired, and imitated. In fact, the arts of ancient Greece and Rome can be considered the first self-conscious and cohesive art movements in Europe. Style, form, execution, and media were standardized and honed to the point where aesthetic ideals were created and sustained over time. The art of classical antiquity in Greece and Rome reverberated throughout history, impacting the art of subsequent eras in Europe. In fact, there can be no absolute "neoclassical" era in art history because of the way neoclassicism evolved throughout the centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire. The arts of the Renaissance borrowed heavily from classical antiquity, as can be seen in Renaissance icons such as Michelangelo's David. Some suggest that medieval art pays homage to classical antiquity, even if the quotations from classical Greek and Rome are not as obvious as they would be in the Renaissance ("Classical Antiquity in the Middle Ages," n.d.). "Interest in the classical past never totally disappeared in the Middle Ages but the 15th century saw the emergence of a different attitude to it in Europe: growing admiration for ancient texts and antiquities was reflected in…the commissioning of art which demonstrated their knowledge of the art of Greece and Rome," (Castelijn, 2012). However, it was not until the 18th century and 19th centuries that neoclassicism as a distinct aesthetic would flourish in earnest. This era of neoclassicism combined the Romantic sentiments extant in contemporary literature and music, with the period of High Renaissance allusions to ancient Greek and Roman media. The era of Neoclassicism in the 18th century is the historic counterpart to classical Greco-Roman antiquity.
Ancient Greece evolved an aesthetic that would be enduring, persistently haunting the consciousness and culture of Europe. Much of the art produced in ancient Greece idealized the human form, making it the first time in Europe that conscientious analysis of anatomy, physiology, and form was executed in sculpture. The Charioteer of Delphi is a bronze sculpture that many art historians believe marked the transition from earlier, less sophisticated renditions of human bodies and movement, toward a more fully realized understanding of physics and physiology ("Greek Art," n.d.). Stone and marble counterparts in Classical sculpture include the female and male statues kore and kouros, which developed realistic, life-size sculptures that later evolved into softer and less rigid renditions of the human body.
Ancient Greek art was often embedded in its architecture. The frieze of the Athenian Parthenon, for example, captures historical and mythical events in incredible detail. The design of Greek public buildings like the Parthenon and surrounding temples had a tremendous influence on the history of architecture. The governor Pericles commissioned the grandeur and scale of the Athenian acropolis, initiating a revolution in both art and architecture.
Ancient Roman civilization borrowed heavily from the Greeks. However, the Roman empire extended to North Africa and as far as the British Isles, making Roman art incredibly diverse as it evolved through the centuries. Much Roman sculpture is dedicated to and commissioned by persons in power, which is why the busts and statues of emperors were common during the time. After Constantine adopted Christianity to be the state religion, the face of Roman art transformed itself even more. Mosaics and other decorative elements in buildings were common throughout the Roman Empire. Later, fresco techniques were developed and that media would become a preferred method of building decoration in the Renaissance.
Although medieval European art can be viewed largely as an evolving extension of the aesthetic ideal established by the classical Greco-Roman universe, the Renaissance witnessed the first genuine rebirth of antiquities in painting and sculpture. Any casual gaze at Michelangelo's work reveals a close connection with classical Greco-Roman sensibilities of form. The way in which Michelangelo portrayed the human male form, especially in terms of muscularity, is reminiscent of the arts of classical Greece with its homage to athletic glory. However, the Renaissance was known more for its intensity of creativity and its unique development of artistic styles that diverged from, rather than imitated, the past.
The flowering and rebirth of passionate creative expression that was the Renaissance soon faded. "After the Renaissance -- a period of exploration and expansiveness -- came a reaction in the direction of order and restraint," ("Neoclassicism," 2000). This sense of order and restraint made its way to the canvas and the sculpture. Looking toward the past for the fundamentals of form and style, the art era and movement designated with the name "neoclassicism" was in part a reaction to Renaissance and Baroque liberalism.
One of the leading artists of the Neoclassical era was French painter Jacques-Louis David. David's paintings hearken to a purer invocation of the classical arts of Greek and Roman antiquity, which is why David is considered to have heralded the Neoclassical movement. "His cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the ancien regime," ("Jacques-Louis David: The Complete Works," n.d.).
There is a philosophical and even political component to Neoclassicism that makes it echo the arts of classical Greece and Rome. For one, Neoclassicism coincided with the Enlightenment, a period in which reason triumphed over religion in intellectual thought. This trend was a direct throwback to the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates, who championed reason over blind faith. "The classical ideals of order and moderation which inspired this period…and its emphasis on the common sense of society rather than individual imagination, could all be characterized as rational," ("Neoclassicism," n.d.). A sense of order and restraint permeated the visual arts of the Neoclassical era as a result of the theme of restraint: as in, restraining of the emotions. "The cool rationality and control characteristic of neoclassical art fostered wit, equally evident in the regular couplets of Moliere and the balanced sentences of Austen," ("Neoclassicsicm," n.d.).
One of David's works that reveals a direct quotation of classical Greece is "The Death of Socrates." This painting's subject is the Greek philosopher himself, who was immortalized in Plato's writings such as The Apology. In addition to being a direct reference to Plato and Socrates in terms of subject and theme, "The Death of Socrates" also combines visual elements borrowed from or influenced by ancient Greece. Thus, David takes from the Parthenon frieze the conglomerate of individuals. Although David is not depicting the mythical battles that are on the Parthenon frieze, the French artist is borrowing from the aesthetic of layering different bodies in action. All of the bodies are occupying the same plane, but there is depth and dimension. David's painting has a three-dimensionality that echoes the sculptural frieze of the Parthenon.
Moreover, the way David drapes the clothing over the muscular male bodies refers to Greek sculpture and the ideal male form. There are some differences, however, in Neoclassical art that distinguishes it from Classical art. For one, the ancient Greeks did not have a rich painterly tradition in the arts. The bulk of Greek art is monumental in form, as with architectural elements, or sculpted. Practical items such as vases were also important in the Greek artistic canon, but painting was not evolved to the point it was in the 18th century. Therefore, the medium of painting is one of the distinguishing factors between Classical and Neoclassical Art.
Another point of divergence is that although David painted some works like "The Death of Socrates" about the Greek philosopher, he might have done so to draw attention to the prevailing political climate in France. David was painting around the time of the French Revolution. The ideals of liberty and justice were triumphing over the outmoded monarchy and its rigid…[continue]
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