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French Neoclassical Sculpture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Ancient Greek and Roman art have inspired generations of artists. When you look at sculpture, can you see the influence of this early art? Let's explore examples of French Neoclassic sculpture in this lesson.

What is Neoclassical Art?

Many things influence artists in their work, including past art styles.

Neoclassical art is a style that began in Europe around the mid-1700s, partially in reaction to archaeological excavations in places like Athens and Pompeii that sparked renewed interest in the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. This interest was also due to influential scholar and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann, who wrote several studies on Greek art extolling the virtue of its perfect human forms. In France, the art style popular before the 1750s, called Rococo, was very fancy and fussy, and Winckelmann urged a return to the idealized noble virtues he found in Greek art.

Elements of Neoclassical Art

When you look at a piece of neoclassical art, including sculpture, it looks stiff and formal. Even if the scene portrayed is related to action, it seems frozen in time. Figures are calm and idealized and don't usually bear the flaws of real people (you'll rarely see wrinkles or less than perfect bodies). Faces are expressionless and lack any trace of emotion. Artists were urged to emphasize the stoic, calm, and rational over wild emotion and elaborate decorative flourishes.

Here's an excellent example by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. The subject, Napoleon Bonaparte, was then a leader in France. But look at how he's portrayed. You can bet that he never walked around France in this outfit. His body, naked save for the judiciously placed leaf, is idealized to a point of perfection. He stands motionless and his face betrays no emotion. The props he holds tie directly to classical Greek and Roman elements. The statue looks like it could have come right off the Parthenon. Canova, by the way, was one of the European artists who best used neoclassic elements in their work.

Canova is considered to best exemplify neoclassical sculpture
Neoclassical sculpture example

French Neoclassic Sculpture and Sculptors

Neoclassicism swept through Europe and can be found in painting, architecture, and sculpture. Many artists traveled to Italy to study and to be active in a community of other artists. Resources, like marble, were readily available.

But unlike French painters, who were known as some of the foremost neoclassical artists in Europe, French sculptors never seemed to fully embrace neoclassical style. Several who worked in the earlier Rococo style continued to use it in their works, and their art maintains decorative elements that go against neoclassical ideals. Other artists depict figures with a bit too much realism. In general, the French sculptors tended to use style influences interchangeably. Let's look at several examples.

Pigalle

One of the first French sculptors to incorporate elements of neoclassical style was Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714 - 1785). Pigalle, who came from humble beginnings, worked his way up to become a successful artist. He studied in Rome for five years and after 1750 did much of his work as commissions, often portraits.

Mercury Attaching his Talaria, which are winged sandals
Mercury by Pigalle

One of Pigalle's early works from around 1740, Mercury Attaching his Talaria, reflects neoclassical elements in Mercury's calm face and in the perfect, almost-naked human body with idealized anatomy. Later in his career, Pigalle sculpted a life-size statue of Voltaire that showed the aged philosopher as an old man, with an emaciated body and less-than-ideal features. Pigalle posed Voltaire based on an ancient classical statue and draped him in a garment like a toga, but the realism contradicted any neoclassical elements. It was not well received by audiences.

Houdon

Sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741 - 1828) was known for his portrait busts and statues of historical figures. This son of a teacher, and interested in the arts at a young age, worked in a style reminiscent of Rococo for part of his career. Then he won the Prix de Rome in 1761, which allowed him to travel to Rome to study classical sculpture. In the years that followed, he created works with neoclassical elements.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, Bust of Dorothea Schlozer, circa 1808
Bust of Dorothea Schlozer

This Bust of Dorothea Schlözer reflects neoclassical elements in the simple drapery the figure wears, which recalls ancient dress rather than the clothing of the time. Her face also is expressionless and the whole sculpture is simple without any excess ornamentation. Although he never fully embraced it, Houdon was probably one of the French sculptors who best exemplified neoclassicism in his later works.

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