Roman Inspiration in Neoclassical Painting, Sculpture & Architecture

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  • 0:03 The Neoclassical Movement
  • 0:57 Roman Art and…
  • 2:27 Roman Art and…
  • 3:52 Roman and Neoclassical…
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore the similarities and differences in three types of neoclassical art including, painting, sculpture, and architecture, and see how each was inspired by ancient Rome. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Neoclassical Movement

Inspiration is a mysterious thing. Where does it come from? Some ancient Greeks believed inspiration was a gift from the gods. Certain 19th-century psychologists thought it was a condition of the subconscious, probably having something to do with your mother. Who knows for sure? We draw inspiration from all sorts of places, and where we find inspiration can be one of the defining factors of art.

In the late 18th century, an artistic movement emerged that was dedicated to the revitalization of ancient Greek and Roman styles and ideas about art, called neoclassicism. The neoclassical movement was especially inspired by ancient Rome, to which artists looked for ideas about painting, sculpture, and architecture. But inspiration and imitation are very different things, so while neoclassical artists drew from Roman ideas, their art was distinctly their own.

Roman Art and Neoclassical Painting

Let's start by looking at painting. Now, think back to those art history lessons on ancient Rome. How many great Roman oil paintings can you name? None. The Romans did not use oil paints and, in fact, until the archaeological excavations of the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, artists really didn't have any surviving Roman paintings to look at. So, was neoclassical painting still inspired by the ancient Romans? Of course! But this was an inspiration through subject matter more than style or technique. Take a look at this example, Mother of the Gracchi by Angelica Kauffmann.

Mother of the Gracchi
Mother of the Gracchi

The figures are in Roman clothes and surrounded by Roman architecture, so we know this is a Roman subject, but it's actually a true story as well. According to the legend, a wealthy Roman woman was showing off her fine jewelry and insisted that Cornelia, the woman standing, show off her wealth as well. Rather than fetch her jewels, Cornelia brought in her two sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The Gracchi brothers went on to become major political figures that reformed the Roman Republic in the 2nd century BCE, so this painting gives us a moral lesson about virtues of parenthood and good leadership. The virtues of leadership were just as important in the 18th century, and were directly connected to the emerging ideas about good government that led to events like the French Revolution and American independence.

Roman Art and Neoclassical Sculpture

Neoclassical painting relied on Roman themes but stylistically was completely connected to painting techniques of the 18th century, mostly because the Romans didn't leave behind many paintings to study. This was certainly not true of sculpture. Roman sculptures not only survived but had been one of the leading inspirations for Western art for centuries. So, neoclassical sculptors had a lot of Roman originals to study and neoclassical sculpture looked very Roman. One of the most noted sculptors was Jean Antoine Houdon, who was noted for his portraits. Now, these marble busts, portraits from the neck up, are very Roman. Unlike the ancient Greeks, Roman portraits were not idealized, but instead very realistic.

Houdon's busts captured both the realistic details of the person, but also tried to capture something about their personality, just like the Romans would have done. Compare his bust of the philosopher Voltaire to the American naval commander John Paul Jones.

Voltaire by Houdon
Voltaire, by Houdon

John Paul Jones by Houdon
John Paul Jones - Houdon

Very different, right? It's the same for the busts of American politicians Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. As with painting, there is a moral message here too. By using the artistic styles of the Roman Republic, Houdon connected revolutionary philosophers and politicians to the virtues of the ancient Romans.

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