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Classicism evolved from Mannerism and was contemporary to Baroque art. The Carracci family working from Bologna and Rome in the seventeenth century already may have founded classicism as a separate style of painting. It was contemporary to Baroque art, and these two styles often mixed to one global kind of Baroque. Classicism was a popular art form in every century, but it was particularly in fashion in the seventeenth, eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Especially French artists took up this art form in the seventeenth century (such as Nicolas Poussin). It does not necessarily only depicts scenes of ancient Greece and Rome.


French artists like Jacques-Louis David revived Classicism after the Rococo period, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a reaction to the slackening of morals of the courtly art of the French eighteenth century. This trend then was also followed in Germany and in Italy.

Classicism evolved from and in the Baroque period, but it was a reaction against the freedom of form and the pathos of early Baroque. Classicism favoured very clear lines and directions, emphasised more vertical lines and static forms. The style put emphasis on simplicity and symmetry.

Classicist painters often based their pictures on strict compositions constructed on the basic triangles of the frame. Newly founded academies of Europe taught these rules of composition.

Classicists preferred pure, but not harsh colours, in light tones. Colour areas were symmetrical and balanced.

Classicist art depicted scenes of ancient Greece and Rome but also many religious scenes. If Classicism was still mostly devotionally inspired, Neo-Classicism was definitely un-religious, republican and lay inspired.
Classicism preferred few figures in its pictures.
For the Classicists, art had to serve a moral purpose. Art had to observe principles of clarity, of unity and of decorum. For the Classicist artists, art had to communicate, and show it’s meaning in a minimum of figures whose movements, gestures and expressions had to remain simple, often frozen, and could easily be understood by the viewer. Tension is smoothed out in most Classicist paintings.

Certain artists of Neo-Classicism emphasised epic scenes of battle (such as Jacques-Louis David). They heavily underscored the moral value of the message conveyed by the images.

Classicist painters created space and depth, but did not emphasise these. Although landscapes in backgrounds abounded, Classicists preferred to dedicate their main attention to the figures. These are often set immediately in front of the viewer, and hide the deep landscape. Landscape forms the background, but was positioned often in the upper part of the scenes, so that not much depth was created, and the figures were placed in more intimate surroundings.

Classicist painters were Lodovico Carracci, Annibale Carracci and Nicolas Poussin. Neo-Classicist painters were Jacques-Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Mannerism, Baroque and later Rococo, were art forms that allowed for unbridled show of emotions and elation. Quite naturally this spawned a reaction to the contrary in society. Classicism and Neo-Classicism were a reaction that aimed for more restraint and for dignity. Classicist painters returned to the depiction of moral values and to a sense of grandeur of the epic. The result was Classicism to Mannerism art and Neo-Classicism to Rococo. The change was drastic in style, which is in forms and in composition, and also in colours, but more so in the way content was represented. The painters emphasised dignity, restraint, and rigidity, moral lessons in content, and that meant introducing strict rules of structure in composition.

Christ appears to Peter on the Via Appia

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). The National Gallery. London. Painted in 1601-1602.

In the history of art, one discovers that at certain moments and in particular places there appear geniuses with clear vision, more intelligence and energy of expression than generations before them could generate. Such was the case for the town of Bologna in the late sixteenth century. Bologna was then still one of the major towns of the Papal States in middle Italy. Lodovico Carracci, Agostino Carracci and Annibale Carracci were three members of the same family who innovated and inspired the long tradition of artistic Bologna.
Agostino and Annibale were brothers; Lodovico was their cousin. Together they founded in 1580 in Bologna an academy of painting called the "Accademia degli Incamminati". Lodovico probably had the idea the first; Agostino was its theoretician. The great Venetian artists, Titian and Jacopo Tintoretto and the Italian Mannerism influenced Lodovico. Agostino also had travelled to Venice, and preferred the Venetian colours and light to Florentine Mannerism. Lodovico and Agostino remained mainly in Bologna, and in particular Agostino favoured return to more rigorous pictures on themes of classical antiquity. This return to a more austere, solemn style of painting, was a reaction to the tension and disregard for artistic rules of harmony of Mannerism. The Carraccis preferred a calm, clear composition and well-delineated surfaces of colour.

Lodovico Carracci was born in 1555 and died in Bologna in 1619. Agostino Carracci was born equally in Bologna, in 1557, and died in Parma in 1602. Annibale, born in 1560, died in Rome in 1609. With the Carraccis, the fame of Venetian painting passed to Bologna for about twenty years.

Annibale Carracci, the youngest of the three, was the more gifted. His genius and talent were too strong for any tradition. As occurred with so many of the very great painters who worked, immersed in a certain paradigm of arts, he could not but be influenced in his youth by the style of the moment. He nevertheless grew out of any style, and developed his own way of representation and of colouring. He was also more rigorous in his concepts, like Agostino, but he observed nature with a fresh, uncomplicated eye, and he found sweetness and gentleness there. Since he was the youngest he was the one to discover the world outside Bologna. He worked in other towns, mainly in Rome.
Annibale’s major work was the decoration of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, especially the ceiling of the Galleria of that palace. The palace is currently the French Embassy. For this, the rich Cardinal Odoardo Farnese commissioned him. But Annibale had issues over money with the Cardinal. Cardinal Farnese paid him badly or not at all. The already melancholic artist became desperate and depressed over the Cardinal’s ingratitude, so that although he had worked in the Palazzo Farnese since 1597, he stopped that work altogether in 1605.
Annibale’s painting "Christ appears on the Via Appia" dates from this period, while he was also working in the Palazzo Farnese.

Saint Peter was among the first apostles, chosen together with his brother Andrew. Peter was a fisherman and the most humble, deeply human figure in the Gospels. He combined courage and cowardice, perseverance and despair. Jesus told the disciples that Peter would lead the church and, as is told in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter indeed took charge after Jesus’s death. There were probably more intelligent and learned men among the disciples, but when inaction paralysed the group, Peter took charge with the courage instilled to him by Jesus. Peter started the real missionary work. Paul was the giant that shaped Christian religion, but without Peter the movement would have died out in Jerusalem.

Many scenes of Peter’s life, as narrated in the Gospels and as passed by generations in legends, have been painted. Annibale Carracci made a picture of one of those legends that happened in Rome.
When Peter was preaching in that city, the Emperor Nero persecuted the Christians. Peter fled from the town over the Via Appia. He encountered Jesus on that same road going in the opposite direction. Peter asked, “Domine, quo Vadis?” Where are you going? Jesus answered; “I’m going to Rome to be crucified again.” As had happened before, Jesus had rebuked Peter, and shown him what really needed to be accomplished. Peter interpreted Jesus’s words as an order to return to Rome. He went back, and was crucified on Nero’s command.

In the picture of Annibale Carracci, Jesus is seen on the Via Appia, wearing his cross. Peter is astonished, and obviously in fear at the sight of Jesus. The question, “Quo Vadis” and the answer of Jesus pointing back to Rome are in the moment.
Annibale Carracci made a sober picture, in a style that we would now call Classicism, but this was just the way Annibale liked to paint; this was his way. The figures of Peter and Jesus are shown in full, and they are very realistically detailed without elements of ornament. The action is vivid, yet credible and not mannered. The scene is natural. The landscape of the Roman Via Appia is held simple and true. Peter is the grey-bearded apostle; Jesus is half nude, as in his Resurrection, and as he was on the cross. Both figures are elegantly dressed; Peter wears a coloured toga and Christ a red cloak that flows in the wind next to his body. The picture shows only Peter and Jesus.

The picture of Annibale Carracci is clean and simple, its message as directly conveyed as could be. Even though future painters of the generation after the Carraccis would be Baroque painters, the Carracci family inaugurated a way of depiction that impressed very much the French artists like Nicolas Poussin. The French artists favoured these presentations instead of the passionate scenes of Caravaggio, and founded their own style in this manner. This style suited perfectly well the spiritual representations of New Testament scenes for intimate pictures, as well as for the grand and epic paintings that could decorate the French palaces and churches of the splendid Courts of the Kings Louis XIII, Louis XIV and Louis XV.

The paintings in the style of the Carraccis were one answer to Italian Mannerism. Mannerism showed a profusion of contorted bodies, preferably entangled, painted in drastic foreshortening, ready to burst out of the frames in violence and in hard tension. The Carraccis’ calm art relaxed Mannerism. Classicism in the style of the Carraccis was a solution to Mannerism, a reaction to it and a logical evolution. Another logical evolution to Mannerism was Baroque. Baroque had all the qualities of an equally passionate art, but the passions were absorbed, and often quietness and a lively sweetness, even sentimentality, hang over Baroque’s pictures. This style was an antithesis to the tensions of Mannerism also.

The Rapt of the Sabine Women

Jacques-Louis David (1749-1825). Musée du Louvre. Paris. Painted in 1799.

At first sight there is only confusion. We see confusion of lines and of bodies. Then, the monumentality of the Greek representation of the warriors inspires us feelings of epic. A grand episode of antique history is being shown. The colours of the painting are soft, and the hues are subdued. The picture looks interesting, but the many details of the battle distract our attention. We perceive David’s painting as special, unusually inspiring but strange. We are invited to look more closely and to learn more about the scene.

Suddenly, we remark the essential idea of the painting, for David placed a Roman and a Sabine soldier confronting each other with a woman in between. By now we have read the title and know what is represented. The young Roman colony, still very much in its Hellenic traditions, had just been founded. The Romans needed women. They attacked their neighbours, the Sabines, and stole their daughters. The Romans married the Sabine women. When the Sabine men had organised and grown the number of their warriors, they in their turn attacked the Romans to revenge their honour and to recuperate the women. But these had married, and they had given birth to children. When the Romans and Sabines clashed, the Sabine women threw themselves between the fighters, showing their children. The battle stopped then, and eventually the Romans and Sabines would become one people.

Jacques-Louis David thus painted on the left a Sabine soldier before Rome, and on the right a Roman warrior with golden helmet and golden shield, upon which we can see the emblem of Rome, Romulus and Remus drinking from a wolf. In between stands a Sabine woman, now a Roman lady, with widespread arms, to stop the fighting, and to separate the soldiers. Her babies are lying at her feet. We now see other women lower down, half-naked as the men, clutching in despair at the legs of the soldiers. Yet other women stand there, showing their babies high in the air.
Along this movement and above the chaos of the left, the fortifications of Rome rise to the sky. The scene is dark there, as if the sun has hidden at the fight of the terrible battle of hatred among the Romans and the Sabines. But the fight is halted already. The Roman soldier holds his spear, but the lance is halted in the air, and the Sabine man has his shield sideways, so that he is open and unprotected. He shows the first sign of peace and of the stopping of the battle.

David emphasised of course the epic clash, the grandeur of Roman heroes. Like Greek statues, his figures are marvellously carved. They stand firm, solemn and determined in dignity, fully aware of their value and symbol for future generations. Like the Greek statues, David’s heroes are nude, the men first, and then also the women as we discover them, to show the ideal proportions of man. This scene thus appears out of time, and gives a strange feeling, not of drama but of the timeliness of the antique scenes of ancient Roman history that we know so well.

The scene is not just antique in content, but also Classicist in its image and expression. It is as sober in its main theme as a Carracci painting is. But David placed his statues not alone. He did not show the essence of the idea and theme with only a few personages, as he had done in the "Oath of the Horatii" fifteen years earlier, that other famous scene of ancient Roman history that created Neo-Classicism. Here, David painted the confusion of a full battle in the background. We see a prancing white horse on the right, bodies stooped and on the ground, profusion of long lances and standards, women shrieking and holding hands in the air or even fleeing the battle. All is not as simple; there is heroism but also doubt and fear.
The lances on the left are dangerously and menacingly brought forward, not straight in the air, but directed at the Romans. David did not just show the solemnity of Greece in his painting. He came also to a Romantic representation of the confusion of strong emotions in a move that is almost Baroque in inspiration.
David combined tranquil determination and chaos of background, and therefore he also showed the link between past art and present, his own art. For Jacques-Louis David had broken already in the early 1780’s with Baroque and Rococo, with Pieter Paul Rubens and François Boucher. He went back to the stricter classicism of the Carracci’s and of Nicolas Poussin, to represent the epic grandeur of antiquity as examples for a new France.

The French Revolution of 1789 stopped definitely the frivolity and lack of moral standards of the French Royal Courts. A sterner, bourgeois parliament took power. The people clashed like the Romans and the Sabines, and the representatives of the different regions of France formed blocks, Girondins faced Jacobins. With the "Rapt of the Sabines" David may have pleaded for a national agreement to build a France that would re-install the new Roman Republic. As in the painting, there were no princes or kings to take the lead. Each citizen fought, in freedom, without a leader, but with full determination of his own value.
David pleaded for the unity of France and the unity of the people, for an end to the internal strife in a national reconciliation. He hoped that France would be the basis of a Republican state, for an Imperial new history, as Rome had had. These feelings were of course very Romantic, but also very moralistic, and they place Jacques-Louis David completely in his time.

The lines are very important in David’s picture. Behind the strict vertical lines of the two main confronting fighters, we see much confusion of directions. The general direction is vertical however, dramatically emphasised by the massive fortifications of Rome. The structure of the scene, by contrast, is very horizontal, as the battle forms a dense lower band. This horizontality is enhanced by the direction of the lance of the Roman warrior. So we remark here one of those examples of the use of the combination of vertical and horizontal directions, to create an impression of immutability, of solidity in the viewer. And that feeling is of course also expressed in the enormous walls of the castle.
Solidity is shown also in the spread, firmly standing legs of the Roman soldier. A hint of a pyramidal construction can even be seen in the Sabine woman who holds her baby high between the two fighters. The two soldiers and the woman form the pyramid, and that movement leads our eyes higher up to the fortifications.

Most of the picture is painted in golden-brown-ochre hues, which are very agreeable as they accord well. There are but two white patches, one on the Sabine mother between the warriors and one on the white horse of the left. David brought sparingly some red on a woman in the background (holding both her hands to her head, in the middle) and then symmetrically to the middle he painted some red in the cloak of the Sabine soldier of the left. Some red also is on the ground on that left. He did the same with a few faint blue areas. All these more colourful hues stay subdued and nicely in tune with the overall mood of the colours, so that the picture’s ambience is almost an example of what Chevreul called the contrast of analogues.

David introduced much pathos in this picture. He must have felt a need, a strong need for reconciliation in France, and when emotions are strong and Romantic, the strictness of academic Classicism did not suffice anymore. David’s "Rapt of the Sabines" was already a late picture for the painter, whose most innovative period dated from fifteen years earlier. In the meantime, David had been a revolutionary, a member of the "Comité de Sûreté Générale", and a supporter of Robespierre. He had been in prison for a while when Robespierre fell, but would return and paint the victorious consecration to Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. David showed the Romantic Empire in subtle changes in his paintings.
The "Rapt of the Sabines" is still a Neo-Classicist picture, but the solemn dignity and determination of the first days of the Revolution, as also shown in "The Oath of the Horatii", had evolved to a combination with a freeer, exuberant Romanticism.

Jacques-Louis David was born in 1748 in Paris under the Ancien Régime, when France was still a Kingdom, as it had been since ever. When he was 23 years old, in 1771, he won a second price by the French Academy with a painting that already depicted a scene of Antiquity. He received money for a voyage to Rome and accompanied his teacher, Vien, who was appointed director to the French Academy in Rome. This voyage had a great influence on him: he could admire in Rome the paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo, of Raphael and so many others. French painting had remained in the wake of François Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard, who had continued the frivolous styles of Court painting of the century. Jacques-Louis David sought a new, original style, much more virile and epic, in line with the moderation and austerity of the Enlightenment period. He could find it back in Antiquity, in Rome's earliest history, in the unblemished periods of early centuries, which were imagined to be uncorrupted by the decadence of monarchic Courts. He was back in Paris in 1780, had success with his new vision on painting, and made another voyage to Rome for more sourcing in 1783.

David’s first very original painting in his particular style was made in 1784, in Rome, but commissioned by King Louis XVI: the "Oath of the Horatii". It was a scene from Antiquity, painted as an epic, glorifying feelings of virile courage and decisiveness, and of sacrifice to the nation. The painting was clear and sharp, the forms strict and fine, the scene theatrical, the colours dry and crisp. David possessed an impeccable technique of painting, which was very realistic and elaborate in the details. This was new painting, very different from the Bouchers and Fragonards where colours turned into each other, where the frames were often overloaded with figures in passionately outcrying poses, huge trees, luxurious skies, angels, fleshy nudes, lots of little children, most often centred on attention to women. David continued in his sober, strict, heroic style and had great success. He had many pupils and followers who took up his style: Anne-Louis Girodet, François Gérard, Antoine-Jean Gros, and the greatest among them all: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

The French Revolution caught up with him too. He became a Jacobin. He was a member of this club of the French National Convention or Parliament. He agitated in the circles of Robespierre. He even had the ages-old French Academy dissolved in 1793. He painted the "Death of Marat" in the same year. When Robespierre fell in the Thermidor upheaval, David was also imprisoned for seven months and only saved from the guillotine by some of his former friends of the Convention. The Revolution went on, would ultimately turn France into an Empire. David became the Court painter of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. We owe to David grand paintings of that period. When Napoleon was banned, David had to leave Paris during the Restoration. He left for Brussels, and died there in 1825. He is buried in the cemetery of Brussels, and not in the France of which he was one of the greatest painters.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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