Neoclassical Sculpture
Greek/Roman Style Statues, Portraits, Reliefs: Characteristics, Famous Works.

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Close-up of Canova's masterpiece
Cupid and Psyche (1786-93, Louvre).
One of the greatest examples of
Neoclassical sculpture of the
18th century.

Neoclassical Sculpture (1750-1850)


What is Neoclassicism?
General Characteristics
Neoclassical Sculpture in Italy
Germany and Austria
- Early Period (c.1775-1825)
- Later Period (c.1825-1900)
- Neoclassicism Gives Way to Classical Realism
Famous Neoclassical Sculptures

Portrait of Voltaire Seated (1781, Louvre)
By Jean Antoine Houdon.

Jason with the Golden Fleece
(1803) Thorvaldsens Museum.
By Bertel Thorvaldsen.

What is Neoclassicism?

Neoclassical art was the dominant style of art in Europe and America during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. It included Neoclassical architecture and Neoclassical painting as well as plastic art of all types. Inspired by archeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and by a revival of architecture, Neoclassical sculptors rejected the frivolous prettiness of the Rococo in favour of the order and clarity associated with Greek art and its younger sibling Roman art. The Neoclassicist revival began in Rome - an important stopover in the Grand Tour - from where it spread northwards to France, England, Germany, Sweden, Russia and America.

General Characteristics

Classicism, or neoclassicism - the imitation of the art of classical antiquity - dominated all of Europe during the last few years of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The style was championed by the propaganda of the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) - notably in his two books entitled "Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks" (1755), and "History of the Art of Antiquity" (1764) - and the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79); but the movement may be viewed also as a spontaneous reaction against the extravagancies of Baroque and Rococo Sculptors (1600-1750). The imitation of Greek and Roman sculpture practised by Neoclassicists was more absolute even than that shown by Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo (1475-1564). Since at first the productions of the best ancient periods were not known, the works of the pupils of Praxiteles and of Hellenistic art in general were taken as the supreme models, with the result that charm and grace, softness, and sometimes even sensuality became the great desiderata. Although the sculptures of the Parthenon (447-422) and the Aeginetan temple were revealed to Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, they really had very little influence. Bertel Thorvaldsen and other later Neoclassicist sculptors flattered themselves that they had attained a more essentially Greek manner than Antonio Canova and the earlier generation, dignifying it with the name of Hellenism; but as a matter of fact the whole output of Neoclassicism was very much the same.

Like all imitators, the Neoclassicist exaggerated the traits of his prototypes, omitting the modelling, for instance, as far as possible in his effort after the idealized and generalized beauty of antiquity. The aims that he set himself were Hellenic repose of body, classic impassivity of countenance, and simplicity of composition; but occasionally, in a last homage to Baroque sculpture or in a frantic effort to break the cold spell of the Neoclassical style, he dared to indulge in extravagant gesticulation, all the more obvious and painful because it was unfitted to the forms that he had borrowed from the past. Pictorial perspective was banished from reliefs. Christian subjects were deemed less capable of the highest artistic expression than those of classical mythology and history. By the strictest theorists, portraits were taboo; but patronage demanded them, and their executers soothed their consciences by generalizing the features, by approximating them to those of some Greek or Roman figure, and by clothing the forms in ancient costume or ancient nudity or at least by somewhat concealing contemporary dress in a classically draped mantle. All themes were oppressed by rhetorical sentimentality. Yet even Neoclassicism had its virtues, and one of them was a partial recovery of the sculptural sense as distinct from Baroque pictorialism.

NOTE: For other significant schools and stylistic trends, please see Art Movements (from 100 BCE).



Neoclassical Sculpture in Italy

The first great exponent of the style in sculpture was an Italian, Antonio Canova (1757-1822), born at Possagno in the province of Treviso but active chiefly at Rome. He tinged the Neoclassical manner with other characteristics, but he also exemplified its typical features. The close similarity of his Perseus with the Head of Medusa, in the Vatican, upon the Apollo Belvedere reveals how sometimes he indulged in an almost exact reproduction of antiques. At other times the relation, though indubitable, is not so tangible: for instance, Cupid and Psyche, in the Louvre, seems to have been suggested by a painting of a faun and a nymph from Herculaneum. The conception of Pauline Bonaparte as a Venus Victrix may serve as an example of his adaptation of portraits to classic figures. Like the Greek artist Praxiteles, Canova's art embodies the Neoclassic standards of grace and softness. One of the reasons was that these qualities were attuned to his own personality, and there is, indeed, a more subjective note in Canova's sculpture than in the average output of the movement. He possessed a sense of physical beauty, the inalienable heritage of his race, which even the tyranny of Neoclassicism could not utterly dull.

In a word, his works have more warmth than those of his rivals. The elegance and sweetness of many of his productions are lingering echoes of Rococo art. Another phase of his personality is exhibited by the Hercules and Lichas in the National Gallery of Modern Art at Rome, one of his occasional and successful attempts to reproduce the colossal and forceful aspects of the antique. Here, as in some other instances, the Baroque sense was still potent enough to make him choose the passing moment for representation. Nor was he quite so oblivious to nature as the purists demanded. The best proof is afforded by some of his portraits, such as the Laetitia Bonaparte at Chatsworth, England. The contemporary tendencies to simplification, placidity, allegory, and sentiment are well illustrated by his series of mortuary monuments. In the two tombs of Pope Clement XIV and Pope Clement XIII, the former in the church of the SS Apostoli, the latter in St. Peter's, Rome, he reduced the Baroque type of sepulchre to greater tranquillity. His most pretentious mausoleum, the monument of the Archduchess Maria Christina in the Augustinian Church, Vienna, is a subdued example of the French dramatic tomb of the eighteenth century.

Neoclassical Sculpture in Denmark

The boasted Hellenism of Bertel Thorvaldsen of Copenhagen (1770-1844) manifested itself chiefly only in a greater profusion of Greek subjects and in an affectation of greater archeological correctness and detail. Having established himself at Rome, he developed into an absolute slave of the antique. It was a foregone conclusion that his respect for nature would be reduced to the minimum. One misses in his sculpture the impress of personality that Canova managed to retain. When unassisted by the ideas of others and when not reproducing antique conceptions, he was simple and unimaginative almost to the point of stupidity, nor did he compensate by any emotional qualities. It is all very well to say that he intended this simplicity and this suppression of passion because both were incongruous with the tranquillity of the antique; but had he not been very phlegmatic in temperament, he would surely have chafed under such restrictions and at times and to a certain extent he would surely have shaken off these fetters. He was even technically inferior to Canova. The principal aesthetic quality with which he was concerned was probably composition, and here he was almost always good. One or two examples will suffice. Like the Perseus of Canova, his Jason with the Golden Fleece (1803) is merely a transcript of the Apollo Belvedere. In the frieze of Alexander's triumph, the horsemen are suggested by the Parthenon frieze and the Asiatics by the barbarians on Trajan's column. Like Canova he was more at home in the gently elegant than in the heroic, and for this reason perhaps he preferred relief to statues in the round. But even in his best works in this manner, such as the renowned allegorical tondos of Morning and Night, he did not approach so close to Praxitelean grace as his Italian rival. The nearest that he ever got to naturalism was in three of his four tondos of the Seasons, the rather charming Spring remaining antique in conception. His portraits he was likely to translate completely into ancient terms, until little suggestion of the individual was left. The Count Potocki in the cathedral of Cracow, for instance, is a highly idealized classical warrior. His best portrait is perhaps the seated effigy of Pius VII on the tomb in St. Peter's Basilica, a monument of the more tranquil type employed by Canova. In the latter part of his life, he was forced to sacrifice his principles somewhat and do homage to the Romantic movement; but with his lack of any historic sense, he was here out of his element, and even in the best of his statues in romantic costume, such as the equestrian Maximilian I in the Wittelsbacher-Platz, Munich, he was able to attain no incisiveness or force.

Neoclassical Sculpture in France

French neoclassicism is represented above all by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-85) and his pupil Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828). Pigalle, who became an Academician at the age of 30, was equally good at creating small genre items as he was at grandiose tomb sculpture - one of the great craftsmen of his day. His pupil Houdon won the Prix de Rome in 1761 and early on carved two works that secured his reputation - the neoclassical St Bruno (1767, S.Maria degli Angeli) and a male "ecorche" figure (1767, Schlossmuseum, Gotha) widely used in fine arts academies to demonstrate human anatomy. However, he became best known for his marble portraits and portrait busts, such as Voltaire (1781) Bibliotheque de la Comedie Francais, Paris.

Neoclassicism was peculiarly fostered in France by the revolutionary ideals of ancient republics and by Napoleon's visions of a Roman empire. The artistic dictatorship that in the past had been enjoyed by such men as Charles Le Brun was now wielded by the painter Jacques-Louis David, who exercised his confirmed antiquarian influence in sculpture as well as in his own sphere. Since the ancient borrowings, however, were coloured with an unmistakable "Frenchiness," they were never so absolute as those of Canova and Thorvaldsen.

One group of sculptors cultivated the Praxitelean grace exhibited by Antoine Denis Chaudet (1763-1810) in his exquisite Cupid Catching a Butterfly. Pierre Cartellier (1757-1831) may be taken as representative of another, more austere coterie, who found success in the decoration of Neoclassical architecture and in other monumental undertakings. Basing himself upon an ancient coin or gem, for instance, he executed a rather impressive relief in his Triumphal Quadriga over the central door of the Colonnade in the east facade of the Louvre Palace. Less hidebound than the majority of Neoclassicists, he revealed in his statue of Vergniaud at Versailles qualities of portraiture that even his archeological enthusiasm and the antique costume could not completely nullify.

Certain sculptors ventured a somewhat more decided rebellion, daring, in some degree, to study nature and to bestow at least a modicum of warmth upon their creations. Joseph Chinard of Lyons (1756-1813), in the soft outlines of his favorite terracotta sculpture, preserved much of the light and graceful charm of the Rococo. His Three Graces in the Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, is a typical instance of the dainty and fanciful mode in which the eighteenth century treated mythological themes. His fame rests upon his delicate busts of young women. Although he sometimes so far catered to existing standards as to garb them in classical costume, he violated Neoclassical dogma by making them real portraits, and perhaps more than anyone else in the period he invested them with French sensibility to feminine charm.

Sculpture of Classical Antiquity
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (500-450 BCE)
Start of the golden age. See Charioteer of Delphi (475)
High Classical Greek Sculpture (450-400 BCE)
The glorious era of the Parthenon statues and reliefs.
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (400-323 BCE)
See works like Aphrodite of Knidos and Apollo Belvedere.
Hellenistic Greek Sculpture (323-27 BCE)
See Venus de Milo and Laocoon.
Roman Relief Sculpture (117-324 CE)
See fabulous historical reliefs like those on Trajan's Column.

Neoclassical Sculpture in Germany and Austria

The naturalistic tradition was too inbred in German art to be eradicated by Neoclassicism, as it was in other countries.

The transition from the Rococo to Neoclassicism was embodied in Johann Heinrich Dannecker of Stuttgart (1758-1841). The charming Sappho of the Stuttgart Museum illustrates how his Rococo education left a pleasant aftermath through all his earlier production, both in his preference for subjects allowing him to treat the feminine figure and in his predilection for somewhat slighter and more graceful forms than those cultivated by the more heroic among the Neoclassicists. As he grew more Neoclassical, although definite ancient prototypes for his works may occasionally be found, the effect of classical art upon him may be sought in fused impressions of several antiques or, even less specifically, in original imitations of the ancient style. So it is rather the spirit of the antique that breathes through his Girl Lamenting her Dead Bird (1790), probably suggested by Catullus's poem on Lesbia and the dead sparrow. His most renowned achievement is Ariadne on the Panther (1810-24, Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main). The enduring significance of Dannecker consists in the pleasing union of a moderate naturalism with the ancient principles of rhythm and harmony. The best instances of naturalism, are, as usual, the portrait busts. He was in particular 'the' portraitist of Schiller. Of several examples, the earliest, in the Library at Weimar, is the most memorable, despite the fact that the hair is treated with antique conventionalism.

The greatest German sculptor of the Neoclassic period was Johann Gottfried Schadow of Berlin (1764-1850). It is necessary to describe Schadow as "of the Neoclassical period," and not as essentially Neoclassical himself, since, although inevitably influenced by the Rococo style of his youth and by the prevalent antiquarianism, he was independent of any movement, and recognized as his guides only nature and his own conceptions. If he must be assigned to some tendency, his naturalism would be more in harmony with the Rococo. He approached closest to the Neoclassical genre in his decoration of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, and in his last work of marble sculpture, the recumbent maiden in the National Gallery, Berlin. Perhaps the most striking instances of his realism, all with contemporary military uniforms, are the statues of Frederick the Great in the Provinzial-Landhaus, Stettin, and of the generals Ziethen and Von Dessau in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. His most popular work is the standing portrait group of the two sisters, the Princesses Louise and Friederike of Prussia, in the Palace at Berlin. In a greater degree than Dannecker, he has attained an agreeable fusion of naturalism, of Rococo loveliness, and of that classic grace which was much assisted by the similarity of the fashionable Empire costume to the dress of ancient Rome.

Neoclassical Sculpture in England

The English sculptors of this period sought to atone for a kind of provincial dullness and for the general coldness of the Neoclassical style by a more liberal resort to rhetoric than even their continental rivals allowed themselves.

One of the first Neoclassical artists in England to produce neoclassical works of any real conviction was Thomas Banks (1735-1805), creator of the stoic relief sculpture The Death of Germanicus (1774), noted for the way in which the action is kept parallel to the front plane, in the tradition of the Roman antique. Another Neoclassicist, who spent the 1760s in Rome, was the portrait sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823). Like Houdon, he had a weakness for the Baroque, but went on to carve numerous portraits in a particularly austere Roman manner.

The first important Neoclassicist was John Flaxman (1755-1826), who was much more distinguished in his drawing than in his sculpture. He himself never learned how to handle marble successfully, and usually modelled or designed for others to execute, setting little value on careful finish. His private sepulchres have the strained sentiment of the epoch. In these he was accustomed to give concrete form to some Biblical text, and in general he had more religious interest than the average English Neoclassicist. His well-known Michael overcoming Satan at Petworth House is curiously Baroque in spirit. His monuments of Nelson in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, and of Lord Mansfield in Westminster Abbey are mild examples of the pompous and sentimental allegory relished by the British of that time in public commemorations. The best known immediate successor of Flaxman was Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841). If he had been a greater artist, he might have become an English Schadow, for he was more at home in realistic subjects, such as portraits, than in imaginative themes or sepulchral monuments. As a sculptor of busts, he was the most sought after master of the day, but it is doubtful whether his likenesses are any better than those by Flaxman. The bust of Walter Scott in the National Portrait Gallery, London, is typical. The George Washington of the State House, Boston, is a characteristic specimen of his portrait statues, in which he was famous for concentrating attention upon the head and for imparting to it intellectuality.

Neoclassical sculpture in Austria, Belgium, and Spain has no special characteristics, nor is it of such universal significance as to need separate treatment.

Neoclassical Sculpture in America

Early Period (c.1775-1825)

Puritanical aversion to art and the austere lifestyle of the colonists meant that conditions in the New World were not conducive to sculpture of any kind until the middle of the eighteenth century. (For an overview of artistic life, see: American Colonial Art 1670-1800.) Several European sculptors who obtained orders here after this date have already been mentioned; but native production had already begun on a humble scale. The work of the earliest American sculptors did not belong to any school but was the result of the poor conglomerate artistic education that they could pick up in this remote country from prints, casts, or the very few examples of European sculpture that they chanced to see. Yet even in the United States they fell more or less under the influence of Neoclassicism. In these first attempts, American sculpture passed through a phase which was, in a way, as truly "primitive" as archaic Greek sculpture or even medieval Romanesque sculpture, while possessing the charm of sincerity and hard effort. The outstanding figure of this early stage of American sculpture was William Rush of Philadelphia (1756-1833), who confined himself to the materials of wood and clay and all of whose performances clearly betray the wood-carver's methods. His feminine allegorical figures are as Neoclassical as they are anything, but the wood-carver's technique gives them a Rococo "fussiness" and projection of the folds. The Nymph of the Schuylkill, carved in wood for a fountain and preserved for us in a bronze replica in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, proves that almost all of these early sculptors managed through sheer innate talent to create one or two memorable works. The statue of George Washington in Independence Hall is a simple and impressive likeness, unspoiled by too close a contact with Neoclassicism. It is typical of Rush's style, even to the difficulty that the sculptor encountered in creating an easy posture.

Later Period (c.1825-1900)

With the increasing cultural development of the United States came the habit of study in Italy and the consequent absolute surrender to Neoclassicism. The chief sculptors in the generation after Rush were Greenough, Powers, and Crawford. All three, having once established themselves in Italy, remained there for a large part of their lives, shipping their orders to America! Their activities extended far into the nineteenth century, beyond the chronological but not the stylistic limits of Neoclassicism.

Horatio Greenough of Boston (1805-1852) exhibits his dull average of Neoclassic mythology in such works as the Cupid Bound of the Boston Museum. His seated George Washington is made to look like a Phidian Zeus; but its faults are more the faults of the epoch. The bust of John Quincey Adams in the New York Historical Society betrays the fact that Greenough floundered even more than the usual Neoclassicist in portraiture.

Hiram Powers (1805-1873) owed his fame largely to the sensation created, in untutored America, by his female nudes. The most celebrated example is the Greek Slave, derived from the Medicean Venus. In works like the Daniel Webster in front of the State House, Boston, he achieved a slightly more veracious portraiture than Greenough.

Thomas Crawford of New York City (1813-1857) was more original and imaginative than either of his rivals, initiating the American tradition of themes for national glorification. His most interesting legacy is his decoration of the Capitol at Washington. The bronze Armed Freedom, which crowns the dome, is a conception of real majesty, almost inspired. Although his pediment of the Senate Wing is a disjointed composition, some of the separate forms are not to be forgotten, especially the America, conceived in the same high mood as the Armed Freedom, and the seated and dejected Indian chieftain. His bronze doors - created for the east portico of the Senate wing during the mid-19th-century expansion of the U.S. Capitol - representing the terrors of war and the blessings of peace, were another innovation in our country. In their simplicity of composition, lucidity of narrative, and pleasantly conceived and executed figures, they constitute Crawford's masterpiece.

Neoclassicism Gives Way to Classical Realism

American sculptural traditions were addressed more directly by the prolific artist Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), noted for his vast output of public monuments, including his seated marble statue of Abraham Lincoln (1920) at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The South Dakota portrait sculptor James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) was inspired by his early work on neoclassical architectural sculpture at the Chicago World Fair, but is best known for his powerful frontier realism. Another realist was the Massachusetts artist Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973), famous for her equestrian statues and horses.

Famous Neoclassical Sculptures

Here is a short selected list of some of the best-known Neoclassical sculptures, listed chronologically by artist.

• Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-85)
- Madame de Pompadour as Friendship (1753) Louvre, Paris.
- Mercury Tying his Talaria (1753) Louvre, Paris.
- Voltaire Nude (1770-76) Louvre, Paris.

Etienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-91)
- Bather (1757) Louvre, Paris.
- Peter the Great "The Bronze Horseman" (1766-78) St Petersburg.

• Thomas Banks (1735-1805)
- Death of Germanicus (1774) marble relief, Holkham Estate, Norfolk.

• Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823)
- Venus (1773) J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

• Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
- Portrait of Voltaire in a Toga (1778) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
- Voltaire (1781) Bibliotheque de la Comedie Francais, Paris.
- Diana the Huntress (1790) Louvre, Paris.

• Franz Anton von Zauner (1746-1822)
- Equestrian Statue of Joseph the Second (1795-1806) Josefplatz, Vienna.

• John Flaxman (1755-1826)
- The Fury of Athamas (1790) Ickworth, UK.
- St. Michael overcoming Satan (1819-24) Flaxman Gallery, UCL, London.

• Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
- Apollo Crowning Himself (1781) J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
- Theseus and the Minotaur (1781-83), Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
- Cupid and Psyche (1786-93) Marble, Louvre, Paris.
- Perseus and the head of Medusa (1797-1801) Vatican Museums, Rome.
- The Three Graces (1813-16) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

• Johann Heinrich von Dannecker (1758-1841)
- Sappho (1797-1802) Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.
- Ariadne on the Panther (1810-24) Liebieghaus, Frankfurt am Main.

• Antoine Denis Chaudet (1763-1810
- Cupid Catching a Butterfly (1817, Louvre, Paris)

• Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850)
- The Crown Princesses Louise & Friedrike of Prussia (1797) Berlin.

• Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1884)
- Cupid and Psyche (1796-7), Louvre, Paris.
- Jason with the Golden Fleece (1802-3) Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen.
- Alexander the Great Entering Babylon (1812) Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome.

• Horatio Greenough (1805-1852)
- George Washington (1840) Smithsonian American Art Museum.

• Thomas Crawford (1813-1857)
- Bronze Doors (1855–1857) East portico of the US Senate, Washington DC.

Neoclassical-style plastic art can be seen in some of the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world.


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