It was the late 18th century when Europe started to turn his head to Classical art. Greek and Roman art was once again in the picture, and their influence is clearly visible in the work of artists such as Angelica Kauffman, Jacques-Louis David or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Greece and Rome served as models of political organization, but with values such as liberty, virtuosity and morality. This art period was the result of an intense shift in philosophy, way of living, society, science and technology, product of the evolution of mankind. Thus The Enlightenment was born, which was in essence a new way of thinking about the world independently of religion, myth or tradition (1).
In 1755, Johann Winckelmann became the first art historian, publishing Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture, praising Greek art as “noble simplicity and silent greatness” (2). He described each monument and organised them by subject matter, style and period. Before him, art historians focused on biography of artists and not specifically about the work. Regarding society and science, Voltaire was the embodiment of the Enlightenment thinking. His constant critiques of kingdoms, privileges and nobility gave credibility to his ideas, which in later years ignited the French Revolution.
For this post, I selected the work of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), a french artist with incredible craftsmanship who was highly influenced by the art of ancient civilisations and the great Renaissance masters. The concepts of these cultures were translated into his modern society and The Enlightenment ideals.
The simple composition of the painting is due to the idea of projecting directness and clarity. Jean-Paul Marat was a writer and a radical, close to the artist, tragically murdered. The negative space is vast on this painting, making the scene even more tragical and dramatic with the absence of elements. His arms serve as arrows pointing at important elements of the picture (letter and names). This painting later on presented Marat as a martyr of the revolution and as an icon of the citizen who fights for liberty and freedom.
This specific image is rather warm, with a soft light coming from our upper left. Light warms the cold body of the victim probably attempting to soften the tragic scene and diminish the crudeness of the setting. The color scheme is limited to green and ocres, as well as gray tones and dark shadows in the ground area.
Line is used only to separate volumes of the body and elements of the picture that may not read as good without line. We can see this in the drapery and its contact with the arms, and of course, the handwriting on both the letter and the wooden box beside the bathtub.
The range of tones is wide, but the image is mostly covered with midtones rather than dark shadows of extreme highlights. Even though its a very dramatic scene, the lighting is soft and easy. The artist had a sensitive eye for color, and probably the feeling of sorrow and calmness where somewhere used in this artwork.
As usual, a part of this posts is taken by the image recreation/study to understand the art period. In this case, we were given the assignment to do a portrait painting of a classmate, putting them in an period costume as well as in a room with period furniture. Here’s my take on neoclassical painting, as well as a couple of thumbnails and references to define composition and style.
Hope you enjoyed the post!
(1) Kleiner, Fred and Mamiya, Christin. Gardner’s Art through the ages. Volume II. Thomson-Wadsworth. Twelfth edition. United States. 2006. Page 636.
(2) Kleiner, Fred and Mamiya, Christin. Gardner’s Art through the ages. Volume II. Thomson-Wadsworth. Twelfth edition. United States. 2006. Page 646
- Kleiner, Fred S., Christin J. Mamiya, Richard G. Tansey, and Helen Gardner. Gardner’s art through the ages. 12th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
- kuler.adobe.com — Digital application