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5.5: Neoclassicism (1760-1860)

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    During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the art world saw the emergence of an important movement known as neoclassicism. This artistic style directly responded to the excess and extravagance of the Rococo and Baroque periods, emphasizing a renewed appreciation for classical restraint and Greek influence. Neoclassical artists drew inspiration from excavations of classical Greek sites, incorporating elements of this ancient art into their paintings. One of the defining characteristics of neoclassical art is the use of sharply defined lines and brushstrokes, resulting in smooth surfaces that exude refined elegance. These paintings often depicted heroic figures, particularly those from ancient classics. The artists believed that classical Greek artwork demonstrated the proper techniques and adhered to the Greek standard for human proportions, thus serving as a model for their works. In addition to their fascination with classical Greek art, neoclassical artists were also intrigued by the political philosophies of ancient cultures. They often looked to these cultures for guidance, incorporating elements of their ideas into their works. They frequently employed chiaroscuro techniques to add drama to their pieces, contrasting light colors against dark tones. Minimal color was used to maintain control, with the paint applied to a smooth surface that allowed brushstrokes to blend seamlessly into the painting.

    The neoclassical movement was characterized by a return to classical ideals, emphasizing simplicity, clarity, and balance. This art style greatly emphasized the Grecian standard, using it as a model to create elegant and restrained works. Through their careers, neoclassical artists conveyed a sense of classical beauty and harmony that continues to inspire and captivate audiences to this day.

    • Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)
    • Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821)
    • Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818)
    • Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826)

    Angelica Kauffmann

    Angelica Kauffmann was a remarkably talented painter who showed an aptitude for art from a very young age. Her muralist father recognized her potential and took her on his travels to other countries. During these trips, Kauffmann had the opportunity to witness the works of old master painters and the emerging Neoclassical style, which would later influence her work. After honing her skills as a portraitist in Italy, she returned to England, where she quickly gained a strong reputation among the upper echelons of society. This reputation helped her establish a portfolio of patrons and cement her place as a leading artist. Despite being married twice, Kauffmann chose to focus solely on her career and building her reputation, which meant that she did not have any children.

    Angelica Kauffmann helped found the Royal Academy of Arts in London, one of the two women accepted (Mary Moser, the other woman). They were both restricted from attending any meetings or celebrations. Females could not paint nudes, so Kauffmann could not participate in painting classes with nude models. After the death of Kauffmann and Moser, no other female artists were academy members for 168 years until 1936, when Dame Laura Knight was elected to the academy.[1]

    a man in red, a woman in blue, and a baby in white are sitting together
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, with his First Wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Their Son (1776, oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm) Public Domain

    The Earl of Derby and his wife were wealthy and are seen in the painting with their first son, Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, with his First Wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, and Their Son (5.5.1) seated on a sofa for the family portrait. The couple is dressed in Van Dyck's clothing style, popular a hundred years earlier. The earl's red suit has slashes of blue inserts and a white-collar embellished with lace. The countess's upswept hair is adorned with feathers complementing the white bodice and sleeves, her blue gown trimmed in gold. As a family portrait, the participants are supposed to face each other and appear relaxed and engaged. However, the countess seems remote and uninterested, perhaps a reflection of her unhappiness, as after three children and four years of marriage, the countess left her husband for another man.

    Marie-Denise Villers

    During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, art societies were crucial in developing aspiring artists in England and France. These societies provided a platform for young artists to display their talents and gain recognition from potential patrons. One of the most significant events of this era was the Salon Show of 1801 in Paris, where artists from all over Europe gathered to exhibit their artwork. Among them was Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821), a young painter whose work remains a mystery. Despite the societal norms that compelled women to give up their passions after marriage, Villers' architecture student husband supported her artistic pursuits. This support was crucial for Villers as she continued to develop her painting skills and create works of art that left a lasting impression on her contemporaries. The Salon Show of 1801 was a testament to Villers' talent, and her participation in the event paved the way for future generations of female artists to pursue their dreams and break down gender barriers in the art world. She first exhibited in the Salon in 1799, followed by the painting in 1801, known as Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (5.5.2) or Young Woman Drawing.

    Initially, the painting was believed to be the creation of Jacques Louis David, but after extensive research into its history, scholars concluded that it was the work of Villers. In the 1801 Salon show, the piece was listed as "Etude d'une jeune femme assise sur une fenetre" and since David had no entries in that show, his authorship was ruled out. Although Villers' work was attributed to other artists from 1955, further investigation in 1996 confirmed that he was the artist behind the portrait. The young woman depicted in the painting dons a white dress and gazes intently at the viewer while backlit by a shining light that illuminates her hair and clothing, leaving her face in the shadows. This pose is quite unusual and adds to the painting's uniqueness.

    a woman seated on a chair with a drawing pad in her hands
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d'Ognes (1801, oil on canvas, 161.3 x 128.6 cm) Public Domain

    Marie-Gabrielle Capet

    Marie-Gabrielle Capet, an esteemed French artist, was born in 1761 to parents of humble origins who worked as servants. Her remarkable talent for art was discovered at a young age while attending a public school specializing in drawing. This early passion for art led her to become a student of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who recognized Capet's immense potential and took her under her wing as a favored protégé. In the past, female artists faced significant challenges in gaining acceptance into the esteemed Royal Academy of Art in Paris. At the time, only four women held membership in the academy. However, following the French Revolution, the Salon became open to all artists, and Capet proudly displayed her work there. Initially, she gained recognition for her exceptional pastel pieces but expanded her repertoire to include oil paintings. Her unique skill set was in high demand, and she received numerous commissions for her miniature works. Capet's success as a female artist when women's contributions to the arts were often overlooked is a testament to her immense talent, perseverance, and dedication to her craft.

    In Capet's Self-portrait (5.5.3), she appears self-confident and demonstrates her ability to paint. Her dress shimmers in the light, the fabric delicately folded on her arm. Capet's hair is perfectly curled and drapes down her back and shoulder. The local Journal de Paris described her in the painting as an artist "who, among the female virtuosos, has the surest touch and drawing."[2] Capet painted her work The Time in the Atelier of Madam Vincent (5.5.4) as a tribute to Labille-Guiard, Capet's long-time teacher and mentor. In the painting, she placed Labille-Guiard dressed in white while sitting at the large easel. Labille-Guiard was painting a man dressed in clothing similar to a Senator of the Empire in full regalia, including an ornate cape and medals. He was working on a drawing of his own seen lying on the table. Other people in the portrait were artists and students. Capet is seated and dressed in a blue painter's smock and appears to be loading her palette with paint. She also painted herself with gray hair, indicating her long career as a painter, almost thirty years. The painting is a tribute to the larger community of painters at the time and how they worked together and taught succeeding generations. The two people behind him discussed the drawing by the seated man, and the large painting had one man pointing to a specific element while others looked on. Capet is the only one looking at the viewer as though she is talking to us about the community of artists.

    A woman in a blue dress with gold stripes is poised holding a pen looking at the painter
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Self-portrait (oil on canvas, 1783, 77.5 x 59.5 cm) (Public Domain)
    A woman painter in the center of the room painting a treaty signing with 6 men at a table
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Time in the Atelier of Madam Vincent (oil on canvas, 1808. 69 x 83.5 cm) (Public Domain)
    Marie-Gabrielle Capet

    Marie-Gabrielle Capet (6 September 1761 – 1 November 1818) was a French Neoclassical painter. She was born in Lyon on 6 September 1761. Capet came from a modest background and her previous background and artistic training is unknown, but in 1781 she became the pupil of the French painter Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in Paris. She excelled as a portrait painter and her works include oil paintings, watercolours, and miniatures.


    Marie-Guillemine Benoist

    Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826) was born in Paris, where her father worked in the government. She trained with the artists Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David, part of France's larger community of artists. She even received commissions from Louis XVIII and other governmental officials. After the revolution, the Royal Academy in Paris opened the Salon to allow women to display, and Benoist was able to enter her work in Salon shows. In 1804 Benoist was presented with the Salon gold medal and was able to open an atelier to train other women. Unfortunately, Benoist's husband had fallen under political disfavor, and they both had to go into hiding. Afterward, her husband was rehabilitated and advanced in his career. When her career was doing exceptionally well, she was forced to stop painting because of her husband's political activities.

    Benoist first exhibited her painting Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell (5.5.5) at the Paris Salon in 1791, one of the first women to show there. Previously, women painted still lifes or portraits. However, women were considered too intellectually inferior to paint historic images; this painting was typically reserved for men. Benoist was one of only three women to study under Jacques-Louis David, one of the premier history painters. In this image, Psyche gives her mother the last hug as her father bows his head and her sisters comfort each other. The rock leaves Psyche to marry a monster and sacrifice for the public good. The painting was filled with family drama and the sacrifices of women, perhaps an idea of how Benoist felt.

    Benoist's painting, Madame Philippe Panon Desbassayns de Richemont and Her Son (5.5.6), was initially believed to be painted by David, Benoist's teacher. The woman in the painting had married into a family with huge fortunes from sugar and coffee plantations. The young woman is seated on the chair and turns her head to look directly at the artist, displaying a side profile. The little boy stands behind his mother, his curly hair and cherubic face centered in the painting. The red blanket draped on one side of the chair balances the darkness of the opposite side of the painting. The white dress and pale skin appear dimensional against the background.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Psyche Bidding Her Family Farewell (oil on canvas, 1791, 111 x 145 cm) (Public Domain)
    A woman in a white dress with a young child standing behind her lap against a dark screen
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Madame Philippe Panon Desbassayns de Richemont and Her Son (oil on canvas, 1802, 1156.8 x 89.5 cm) (Public Domain)

    [1] Retrieved from

    [2] Retrieved from

    This page titled 5.5: Neoclassicism (1760-1860) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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