It is understood that neoclassicism began in the late 1700. It lasted up to 1800's. The main attribute of the period is that the movement contributed towards the spread of ancient Roman and Greek styles in European art. In particular, neoclassical art focused on courage, nationalism, tradition and sacrifice. Although, neoclassical art spread quickly in Europe, France and England were in the forefront in its use.
Many reasons explain why neoclassical art became so dominant at the time. Some observers point to the discovery of prehistoric artefacts at Pompeii and Herculaneum as a primary inspiration of neoclassicism. Another contribution towards the development of neoclassical art is attributable to the role played by Johann Winckelmann, a German historian. The historian indicated that the most notable part of neoclassical art rested on its calm grandeur and noble simplicity. The need to replace the then existing styles of baroque and rococo could have also played a key role.
The role of paintings became more pronounced during the neoclassical era. Since the neoclassical art centred on diverse themes, only talented artists could manage to work on such complex requirements. The Baroque style, which dominated, was later relegated, and in the process paved way for the emergence of the Rococo style. Rococo differed from the Baroque style in terms of softness and eroticism. However, a revolution in artistic circles oversaw the replacement of Rococo with neoclassical art. The young generation of artists sprang a surprise by considering an alternative form of art. The new form of art used visuals to propagate a revolutionary image.
Neoclassicism is a central theme in the French revolution. The movement began as a rebellious organisation against the rococo art style. This was because the style symbolised the dominance of the aristocrats in the French leadership at that time. After the revolution, aristocracy was overthrown, and it became necessary to embody the new ways of life in a different artistic style. As a result, neoclassical artists found the opportunity to develop sculptors and paintings that helped to depict the Roman history. In order to get a clearer picture that captures the association of art and the revolution three paintings have been selected and analysed. The three pieces of art are: the Oath of the Horatii (1784), the Death of Marat (1793) and that of Antoine Lavoisier and his wife (1788).
David painted the prominent Oath of the Horatii in 1784. The main reference of the piece of art was enlightenment and its values. Similarly, the artist intended to underscore the concept of social contracting as presented by Rousseau. It should be noted that the social contract is a depiction of how citizens conspired to hand power to a leviathan (ruler). In surrendering their power to the ruler, the citizens in effect allowed another party to take charge of their lives. This republic ideal proved to be the main idea surrounding the painting as the three sons occupy positions as directed by their father. It is possible to read the agreement or the oath among the four characters. Based on the oath, it is arguable that unity among men was an expectation that each person had to offer. Men were also expected to act as State agents. It is also evident that the piece of art was used to highlight the position of sexes/genders during the time. The females of the locality played different roles from those of males. As the picture reflects, the women are at the backside of the father while the men are in the front. The implication is that the women in the place are not part of the oath ritual. Similarly, in the picture, the scale that is used to make the drawings is smaller than that of the males. This also has another implication since using a smaller scale for women diminishes their worth against that of men. In brief, during the French revolution, the men assumed more responsibilities with regard to both social and political life.
In the same drawing, the aspect of masculinity is highly magnified. The virility and discipline displayed by the men depicts confidence and rigidity. On the contrary, the women are depicted as slouching, an aspect that demonstrates softness. The differences in the sexes proved to be a weighty issue in the French revolution as men were the ones who took to the battlefront. In the process, women were relegated to the peripheral or subordinate roles.
In the same piece of art, it is easy to spot the eagles. Apparently, the distribution sends a message regarding the revolution. Specifically, the distribution of the eagles depicts the need for sacrifice or individual patriotism to the Emperor. Equally, the distribution centred on the need for glory during war.
Another important drawing in the history of the French revolution is the Death of Marat that was developed in 1793. David did the piece of art in remembrance of his friend Marat who was assassinated. Charlotte Corday assassinated Marat when she pretended that she was presenting a list of French enemies to be executed. At the time, such enemies were supposed to be guillotined. Upon the commission of the heinous crime, Charlotte Corday was guillotined. The assassin came from an opposing political party, an aspect that explains the divisions within the French at that time along political party lines.
Marat was a senior member of the National Assembly. He suffered from an itchy skin disease, which meant that he was always in pain. His bathroom offered the best place to find solace. In the bathroom, Marat improvised a table to write lists of suspects seen as counterrevolutionaries. These suspects were subsequently tried and convicted hurriedly before being guillotined. Marat's body was placed on a Roman bed displaying his wound while his right hand held the pen he often used to prepare the execution lists. The reference of the painting as the Pietà of the French revolution perhaps underlies why it is seen as a critical piece of art in the French history.
The Death of Marat proved to be a central image of both David and Marat in regards to the revolution. The piece of art is a testimony of how artists with political convictions hold power. The painting immediately created a political martyr in Marat. The painting depicts elements of the crucifixion of Jesus. However, the subject remains lifeless. The surrogate tombstone and the holy light that is cast on the scene allude to a supernatural existence. Since, both David and Marat were social reformers it is arguable that the two contributed towards the creation of a new religion. At the centre of the new religious ideas, the republic stood.
After the death of the king around 1793, war broke out pitying the new republic and other powers from Europe. The Committee of General Security oversaw a reign of terror in the region. The severity of the community was as severe as it recommended Marie Antoinette to face the guillotine. The painting could also reflect the fate that generals, priests, aristocrats and enemies had to endure during the revolution.
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