Neoclassical Sculptors
Neoclassicist Artists: Antonio Canova, Pigalle, Houdon, Thorvaldson.

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Cupid and Psyche (close-up)
(1786-93, Louvre, Paris)
By Antonio Canova, the greatest
sculptor of the neoclassical period.
A superb example of Plastic Art.

Neoclassical Sculptors (1750-1850)
Biographies, Famous Statues, Reliefs

Advent of Neoclassicism

In France, the tenuous ascendency of the rococo during the Regence period led to a reaction in favour of a nobler and more serious style of sculpture in the 1740s which, as we have seen, was associated with a feeling of nostalgia for the reign of Louis XIV. The classicism of the 1740s and of Bouchardon in particular should not however, be seen as a rejection of the Baroque, but as a further development of Baroque classicism that looks back to the style of the late 17th century rather than directly to Greek sculpture or Roman sculpture of antiquity. Only in Rome in the 1760s did the growing dissatisfaction with what Jacques-Louis David called 'la queue de Bernini' or the tail-end of the Baroque, find expression in a coherent theory of Neoclassical sculpture.

Neoclassical Equestrian Statue
of Joseph Poniatowski (1827)
Warsaw. By Bertel Thorvaldsen.

For more Neoclassicist sculptors,
see: Neoclassical Artists.

For more information, see:
Neoclassical Architecture (1640-1850)
Neoclassical Painting (c.1750-1860)
Baroque/Rococo Sculptors.

For a list of the world's most
skilful 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

For the world's top 100 works
by the best sculptors, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

The spokesman for neoclassical art was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), the German antiquarian, who produced a number of publications on Greek art that for the first time attempted to organize Greek statues according to their stylistic development. Winckelmann saw the Baroque as an unfortunate inheritance that had to be swept away if artists were to return to the purity and simplicity of classical antiquity. He rather unexpectedly chose the statue in the Vatican known as Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20 BCE), as one of the principal examples of the 'edle Einfalt und stille Grosse' of the best Greek works, but he saw these qualities in the restraint and nobility with which Laocoon suffers his terrible agony.

The quality of restraint had always been admired by classical theorists, but the novelty in Winckelmann's argument is that his ideal of simplicity is not just an admonition to avoid over-elaboration, but a call to artists to purge themselves of everything extraneous to the pure realization of the idea of their work. As a result a convincing appearance of reality was no longer a sine qua non, and naturalism for its own sake was condemned as imitation of nature.


Antonio Canova

The theory and the earlier development of neoclassicism was essentially the achievement of foreigners in Rome, but the greatest exponent was Antonio Canova (1757-1822), an Italian who studied in Venice. He became a sudden convert to the doctrine of neoclassicism, and we can follow the change in his work and the reaction of his contemporaries to it. Canova was born in Possagno, near Venice, and had achieved a great reputation in Venice, especially for the group of Daedalus and Icarus (1779). This work is still in an unmistakably late Baroque idiom; the surface of the figures is minutely depicted and their relationship graceful and conversational. He brought a version of it to Rome in 1779 where he became friendly with the Scottish painter Gavin Hamilton, who had become the arbiter of neoclassical taste after the death of Winckelmann in 1768. In 1781 Canova was given a block of marble by the Venetian ambassador for a group of Theseus and the Minotaur and, apparently on Hamilton's advice, he decided to show the moment of triumph after the battle instead of the battle itself. The work is revolutionary in its uncompromising severity. It marks the end of the baroque era in sculpture and henceforward the new Grecian style gradually took over as the official style for all monuments and large-scale sculptural projects. His Success with the Theseus led to the commission for the tomb of Pope Clement XIV (1784-7) in Ss. Apostoli in Rome. This project invited direct comparison with Bernini, and Canova's final realization can be seen as deliberate purification of Bernini's concept of the papal tomb; the dazzling polychromy has been replaced by unsullied Carrara marble, and the curvilinear forms and strong diagonals have yielded to a rigid system of horizontals and verticals, while the figures are spaced out and separated from each other.

Canova's zeal in removing the excrescences from Bernini's conception has also removed much of the artistic vitality. His less ambitious works where a little rococo esprit remains are now much more acceptable than his grander tombs, but his contemporaries took a more high-minded view of his achievements. Milizia, a contemporary and supporter of Canova, praised the tomb of Clement XIV for its Grecian qualities, 'I feel assured, however, that if in Greece, and during the happiest ages of Grecian art, it had been required to sculpture a Pope, the subject would not have been treated in a manner different from the present', while spectators who saw the Theseus for the first time were convinced that it was a copy of a Greek original and were astonished to be proved wrong. Yet Canova always abhorred the practice of copying Greek works, for to him and to Winckelmann imitation meant the return to the original spirit of the Greeks, whose bronze and stone masterpieces were the natural outgrowth of a Golden Age when artists and philosophers were united in the contemplation of the perfection of the human body. (An approach taken up by Renaissance sculptors like Michelangelo.) The opposition to Canova, which was bitter in his early days, is summed up in the remark of the director of the French Academy, who on seeing the Theseus, asked Canova, Tell me, why have you changed your style; who persuaded you to abandon the pursuit of Nature?'

Note: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783), the German-Austrian sculptor best known for his extraordinary "Character Heads", was one of the early Neoclassicists.

Jean-Baptiste Pigalle

The disgust of the Enlightenment at the frivolity of the rococo style of art contributed to the growing classicism of the French sculpture in the eighteenth century, but it is ironical that the country of Poussin produced no neoclassical sculptor to compare with Canova. That French sculptors were never able to throw off a residual baroque naturalism or rococo gaiety is demonstrated by the nude statue of Voltaire by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-85), which was conceived in a self-consciously classical spirit. The project was first suggested in 1770 at a dinner party given by Madame Necker for, amongst others, Diderot, Grimm, d'Alembert and Helvetius. The intention was to commemorate Voltaire as an example to posterity, for, in the words of Diderot, 'Posterity is for the philosopher what the other world is to the devout'. The original model submitted by Pigalle showed Voltaire draped, but under the influence of Diderot, Pigalle decided to show Voltaire naked, and took the body from a war veteran of the same advanced age as Voltaire. This embarrassed most of the original group and Voltaire himself, who feared ridicule, but he eventually resigned himself to it and wrote: 'I can only admire the antique in the work of M. Pigalle; nude or clothed it does not matter as I will not inspire lascivious ideas in women, however I am presented to them.

Note: For an historical discussion of nudity in painting and sculpture, see: Female Nudes in Art History (Top 20), and also please see Male Nudes in Art History (Top 10).

The statue is modelled on an antique statue of Seneca Cutting his Veins and it was regarded by the next generation as a landmark in the development of neoclassicism, but it was condemned by Quartremere de Quincy, the high priest of the Ideal in France, as too literal and anatomical, and by a biographer of Canova because 'propriety has been sacrificed to an appearance of science'. Both these criticisms hit upon the essential difference between Pigalle and Canova, for however much the former may protest his Graecism, he has depicted the body of Voltaire with a naturalistic precision that differentiates it from the generality of Canova's modelling. A comparison can be made with Canova's heroic Napoleon, where the sculptor makes no concessions to the reality of Napoleon's appearance, butshows him with a god-like physique, following the Roman practice of deifying their emperors.

A far-reaching attempt to solve the problem of the 'contemporary nude' can be seen in Canova's reclining figure of Napoleon's sister, Pauline Borghese. She was a woman notoriously lacking in antique virtue, but Canova elevates her coquettish personality to its Ideal form, showing her as Venus Victorious, with an apple in her hand to bestow on whomever she wished. It is, therefore, an accurate account of her personality, but at the same time true to the antique practice of associating the great with their most appropriate divinity.

Note: For a guide to the origins and development of 3-D art, including major achitectural movements, see: Sculpture History.

Jean-Antoine Houdon

The French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) had also been influenced by the neoclassical climate of Rome in the 1760s, and his St Bruno (1766) for S. Maria degli Angeli in Rome is a notably lucid and contemplative rendering of an essentially baroque subject. He took a more pragmatic approach to the problem of portraiture on his return to France, choosing a style appropriate to the occasion. His bust of Voltaire, of which he made many versions, is a masterpiece of searching naturalism, in which the philosopher's extraordinary head is seen at the moment of greatest animation, revealing his sardonic wit. These portrait busts were made to be mementos of Voltaire for his friends, but the full-length seated statue of 1781, for the Institut was intended as a public commemoration and so the head is elevated to an image of commanding dignity, that, like Rodin's Balzac, is distilled from the writer's physiognomy.


Claude Michel called Clodion (1738-1814) is another example of an artist whose work tends to fluctuate between one style and another according to demand. He is best known for his small terracotta groups, like the Cupid and Psyche. which are in the purest rococo taste, but in his later years he was obliged to come to terms with the Grecian taste, and so adapted his style to incorporate Greek motifs. He was successful enough in this to obtain work on the Arc du Carrousel under Napoleon, but the archaeological pedantry of his Vestal is very far removed from the seriousness of Canova.

Joseph Nollekens

English sculptors were amongst the earliest to take up Winckelmann's theories in Rome, and it is likely that Canova learned much from their conversation and example. Many of them had been established there in restoring and copying antique marble sculpture for English patrons as a way of supporting themselves. Joseph Nollekens' (1737-1823) copy of the antique Castor and Pollux was made for Lord Anson in 1768, and although Nollekens was probably not very interested in Winckelmann's theories, it is an accurate and sensitive copy. His real gift was for portraiture, and on his return to England in 1770 he set up a flourishing practice, making also a number of rococo designs for garden sculpture. Like Houdon, his inclinations were towards the baroque, but later in life he produced portraits in a severe Roman manner.


Thomas Banks

Thomas Banks (1735-1805) was the first English sculptor to imbibe the spirit of Winckelmann, and produce neoclassical works of real conviction. His earliest work in the new manner is the Death of Germanicus of 1774, which reveals a debt to the circle of Gavin Hamilton in its stoic theme and the way in which the action of the relief is kept parallel to the front plane, in the manner of a Roman bas-relief. The elongation of the figures and their impassioned gestures betray the influence of his friend the Swiss symbolist painter Henry Fuseli, and the combination of clear outline and agitated movement remind one of William Blake. The importance of Banks's work has been overshadowed by the reputation of Flaxman, but his contemporaries had no doubts of his greatness, even though he had little gift for the monumental.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate Neoclassical sculpture, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

John Flaxman

The English neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826) was equally unimpressive in works on a large scale, but he made more use of mechanical methods of reproduction, and his engraved outline designs for Dante and Homer made him celebrated and influential in Europe. As a young man he was a friend of William Blake at the Royal Academy, where they were both attracted to the literary medievalism of the 1770s and '80s, but Flaxman was much less imaginative than Blake. After making designs for the Wedgwood factory in 1787 he paid a belated visit to Rome, where he studied not only antiquities but also Italian Renaissance sculpture. He was taken up by Canova who obtained for him the important commission for the Fury of Athemas (1791-2) from the eccentric Englishman the Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry. Flaxman's group is a rather academic reworking of Canova's own idea for Hercules and Lichas (completed 1796), but it was greatly admired by his contemporaries. He was occasionally asked to work in this 'correct' style again by rich connoisseurs like Lord Egremont, but on his return to England in 1792 he found, like previous prodigies arriving from Rome, that there were too few collectors of sculpture in England to provide a living and that he would be judged as a carver of monuments. Fortunately for him, and for other sculptors, the French wars had created a boom in the demand for heroic monuments to fallen officers, and his rather vapid classicism was considered to be entirely appropriate to commemorate their patriotic valour.

The Mansfield Monument (1795) shows fairly clearly the strengths and weaknesses of Flaxman as a maker of monumental sculpture. The structure of the monument, which is free-standing, with the Earl of Mansfield supported by Justice and Wisdom, is derived from Bernini's papal tombs, but the naturalistic rendering of Mansfield contrasts unhappily with the insipid allegorical figures. Flaxman's real gift was for outline and so it is not surprising that he was very successful at the monumental relief, and in the Lushington Monument he was able to employ a gentle poetic piety derived from his study of trecento Italian sculpture and the ethereal simplicity of the angel, particularly in the sketch model, recalls the work of Blake. Flaxman's simple piety and his interest in children often led him into a mawkishness that provided a disastrous example for his successors, but his preliminary sketches, which are now largely preserved in University College, London, show an inventive mind and a wide range of influences.

Flaxman is in many senses a transitional figure, and in his work we can see the beginning of a specifically nineteenth-century approach to sculpture. Neoclassicism had opened the way towards an appreciation of other 'primitive" periods apart from the Grecian, in particular the Gothic period. This led to the use of the history of art as a kind of dictionary, that could be plundered for styles and motifs, and to the idea that a style from the past could be arbitrarily applied to a particular task. Flaxman heralded this development, in one case offering a client a choice of either a classical or a gothic design for a monumental tomb; and in general his attempt to reconcile a 'stripped neoclassical' style with a 'gothic" piety foreshadowed the loss of stylistic autonomy that was to prove so dangerous in the nineteenth century. Equally his production of numbers of largely identical monuments for different patrons led to a carelessness about the final finish of the work that was to prove only too tempting to his followers, whose aridity reached an apotheosis in the Albert Memorial. (See also Irish Sculpture and John Foley.)

Sir Richard Westmacott

Flaxman's chief rival, Sir Richard Westmacott (1775-1856), was a pupil of Canova, and on rare occasions was able to equal the grandeur of his master. The monument to Charles James Fox (1810-23) is the best English monumental group of the period, and Canova thought that the figure of the Negro was as fine as anything produced in its time. But he was also a victim of mass-production, and the temptations of a style that renounced surface texture in favour of a smoothness that could be convincingly achieved by untalented assistants.

Bertel Thorvaldsen

The successor to Canova's European reputation was the Danish neoclassical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), who approached the antique with a comparable high-mindedness but with less originality, and like Flaxman he attempted in later years to adapt his style to the demands of religious imagery.

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