Neoclassicism CHAPTER 1
Neoclassicism CHAPTER 1
The rediscovery of Pompeii

Portraying characters nude was also very common during Antiquity. Forty or so years before the Serment du Jeu de Paume (The Tennis Court Oath), a fabulous archaeological discovery revived interest in ancient art.


A few kilometres from Naples in Italy,  Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered – two cities covered by lava and ashes from Vesuvius in 79 AD.

View of the ancient city of Pompeii with the volcano Vesuvius in the background
Fresco of The Birth of Venus from the Birth of Venus Centre, Pompeii
62-79, National Museum of Archaeology, Naples. Photo: © Bridgeman Images
Fresco of the Thermophilium of Lucius Vetutius Placidus, Pompeii
62-79, National Museum of Archaeology, Naples. Photo: Daniele Florio, CC BY 2.0
Gustave Boulanger, Duplicate of “The Flute Player” and “The Wife of Diomedus” with Prince Napoleon in the atrium of his house in Pompeii,
1861, oil on canvas, 2’9” x 4’3”, Orsay Museum, Paris
Inside a neo-pompeian house, Robert Adam, Syon House,
1777, London. Photo: Rictor Norton, David Allen, CC BY 2.0

Pompeii very quickly became fashionable. Artists drew inspiration from paintings and sculptures found there and people had their homes decorated Pompeii-style.

In a nutshell

The discovery of the antique cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the middle of the 18th century made the Pompeii style fashionable.

The Revolution and the Empire in France
In 1789, the French Revolution broke out.

Fed up with leaving all power in the King’s hands and paying too many taxes to the privileged few, from now on the French wanted to have a say in their future!


The French Revolution was an opportunity for a few people to stand out from the crowd. This was the case for one soldier: Napoleon Bonaparte. This hero of the revolutionary wars came to power in France and ended up Emperor, in 1804!

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon 1st and Crowning of Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame, Paris, 2nd December 1804,
1805-1807, oil on canvas, 20’4.5” x 32’1”, Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Hervé Lewandowski
In a nutshell

The 1789 Revolution signed off the Royal family and allowed historic figures like Napoleon to emerge.


In 1765, the discovery of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis in Pompeii revived interest in ancient Egypt. Over the years, this phenomenon became a real craze: Egyptomania!


But it was really the military campaign in Egypt, led by General Bonaparte, the future emperor Napoleon, who took scientists and artists to the country, that caused this craze to invade France. And even today, Paris is marked  everywhere by it.


The influence of ancient Egypt can be seen everywhere in the decorations and furniture created at the time. This style was simply known as “back to Egypt”.

Pierre-Nicolas Beauvalet, Fountain of the Fellah,
1806, Paris. Photo: Siren-Com, CC BY-SA 3.0
Emmanuel Crétet, Fountain of the Palm Tree,
1808, Paris. Photo: Guilhem Vellut, CC BY 2.0
Eugène Atget, Passage du Caire and café, Place du Caire,
1903, photograph
Charles Percier, Coin cabinet in the form of an Egyptian Tower,
1809-1819, mahogany and silver marquetry, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In a nutshell

The fashion of Egyptian decorative motifs, or Egyptomania, is still visible in Paris today.

Neoclassicism in Europe
Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Annuciade-Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples, with her daughter Laetitia-Joséphine Murat,
1807, oil on canvas, 7’1.5” x 4’8” inches, Versailles Palace National Museum. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / image RMN-GP
Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker,
1806, marble, 11’2” high, Apsley Centre, London. Photo: Jörg Bittner Unna, CC BY-SA 3.0

The passion for Antiquity gave birth to an artistic movement known as Neoclassicism. This term means “New Classicism”, because at the time it was thought that the best form of classical art was Antiquity.


That is why painters were in favour of putting antique columns in their paintings, as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun has done here.


That is also why Canova, the Italian sculptor, created sculptures that seemed to come straight out of Antiquity.

It’s also visible in the architecture of the buildings erected during this period, which often looked like Greek temples!

Louis-Pierre Baltard, The “24-column” Courtbuilding, Lyon,
built 1835-1847. Photo: Benoît Prieur, CC-BY-SA 4.0
Jacques-Germain Soufflot and Jean-Baptiste Rondelet, Pantheon, Paris,
built 1757-1790. Photo: Camille Gévaudan, 3.0
William Thorntone, The Capitol, Washington,
built 1793-1812 Photo: Wally Gobetz, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altes Museum, Berlin,
built 1823-1828
In a nutshell

Neoclassical art was born in the 18th century and drew a great deal of inspiration from classical Greek art, which was considered perfect.

More up-to-date popular topics

When David painted the Serment du Jeu de Paume (The Tennis Court Oath), he sensed that this Revolution was not just a fleeting event without any great significance and that humanity was at a turning point.


Many artists understood this. They therefore began to represent the history which was being written before their very eyes.


Gradually, the people – you and me – became the heroes of these historically inspired works of art. The same thing can be seen in literature. Novels such as Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, featured “ordinary people”  as their main characters.

Antoine-Jean Gros, General Bonaparte on Arcole Bridge on 17th November 1796,
1796, oil on canvas, 4’3” x 3’1”, National Museum, Versailles Palace
Anne-Louis Girodet, Revolt in Cairo on 21st October 1798,
1810, oil on canvas, 4’8” x 6’5.5”, National Museum, Versailles Palace
Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte visits the Plague-stricken in Jaffa,
1804, oil on canvas, 23’6” x 17’2”, Louvre Museum, Paris
In a nutshell

From the Revolution onwards, artists painted everyday events and took an interest in “ordinary people”.

Francisco de Goya
An exceptional artist named Goya also took a close interest in people!

Francisco de Goya was a Spanish painter. He began his career with Neoclassical paintings that suited the tastes of the time, but very quickly he took a  personal route, which was to make him one of the first Romantic painters (we talk about this movement in the next lesson!)

Vicente López Portaña, Portrait of Francisco de Goya,
1826, oil on canvas, 3’1” x 2’7” inches, Prado Museum, Madrid
Francisco de Goya, The Water Carrier,
around 1808-1812, oil on canvas, 2’3” x 1’8” inches, Fine Arts Museum, Budapest
Francisco de Goya, The Third of May,
1814, oil on canvas, 8’6” x 11’2” inches, Prado Museum, Madrid The Third of May denounces the massacre of Spanish prisoners by Napoleon’s army.

In his works, the people were portrayed as heroic on a daily basis, like this woman carrying water observed from the ground to portray her in a more glorious light.


However, he also painted the history of his era, especially when events shocked him! The Third of May denounces the massacre of Spanish prisoners by Napoleon’s army.

In a nutshell

Goya, the Spanish painter, took an interest in the people and history of his era.

In summary, you have discovered:

  • The rediscovery of Pompeii
  • The Revolution and the Empire in France
  • Egyptomania
  • Neoclassicism in Europe
  • More up-to-date popular topics
  • Francisco de Goya
To train

What was the fashionable new development in 18th century arts?

You have to choose an answer

The Classical period had greatly influenced 18th century painters such as …

You have to choose an answer

In his works, the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya represented …

You have to choose an answer