The French Baroque Rococo and Neoclassicism

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Baroque French Classicism and the Rococo 17th to 18th Centuries

These two paintings are both Baroque renderings of aristocrats from the 1600 to 1700's.  One of them represents the older more autocratic traditions of Europe but both are the results of the "Enlightenment." The way in which they are portrayed are important clues as to how each of these rulers ruled there people and how they saw the world.  You will be given an assignment in which you will be asked to compare and contrast these two paintings and come up with some conclusions as to how each ruler is portrayed formally and iconographically.  You will be asked what this might mean about each ruler and the manner in which they governed.

 Antoine Watteau. L' Indifferent 1716 
Oil on canvas 10''x7'' Located in Louvre, Paris
French Rococo

Hyacinthe Rigaud Louis XIV 1701
Oil on canvas 9'2''x7'' Located in Louvre, Paris
French Baroque


Nicolas Poussin, Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan 1631-33
Oil on canvas, 100 x 142,5 cm. National Gallery, London.
French Baroque

Context:  This painting was executed just before Louis XIV came into his prime.  It represent both formally and iconographically a point of view that is in some ways similar but still different than the Rococo period.  In some ways classical images from the Baroque were a bit more "platonic" in nature than during the Rococo. Form: This painting is Baroque and in some ways it is the model for the paintings of the Rococo period.  This painting incorporates intense or saturated colors and a full use of chiaroscuro, linear perspective and atmospheric perspective and the pastoral or arcadian landscape.  The composition of this image recalls friezes from ancient Roman and Greek buildings and Poussin's figures are also dressed and modeled after classical figures. 
Iconography: The iconography of this painting is also somewhat the model for the Rococo paintings that follow.  It is the kind of image that Poussin might have seen in Italy either on a classical frieze or a pot.  Even though the image is "classical" it seems to me to be an almost sarcastic or moralizing way in which to depict it.  This painting seems almost to be a warning against hedonism
The theme this story that this painting portrays is a bacchanal
According to Webster's, n, pl bacchanalia [L, fr. Bacchus] (1591) 1 pl, cap: a Roman festival of Bacchus celebrated with dancing, song, and revelry 2: orgy 2, 3 -- adj or n 

The Rococo style is a substyle of the French Baroque and really only exists from about 1716 to the 1770's at which time it fell out of style.  Webster's defines rococo as, n (1840): rococo work or style ²rococo adj [F, irreg. fr. rocaille rocaille] (1841) 1 a: of or relating to an artistic style esp. of the 18th century characterized by fanciful curved asymmetrical forms and elaborate ornamentation b: of or relating to an 18th century musical style marked by light gay ornamentation and departure from thorough-bass and polyphony 2: excessively ornate or intricate
In terms of its form, the Rococo style is uses a lot of pastel colors which are various pale or light colors, such as powder blue, peaches and pinks.  The brushwork in many Rococo style paintings tends to be feathery and or rough.  Usually the paintings look a bit more like oil sketches and have a rough or unfinished look to them.  The compositions also tend to be a bit looser and not very symmetrical. In terms of iconography and subject matter, Rococo paintings do deal with classical themes but the stories emphasize less dignified themes such as love and romantic indiscretion, in short, the "Dangerous Liaison."   Stokstad points out that one of the main subjects of the Rococo style was the fête galante.
¹fete n [ME fete, fr. MF, fr. OF feste--more at feast] (15c) 1: festival 2 a: a lavish often outdoor entertainment b: a large elaborate party ²fete vt fet.ed ; (1819) 1: to honor or commemorate with a fete 2: to pay high honor to
fete n, pl fetes champetres [F, lit., rural festival] (1774): an outdoor entertainment

Many of the images in Rococo art are borrowed from opera and Commedia dell'arte.  According to the Brittanica,
Around the mid-16th century, there emerged in Italy a lively tradition of popular theatre that fused many disparate elements into a vigorous style, which profoundly influenced the development of European theatre. This was the legendary commedia dell'arte ("theatre of the professionals"), a nonliterary tradition that centred on the actor, as distinguished from the commedia erudita, where the writer was preeminent. Although the precise origins of the commedia dell'arte are difficult to establish, its many similarities with the skills of the medieval jongleurs, who were themselves descendants of the Roman mimes, suggest that it may have been a reawakening of the fabula Atellana, stimulated and coloured by social conditions in Italy during the Renaissance. In spite of its outwardly anarchic spirit, the commedia dell'arte was a highly disciplined art requiring both virtuosity and a strong sense of ensemble playing. Its special quality came from improvisation. Working from a scenario that outlined the plot, the actors would improvise their own dialogue, striving for a balance of words and actions. Acrobatics and singing were also used, as well as the lazzi (special rehearsed routines that could be inserted into the plays at convenient points to heighten the comedy). Because the actors stayed together in permanent companies and specialized in playing the same role for most of their professional lives, they achieved a degree of mastery that had been hitherto unknown on the Italian stage and that must have made the rest of the theatre seem all the more artificial. Another reason for the impact of the commedia dell'arte was that it heralded the first appearance in Italy of professional actresses (the best known being Isabella Andreini), though the female characters were never as sharply developed as their male counterparts. Most of the characters were defined by the leather half-masks they wore (another link with the theatre of antiquity), which made them instantly recognizable. They also spoke in the dialect of their different provinces. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian "types" and became the archetypes of many of the favourite characters of 17th- and 18th-century European theatre.
From humble beginnings, setting up their stages in city squares, the better troupes--notably Gelosi, Confidenti, and Fedeli--performed in palaces and became internationally famous once they traveled abroad. The commedia dell'arte swept through Europe. It was particularly popular in France, where resident Italian troupes were established before the end of the 16th century. Local variations on the characters appeared in the 17th century. The cheeky servant Pedrolino became the melancholy Pierrot in France, while Pulcinella became Punch in England. By the 18th century the commedia dell'arte was a lost art, though its spirit lived on through the work of the dramatists it inspired, among whom were Molière (stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), Carlo Goldoni, and William Shakespeare.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Contextually the Rococo style occurred mainly at a time when the aristocracy was fairly indifferent to ruling and more interested in having fun and enjoying the pleasures of life.  These excesses of the aristocracy ultimately lead to the downfall of the aristocratic class in France and the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1789.

Jean Antoine Watteau. Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera
1717 oil/canvas 4'3"x6'4" Louvres, Paris
French Rococo
Nicolas Poussin Echo and Narcissus 1630
French Baroque Compare Watteau's painting of a pastoral and classical image to Poussin's 
treatment of the same kind of image.  Think about how the form and the subject
matter are at once different and the same.  Why do you think these differences
Read the two poems below and see if you can find any parallels between the 
two poems and the two paintings.  How are they alike and how are 
they different?
Form: Watteau's palette consists mainly of pastel colors which are various pale or light colors, such as powder blue, peaches and pinks.  The brushwork is feathery and or rough and the composition is asymmetrical. The main line of figures that moves across the foreground are arranged almost musically in uneven undulating intervals that weaves in and out of the Baroque diagonal created by the landscape they inhabit.
Iconography and Context according to the Brittanica,
Watteau's Cythera.
In 1712 Watteau tried once more to go to Italy. He did not succeed, but he was accepted by the Académie as a painter of fêtes galantes--outdoor entertainments in which the courtiers often dressed in rural costumes--for his presentation of a scene depicting actors in a garden. Between 1710 and 1712 he had painted the first of his three versions of the "L'Embarquement pour l'île de Cythère." The myth of the island of Cythera, or of love, has distant roots in French and Italian culture, in which the journey is depicted as a difficult quest. Watteau's Cythera, by comparison, is a paradise wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice; it represents an invitation to delights amid the enchantment of nature. It is an island toward which the pilgrims embark but never arrive, preserving it preserves its light only if it remains far on the horizon. Watteau's first version of the subject is anecdotal: it illustrates a comedy motif in a vaguely Venetian ambience. The second--which is the most beautiful--has the aspect of a profane ritual in an unreal, immense, and almost frighteningly empty landscape. In the third, in which cherubim flutter around a golden gondola, the subject has become vulgarized. Common to all three versions is a theatrical, almost scenographic, composition, a chromatic transposition of all that is suggested in the theatrical universe. The wonderlands of opera, romance, and epic are all evoked by Watteau's Cythera, which represents the country of the impossible dream, the revenge of madness on reason, and of freedom on rules and morality. According to one hypothesis, the theme was suggested to Watteau by a prose play, Les Trois Cousines (1700), by Florent Dancourt, in the finale of which a group of country youths, disguised as pilgrims of love, prepare to embark on the voyage to the island of Cythera. Since this story of rustic millers is parodistic in intent and quite different from the refined scene that Watteau set in an unreal Venice, it is more probable that Watteau was inspired by an opéra ballet of Houdar de la Motte, La Vénitienne (1705), in which the invitation to the island of love includes not only the pilgrims of Cythera but also the stock characters of the commedia dell'arte--that is, both of the great themes that Watteau pursued all his life.

 Texts and art describing the "ideal" are common to most cultures and periods.  However, important distinctions exist between the descriptions of the "ideal" versus the "real" and it is through a comparison of the two that we can truly understand the world we live in.  The classical world's myths and philosophies, especially those of Plato, are the starting point for the European and especially Renaissance/Baroque conception of the "ideal." Ovid, a Roman poet from the first century, recounts the myth of "Echo and Narcissus," as an ideal but doomed or tragic love.  The beautiful nymph, Echo, is doomed because of the aid she provided Zeus in his infidelities.  She is also loyal and true to her everlasting love of the beautiful shepherd boy Narcissus even though, as Keat's phrases it,
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!.

The subtext here conforms almost exactly to medieval and renaissance conceptions concerning "courtly love."  The courtly love is a platonic conception of love in which the ideals of loyalty and chastity are the two most important qualities.  The legends concerning Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenevere are perfect examples of this.  Hallmarks of this kind of love include the contemplation and discussion of love in poetic form.  Seventeenth century sonnets such as Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" are ideal and idyllic descriptions of the perfect proposal of love couched in the "classy" language of poetry, but are these proposals as good as they sound?

 The term "parody" is derived from the word parados from ancient Greek Theater. The parados is both the part of the stage and the section of the recitation of play where the chorus stands in the wings and comments on recent events.  These all-knowing narrators gave the audience another point of view.  The same can be said of Sir Walter Raleigh's seventeenth century reply to Marlowe's poem, "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," and John Keats, nineteenth century poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn."  Both authors' works contain satirical elements in which they knowingly parody the classical/romantic view of love evinced in Marlowe's poem as well as in the Baroque and Rococo works of art such as, Gianlorenzo Bernini's, Apollo and Daphne, (1622-1623) and Antoine Watteau's, Return from Cythera (1717-1719).

 By the end of the eighteenth century, the salon system and the new academic schools of French philosophy make it almost impossible for the courtly language of love to survive.  The new language of the critic emerges.  It is in the ingenuity of Raleigh's and Keat's responses to the earlier works that we can see evidence of the critical traditions of the enlightenment and how self aware European culture has become by the mid eighteenth century.  Keat's makes us aware through his description of the icon of the classic Grecian urn that it portrays a "cold pastoral."  The urn is a memento mori that these romantic notions of pastoral love no longer function in this new critical environment.   Choderlos de Laclos brings this point home in 1779 in which he uses the new language of a sardonic connoisseur to describe how unromantic and truly dangerous love is in his Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

The tale is written as series of correspondences between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont.  The letters and the way in which words are played with echo the critical detachment of the eighteenth-century enlightened mind as expressed in Jean Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, with none of the moral attachments.  The danger expressed in Les Liaisons Dangereuses is two-fold.  On one level, Les Liaisons Dangereuses it is a tale of intrigue in which two bored aristocrats play a cat and mouse game with the affections of a young and naive girl from a convent.  On another level, their apparent lack of compassion for the girl and the nature of the "game" they play can be read as a condemnation of the new indifferent and aristocratic social classes who are educated but choose to ignore the moral lessons of classicism.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Christopher Marlowe c 1600 Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feeds their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kittle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold'
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
The shepherd' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)

 If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with the and be thy love.
Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.
Thy gowns, the shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, the kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten--
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.
Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.
But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing 1766 
Oil on canvas 35''x32''  Wallace Collection, London
French Rococo

Form:  Fragonard's palette is almost exactly the same as Watteau's.  It too consists mainly of pastel colors which are various pale or light colors, such as powder blue, peaches and pinks.  The brushwork is feathery and or rough and the composition is asymmetrical. The main line of figures that moves across the foreground are arranged almost musically in uneven undulating intervals that weaves in and out of the Baroque diagonal created by the landscape they inhabit.
Iconography:  Fragonard uses a combination of contemporary 18th century eroticism and classical themes.  The scene here is almost one that you might find in a movie or novel such as Moll Flanders, Dangerous Liaisons, or the Affair of the Necklace
The painting The Swing was commissioned by the treasurer et the French clergy. The client wanted a scene in which a lover - who can be seen amongst the rose bushes in the left foreground - would have an opportunity to look under the skirts of his mistress; originally the swing was supposed to be pushed by a bishop. But when, owing to its piquant nature, the commission was given to Fragonard, he replaced the bishop with a gardener.
(quoted from
The sculpture of Cupid and the two putti that hide in the bushes are an attempt in some ways to "dress up" the images with a classical touch.  The cupid presses his fingers to his lips as if to warn the young woman to be less obvious as she kicks her shoe off playfully. Fragonard also attempts to show his knowledge not just of classicism but also of art history with his playful nod to Michelangelo's Adam echoed in the pose of the young man who looks up his lover's skirts.


Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732-1806 
The Meeting, from Love of the Shepherds
1771-73 o/c 10'x7' New York, Frick Museum

Form:  In terms of form, this image is a perfect example of the Rococo style according to Stokstad's description of it. Iconography:  The works symbolism is almost completely clear even if one is not familiar with the exact story expressed by the series the Love of the Shepherds.  Here is a typical "dangerous liaison" as expressed in the two poems above by Marlowe and Raleigh.  The scene is a pastoral one, in fact the boy in red silk is the shepherd who vaults lightly over the low wall to meet his wary girlfriend.  Above them, almost in a decaying state because it is so overgrown, is a statue of Venus and Cupid.
The imagery is taken from a variety of literary, theatrical, and operatic sources.  In many of the novels of the period, such as in Dangerous Liaisons, letter writing is an important plot element and in this painting we see that the young woman holds a love letter in her hand.  The young man has just climbed a ladder is a reference to many of Shakespeare's balcony scenes from Romeo to Cyrano as well as scenes from operas such as Mozart's Don Giovanni and Commedia dell'arte.
Context:  Fragonard is the last of the great Rococo painters.  His style, which represents the last style developed by Louis XVI during his reign (1774-93) of Louis XVI, according to the Brittanica,
was actually both a last phase of Rococo and a first phase of Neoclassicism. The predominant style in architecture, painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts was Neoclassicism, a style that had come into its own during the last years of Louis XV's life, chiefly as a reaction to the excesses of the Rococo but partly through the popularity of the excavations at ancient Herculaneum and Pompeii, in Italy, and partly on the basis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's call for "natural" virtue and honest sentiment. One of the most dramatic episodes in the stylistic oscillation from Rococo to Neoclassicism was played out in 1770 at Mme du Barry's Pavillon de Louveciennes. A series of large painted canvases by the Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard depicting the "Progress of Love" were removed almost as soon as they were installed and replaced with a series commissioned from Joseph-Marie Vien, a Neoclassicist. Vien's pupil Jacques-Louis David was the most important painter of the reign of Louis XVI; his severe compositions recalling the style of the earlier painter Nicolas Poussin are documents extolling republican virtues. During the Revolution, David was a deputy and voted for the execution of the King.


François Boucher, Brown Odalisk 1745 Oil on canvas
Musée du Louvre, Paris
François Boucher, Girl Reclining (Louise O'Murphy) 1751
Oil on canvas, 59,5 x 73,5 cm
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Form:  These are small paintings in which Boucher demonstrates his ability to paint the textures of skin, fabric and porcelain.  Iconography:  Titian in his The Venus of Urbino, 1538 offers the male viewer a classisizing excuse for gazing on the female form, however, Boucher makes no such excuse for his painting.  This is most obviously this is a semi pornographic painting meant for a male audience.  Despite the fact that images like this have been defended as beautiful renderings of the human form, these images are overtly meant to be small erotic works that would have been hung in the bedroom to stimulate the sexual appetites of the occupants.
What is more interesting about these two images is that they also juxtapose the eroticized female form with commodities or luxury items.  By playing the textures and body of the female against expensive persian carpets, fabrics, jewels and porcelain, the artist is also making the human female form another commodity which can be bought and sold.  In this way, the wealth of the patron is also eroticized.  This device is played off again and again throughout the history of art.
Context:  These two images are also historical artifacts that document two facts.  The first is that Marie-Louise O' Murphy was one of the many mistresses of Louis XV and the brown odalisk is a reference to the French penchant for exotic women. 
According to the O'Murphy surnames website:
The most notable woman bearing the Murphy name was the famous courtesan Marie Louise O Murphy (1737 - 1814), fifth daughter of an Irish soldier who had taken up shoemaking in Rouen, France. After his death, their mother brought the family to Paris where she traded in old clothes while finding her daughters work as actresses or models. Marie Louise posed for Boucher, a painter at court. He painted her so attractively that she came to the notice of Louis XV, who soon appointed her his mistress. Their child is supposed to have been General de Beaufranchet. She married three times and was divorced by her third husband, who was thirty years her junior. For a period during the reign of terror, she suffered imprisonment because of her royal connections.
This is one of the first instances that I know of that an artist has painted an odalisk in France.  An odalisk or odalisque is a Turkish harem girl.  Images of asian or oriental nude harem girls become the fashion in French art from this point forward.  We'll see many more of these white European male's fantasies of eroticized asian women from now on.  Images of the odalisque most likely symbolize the male French view of the world and in some ways both justify and inflame their desire to colonize the so called "orient." adj, often cap (1589) 1: idyllically pastoral; esp: idyllically innocent, simple, or untroubled 2 a: of or relating to Arcadia or the Arcadians b: of or relating to Arcadian n (1590) 1 often not cap: a person who lives a simple quiet life 2: a native or inhabitant of Arcadia 3: the dialect of ancient Greek used in Arcadia According to the Brittanica,
Modern Greek ARKADHÍA, mountainous region of the central Peloponnesus of ancient Greece. The pastoral character of Arcadian life together with its isolation partially explains why it was represented as a paradise in Greek and Roman bucolic poetry and in the literature of the Renaissance. The region is not exactly coextensive with the present-day nomós (department) of Arkadhía, which extends on the east to the Gulf of Argolis. The capital of the nomos is Trípolis. also adj (1823) 1: of, relating to, or being an autocracy: absolute 2: characteristic of or resembling an autocrat: despotic -- adv
fete n [ME fete, fr. MF, fr. OF feste--more at feast] (15c) 1: festival 2 a: a lavish often outdoor entertainment b: a large elaborate party ²fete vt fet.ed ; (1819) 1: to honor or commemorate with a fete 2: to pay high honor to
fete n, pl fetes champetres [F, lit., rural festival] (1774): an outdoor entertainment n [Gk hedone pleasure; akin to Gk hedys sweet--more at sweet] (1856) 1: the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life 2: a way of life based on or suggesting the principles of hedonism -- n -- adj -- adv
neo.clas.sic or adj (1877): of, relating to, or constituting a revival or adaptation of the classical esp. in literature, music, art, or architecture -- n -- n or adj
oda.lisque n [F, fr. Turk odalik, fr. oda room] (ca. 1681) 1: a female slave 2: a concubine in a harem adj [ME, fr. L pastoralis, fr. pastor herdsman] (15c) 1 a (1): of, relating to, or composed of shepherds or herdsmen (2): devoted to or based on livestock raising b: of or relating to the countryside: not urban c: portraying or expressive of the life of shepherds or country people esp. in an idealized and conventionalized manner <~ poetry> d: pleasingly peaceful and innocent: idyllic 2 a: of or relating to spiritual care or guidance esp. of a congregation b: of or relating to the pastor of a church -- adv -- n ²pastoral n (1584) 1 a: a literary work (as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usu. artificial manner and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and esp. court life b: pastoral poetry or drama c: a rural picture or scene d: pastorale 1b 2: crosier 1 3: a letter of a pastor to his charge: as a: a letter addressed by a bishop to his diocese b: a letter of the house of bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church to be read in each parish
trompe l’oeil - (French: "deceive the eye"), in painting, the representation of an object with such verisimilitude as to deceive the viewer concerning the material reality of the object. This idea appealed to the ancient Greeks who were newly emancipated from the conventional stylizations of earlier art. Zeuxis, for example, reportedly painted such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them. The technique was also popular with Roman muralists. Although trompe l’oeil never achieved the status of a major artistic aim, from the early Renaissance on, European painters occasionally fostered illusionism by painting false frames out of which the contents of a still life or portrait appeared to spill, or by creating window-like images suggesting actual openings in the wall or ceiling. (Brittanica)


History Painting and Neoclassicism
Discussion: History Painting

Benjamin West, Death of General Wolfe. 1770
Oil on canvas, 60 in. x 84 1/2 in. (152.6 cm x 214.5 cm). 
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 
Transfer from the Canadian War Memorials, 1921 
(gift of the Second Duke of Westminster, 
Eaton Hall, Cheshire, 1918). 
British History Painting
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495-7 Milan, 
Santa Maria delle Grazie 
Nicolas Poussin,  'Et in Arcadia Ego' 1637-39 
Oil on canvas, 185 x 121 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris
"I am here in Arcadia too"
French, Baroque (Learned to paint in Italy)

Form:  Although the composition is overtly symmetrical the visual weight of the composition seems to run in a strong diagonal from the lower left hand corner of the image up through the flagpole and then into the smoky clouds in the upper right hand section of the painting.
The flag and the murky gunpowder clouds create a strong diagonal across the picture plane which moves the eyes from the upper left hand corner towards the Native American in the lower left. The figures including the Indian, all share in the same combination of gestures and movements in a similar manner to Leonardo's Last Supper.
The composition is also arranged in a similar manner to Grueze's and Poussin's paintings.  Like its Baroque French counterparts, the image is constructed so that most of the figures are placed in the foreground and even though there is the creation of deep space, the background is not as important as the figures.
This painting returns to a Baroque sensibility in terms of its lighting, composition and movement.  West uses tenebrism and chiaroscuro liberally and the spotlight is on the figure placed with in a Leonaroesque pyramid.
Iconography and Context according to art critic Robert Hughes,
The arts in America did not bring forth anything much new at first, except for mid- to late-18th century furniture--and one work by Benjamin West. When he was 12, West (1738-1820) announced that his talent would make him the "companion of kings and emperors." And as a matter of fact, it did: after he settled in England in 1763, he became George III's favorite artist. His definitive work was The Death of General Wolfe, 1770. It was a history painting but recent history, recounting a British victory over the French at the Battle of Quebec only a decade earlier. And it was in "modern," late-18th century dress. It changed the English sense of decorum in heroic commemoration, the idea of what history painting could do.  In the Battle of Quebec in 1759, the British commander, Major General James Wolfe, was killed at the moment of victory over the French. West's painting depicts the hero receiving the news just as he expires. Until West created this work, history painting had required togas and other accoutrements of antiquity. West's use of contemporary 18th century dress set off a storm of controversy, and his retort to his critics became famous. The siege of Quebec, he pointed out, took place "in a region of the world unknown to the Greeks and Romans...when no such nations, nor heroes in their costumes, any longer existed... The same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist." There spoke the Natural Man from the New World, pragmatic, realistic--though, in fact, West's painting was very far from realist. 
Time, Spring97 Special Issue, Vol. 149 Issue 17, p76, 10p, 10c 
Author(s): Hughes, Robert 

John Singleton Copley,"Watson and the Shark" (1778),

 Form:  Most history paintings share in many of the same formal elements.  They also share these same elements with the Neoclassical style except for in the subject matter and clothing. As in West's, Death of General Wolfe. 1770, this painting also returns to a Baroque sensibility in terms of its lighting, composition and movement.  Copley uses tenebrism and chiaroscuro liberally and the spotlight is on the figure placed with in a Leonaroesque pyramid.
Again a strong diagonal runs through the image and the figures all share in the same combination of gestures and movements in a similar manner to Leonardo's Last Supper.
The composition is also arranged in a similar manner to West's, Grueze's and Poussin's paintings.  Like its counterparts, the image is constructed so that most of the figures are placed in the foreground and even though there is the creation of deep space, the background is not as important as the figures.
John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark was inspired by an event that took place in Havana, Cuba, in 1749. Fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, an orphan serving as a crew member on a trading ship, was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in the harbor. His shipmates, who had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore, launched a valiant rescue effort.
What is interesting and an element shared with West's painting is the depiction of the main character or hero as a martyr very similar to Renaissance depictions of Jesus.  The non-European are represented in a less flattering and almost subjugating light.  In West's painting we see the depiction of the Native American and in Copley's painting the Afro-Cuban man in the back of the boat.  Historians sometimes refer to these depictions as depicting "The Other." These depictions of the so called "Other" might be interpreted as a justification for colonialism and some of the racism that justifies it.  In each of these images the Other is depicted as actionless and almost useless.  The Indian, who is literally below everyone else, gazes on Wolfe almost as if he cannot comprehend what is happening.  Likewise, the Afro-Cuban in Copley's painting is cast in a similar inactive role and relegated to the rear of the picture plane.

Context according to the Brittanica,
John Singleton Copley
b. July 3, 1738, Boston [Mass., U.S.]
d. Sept. 9, 1815, London, Eng.
American painter of portraits and historical subjects, generally acclaimed as the finest artist of colonial America. Little is known of Copley's boyhood. He developed within a flourishing school of colonial portraiture, and it was as a portraitist that he reached the high point of his art, and--as his Boston portraits later revealed--he gained an intimate knowledge of his New England subjects and milieu and was able to convey a powerful sense of physical entity and directness--real people seen as they are. From his stepfather, the limner and engraver Peter Pelham, Copley gained familiarity with graphic art as well as an early sense of vocation. Before he was 20 he was an accomplished draughtsman. To the Rococo portrait style derived from the English painter Joseph Blackburn he brought his own powers of imagination and a technical ability surpassing anyone painting in America at the time. Copley, in his portraits, made eloquent use of a Rococo device, the portrait d'apparat--portraying the subject with the objects associated with him in his daily life--that gave his work a liveliness and acuity not usually associated with 18th-century American painting.
Although he was steadily employed with commissions from the Boston bourgeoisie, Copley wanted to test himself against the more exacting standards of Europe. In 1766, therefore, he exhibited "Boy with a Squirrel" at the Society of Artists in London. It was highly praised both by Sir Joshua Reynolds and by Copley's countryman Benjamin West. Copley married in 1769. Although he did not venture out of Boston except for a seven-month stay in New York City (June 1771-January 1772), he was urged by fellow artists who were familiar with his work to study in Europe. When political and economic conditions in Boston began to deteriorate (Copley's father-in-law was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party was consigned), Copley left the country--never to return--in June 1774. In 1775 his wife, children, and several other family members arrived in London, and Copley established a home there in 1776.
His ambitions in Europe went beyond portraiture; he was eager to make a success in the more highly regarded sphere of historical painting. In his first important work, "Watson and the Shark" (1778), Copley used what was to become one of the great themes of 19th-century Romantic art, the struggle of man against nature. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1779. Although his English paintings grew more academically sophisticated and self-conscious, in general they lacked the extraordinary vitality and penetrating realism of his Boston portraits. Toward the end of his life, his physical and mental health grew worse. Though he continued to paint with considerable success until the last few months of his life, he was obsessed by the sale (at a loss) of his Boston property and by his increasing debts.
Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Jacques-Louis David  Oath of the Horatii-1784
oil on canvas, 10'x14' Louvre Museum, Paris
French Neoclassicism

Form:  The composition of this painting is organized in a clear symmetrical format in which all the attention is focused on the center of the image on the three swords the central figure holds aloft.  The three arches organize the composition in such a way that it is meant to be read from left to right, almost as if it is a triptych from Renaissance Italian painting.
The composition is also modeled on classical Greek or Roman relief sculpture as one would find on the Ara Pacis or the friezes of the Parthenon.  The painting space is literally modeled after figures in the composition in Greco Roman relief sculptures in that their is very little background and the figures, which are somewhat spot lit stand out from a very sparse background.  The Roman arches are also meant to be read sculpturally.
The style in which David painted this is very hard edged and realistic, although painted before the invention of photography, this painting seems to look almost photographic.

Iconography:  Everything about this painting is meant to refer to the classical world.  The formal elements and clothing clearly look classic (sometimes referred to as "antique") but the actual content of the image also refers to a historical event as well.
According to the Brittanica:
The Horatii were a Roman legend, two sets of triplet brothers whose story was probably fashioned to explain existing legal or ritual practices. The Horatii were Roman and the Curiatii Alban, although an alternative version reversed this order. During the war between Rome and Alba Longa in the reign of Tullus Hostilius (traditionally 672-642 BC), it was agreed that settlement of the dispute should depend on the outcome of combat between the two groups of brothers.
In the contest two of the Horatii were quickly killed; but the third, feigning flight, managed to slay his wounded pursuers one by one. When the survivor entered Rome in triumph, his sister recognized among his trophies a cloak she had made for one of the Curiatii to whom she was betrothed. She could not conceal her grief and was killed by her brother, who declared, "So perish any Roman woman who mourns the enemy." For this act Horatius was condemned to death, but he was saved by an appeal to the people.
The tale might have been devised to provide an august origin for the legal practice that granted every condemned Roman the right to appeal to the populace. Alternatively, perhaps it was used to explain the ritual of the tigillum sororium ("sister's beam"), the yoke under which Horatius had to pass to be purified of his crime.
Context:  David probably painted this as a "call to arms" for his fellow Frenchmen.  David probably interpreted the story of the Horatii as the ultimate tale of patriotism and sacrifice, o ne which he believed the French people needed to learn a message from.  In some ways, David was one of the leaders and propagandists for the French revolution and his paintings were seen almost as lessons or advertisements to the French citizens to act in a self-sacrificing manner and also to suggest some sorts of reforms in French government based on classical ideas such as those found in Republican Rome above and also those found in Athens during it's "Golden Age".

Jacques-Louis David Oath Tennis Court 1791

Form: The drawing on the left is an unfinished sketch made by David to commemorate and plan a larger painting of the same theme.  There are some unfinished paintings based on this drawing as well. Iconography and Context:  The people represented in this drawing were some of the people who took the famous "Oath of the Tennis Court" which according to the Brittanica, was a 
(June 20, 1789), dramatic act of defiance by representatives of the non privileged classes of the French nation (the Third Estate) during the meeting of the Estates-General (traditional assembly) at the beginning of the French Revolution. The deputies of the Third Estate, realizing that in any attempt at reform they would be outvoted by the two privileged orders, the clergy and the nobility, had formed, on June 17, a National Assembly. Finding themselves locked out of their usual meeting hall at Versailles on June 20 and thinking that the king was forcing them to disband, they moved to a nearby tennis court. There they took an oath never to separate until a written constitution had been established for France. In the face of the solidarity of the Third Estate, King Louis XVI relented and on June 27 ordered the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly.
Many of the people represented in the drawing and subsequent paintings however, were not on hand and David would add or subtract individuals from his drawing and the subsequent paintings as some rose and others fell out of political power.


Jacques-Louis David. Death of Marat. 1793.
oil on canvas, 5'5"x4'2" 
Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels
French Neoclassicism

Form: This painting is a depiction of a nude man who is slumped down into a cloth draped bathtub on which a board has been placed across as an impromptu kind of desk.  He holds in hands, a letter on which the name "Charlotte Corday" is clearly written.  He has a small would just under his collar bone and a knife lies in the forground of the image. The anatomy of the the figure is idealized and very muscular and almost appears to mimic the idealized muscular structure of Greco Roman sculpture.
The composition is also modeled on classical Greek or Roman relief sculpture as one would find on the Ara Pacis or the friezes of the Parthenon.  The painting space is literally modeled after figures in the composition in Greco Roman relief sculptures in that their is very little background and the figures, which are somewhat spot lit stand out from a very sparse background.
In terms of value structure David is very much of a caravaggisti in this painting.  He uses tenebrism and heightened chiaroscuro. 
The style in which David painted this is very hard edged and realistic, although painted before the invention of photography, this painting seems to look almost photographic.
Context: According to the Brittanica, 
On July 13, Charlotte Corday, a young Girondin supporter from Normandy, was admitted to Jean-Paul Marat's room on the pretext that she wished to claim his protection and stabbed him to death in his bath (he took frequent medicinal baths to relieve a skin infection). Marat's dramatic murder at the very moment of the Montagnards' triumph over their opponents caused him to be considered a martyr to the people's cause. His name was given to 21 French towns and, later, as a gesture symbolizing the continuity between the French and Russian revolutions, to one of the first battleships in the Soviet Navy.
Iconography:  This image depicts Marat as a martyr for the French Revolution and has often been referred to as the "pietà of the Revolution."  This was entirely intentional on the part of David who uses light in much the same way as Caravaggio does to symbolize "enlightenment" or divine light.  The dramatic lighting and references to the heroic classic past are meant to elevate and heroicize Marat as a figure who died in the service of something greater than himself.  The depiction of his body as also heroic is a direct reference to the idea of kalos in ancient Greek art.

David, Death of Socrates, 1787

Form: The anatomy of the the figures are idealized and very muscular and mimic the idealized muscular structure of Greco Roman sculpture. The composition is also modeled on classical Greek or Roman relief sculpture as one would find on the Ara Pacis or the friezes of the Parthenon.  The painting space is literally modeled after figures in the composition in Greco Roman relief sculptures in that their is very little background and the figures, which are somewhat spot lit stand out from a very sparse background.
In terms of value structure David is very much of a caravaggisti in this painting.  He uses tenebrism and heightened chiaroscuro. 
The style in which David painted this is very hard edged and realistic, although painted before the invention of photography, this painting seems to look almost photographic.

Iconography and Context: According to:
At the height of his youthful popularity and enthusiasm, part of a close circle of friends (including Chernier, Lafayette and Lavoisier) who were pushing for radical political reform, David painted this unusual historical picture in 1787. Commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, leaders in the call for a free market system and more public discussion, this picture depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates. Condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his teaching methods which aroused scepticism and impiety in his students, Socrates heroicly rejected exile and accepted death from hemlock. For months, David and his friends debated and discussed the importance of this picture. It was to be another father figure (like the Horatii and Brutus), unjustly condemned but who sacrifices himself for an abstract principle. By contrasting the movements of the energetic but firmly controlled Socrates, and his swooning disciples, through the distribution of light and dark accents, David transforms what might have been only a fashionable picture of martyrdom to a clarion call for nobility and self-control even in the face of death.
Here the philosopher continues to speak even while reaching for the cup, demonstrating his indifference to death and his unyielding commitment to his ideals. Most of his disciplines and slaves swirl around him in grief, betraying the weakness of emotionalism. His wife is seen only in the distance leaving the prison. Only Plato, at the foot of the bed and Crito grasping his master's leg, seem in control of themselves.
For contemporaries the scene could only call up memories of the recently abandoned attempt at reform, the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and the large number of political prisoners in the king's jails or in exile. David certainly intended this scene as a rebuke to cringing souls. On the eve of the Revolution, this picture served as a trumpet call to duty, and resistance to unjust authority. Thomas Jefferson was present at its unveiling, and admired it immensly. Sir Joshua Reynolds compared the Socrates with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's Stanze, and after ten visits to the Salon described it as `in every sense perfect'.

Horatio Greenough George Washington (1841)
(Installed in the Rotunda 1841 and moved to the east Capitol Grounds in 1844. Transferred to Smithsonian Institution in 1908.)
American Neoclassical

Form: The anatomy of the the figure is idealized and very muscular and almost appears to mimic the idealized muscular structure of Greco Roman sculpture. Iconography: Clearly Greenough was using the iconography and symbolism established by neoclassical artists in the 19th century.  Here Washingston literally looks like a Greek god which is meant to canonnize him.
The hand pointing up is almost certainly a reference to Rafael's depiction of Plato from the "School of Athens."

Context: According to Jean K. Rosales and Michael R. Jobe (
Congress made seven attempts to honor George Washington (1732-1799); this was Try Number 4. In 1832, Greenough was commissioned to design a statue of General Washington standing, but chose to model his statue on a statue of the Greek God Zeus. There may have been some method in his madness.
The original Mills design for the Washington Monument would have included a Greek temple on top of which there was supposed to be a statue of George Washington driving a six-horse chariot. A close examination of the artist's rendering of this design indicates that the Greenough statue looks amazingly like the Mills chariot driver.
One suspects he was seeking a larger commission, since acceptance of this statue would have also generated the commission for the six horses. This theory helps to explain the very awkward position of Washington's left hand -- it was supposed to be holding the reins of the chariot.
The statue is made of 12 tons of white marble and is so heavy it began to crack the floor of the Rotunda in the Capitol when it was installed there in 1841. It was moved to the East Front of the Capitol in 1843 and travelled around the grounds of the Hill until it was finally presented to the Museum of History and Technology (now the American History Museum).
 2001 Jean K. Rosales and Michael R. Jobe, All Rights Reserved

Angelika Kauffman Cornelia's Jewels 1785
oil on canvas 40"x50" Fine Arts Museum of Richmond Virginia
Swiss but worked in England, Neoclassical History Painting

-for an English patron
-Neoclassical history painting, subjects drawn from classical antiquity (Age of Reason, contemplation)
-the story takes place in the second century BCE, during the Republican era of Rome (Roman history)
-a woman visitor has been showing Cornelia her jewels and then requests to see those of her hostess; Cornelia turns to her sons and says that these are her most precious jewels
-Cornelia exemplifies the “good mother” (popular subject in late eighteenth century)
-in the reforming spirit of the Enlightenment – depicted subjects that would teach lessons in virtue (didactic paintings)
-the value of Cornelia’s maternal dedication is emphasized by the fact that under her loving care the sons grew up to be political reformers
-setting = simple (like the message), but the effect of the whole is softened by the warm, subdued lighting and by the tranquil grace of the leading characters Biography:
Swiss prodigy, Maria Anna Catharina Angelica Kauffmann had an established reputation as an artist and musician by the age of eleven. Her father taught her and also accompanied her to Italy where she studied and continued to create her Rococo-style paintings. Kauffmann moved to London in 1766 and met Sir Joshua Reynolds. She helped to found the Royal Academy in 1769 and married fellow artist, Antonio Zucchi. The couple moved to his home country of Italy and settled in Rome. In addition to her many portraits, several of Kauffmann’s great works were the decorations at St. Paul’s and the Royal Academy’s lecture room at Somerset House.

Notice how the painting above was based on the work below.

Stele of Hegeso
c.410-400 BC, Marble, 5'9"
Athens. Classic

Form:  This stele is rendered in style very similar to the Nike parapet.  The two female figures are rendered in profile right against the front of the picture plane.  The figures inhabit what looks to be a post and lintel temple which gives the viewer the sense of an environment.  Each woman is idealized physically through the use of wet drapery.  The folds of each dress accent the protruding knees and fluid bodies.  The anatomy of their faces is naturalistic with some idealized features as well.  An example of this is the bridge of the noses is representing as a straight line, a minor distortion of how noses fit in with the geography of the face: the bridge is usually slightly curved at the top.  This aquiline feature is referred to as the Greek nose. Iconography:  Scenes like this are called genre, or everyday, scenes.  This is a scene of everyday life in which a maid brings a jewelry box to her mistress and she examines her trophies.  This kind of scene, which is often referred to as the "Mistress and Maid" motif is one that can also be found on vases as well as steles.  It can best be interpreted as a typical scene of upper class feminine pursuits.  The maid, the jewels, the chair, and the implied literacy of the visitors to the grave by the inscription on the lintel, are emblems of economic power that compliment the seated woman's beauty and status. (Compare this to the iconography of vases that depict two males such as in the Exekias vase.)
Context:  This stele was used as a grave marker and is probably an attempt by the artist and the people who commissioned it to make an idealized portrait of the represented, seated woman, buried in this grave. 

Jacques-Louis David,  Madame Recamier a.k.a.. Madame Geoffrine 1800

Jacques-Germain Soufflot. Pantheon 1755-92
Begun in 1757 as the Church of Sainte-Geneviève, the Pantheon is now a civic building housing the remains of some of France's most famous citizens.

Rome, Pantheon 118-128CE
Marcus Agrippa

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello 1770-1776
American Neoclassicism

Chiswick House, by Lord Burlington (Richard Boyle), 
at Chiswick, England, 1729.
Gardens by William Kent 1730
English Neoclassicism


Josiah Wedgwood and factory, 
[The apotheosis of Homer], 1786. 
ceramic pottery vase. English.

Wedgwood, Josiah Apotheosis Vase 1786
Women Artists: "You've Come A Long Way Baby"

Marie  Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1755-1842
 Self portrait -1790

Marie  Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
b. April 16, 1755, Paris, France
d. March 30, 1842, Paris 
in full MARIE-LOUISE-ÉLISABETH VIGÉE-LEBRUN French painter, one of the most successful of all women artists, particularly noted for her portraits of women.
Her father was Louis Vigée, a pastel portraitist and her first teacher. She studied later with a number of well-known painters, among them J.-B. Greuze and Joseph Vernet. In 1776 she married a picture dealer, J.-B.-P. Lebrun. Her great opportunity came in 1779 when she was summoned to Versailles to paint a portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The two women became friends, and in subsequent years Vigée-Lebrun painted at least 25 portraits of Marie-Antoinette in a great variety of poses and costumes; a number of these may be seen in the museum at Versailles. Vigée-Lebrun became a member of the Royal Academy in 1783. On the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, she left France and for 12 years traveled abroad, to Rome, Naples, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, painting portraits and playing a leading role in society. In 1801 she returned to Paris but, disliking Parisian social life under Napoleon, soon left for London, where she painted portraits of the court and of Lord Byron. Later she went to Switzerland (and painted a portrait of Mme de Staël) and then again (c. 1810) to Paris, where she ceased painting.
Vigée-Lebrun was a woman of much wit and charm, and her memoirs, Souvenirs de ma vie (1835-37; "Reminiscences of My Life"), provide a lively account of her times as well as of her own work. She was one of the most technically fluent portraitists of her era, and her pictures are notable for the freshness, charm, and sensitivity of their presentation. During her career, according to her own account, she painted 877 pictures, including 622 portraits and about 200 landscapes.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Artemisia Gentileschi
Self Portrait as 
Allegory of Painting 
or"La Pittura" 1630 
Italian Baroque

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait of the Artist 
with Sisters and Governess. 1555 
(The Chess Game)
oil on canvas, 27"x37" 
Nardowe Museum, Poznan, Poland
Italian Renaissance

Marie  Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1755-1842
 Self portrait -1790
French Baroque/Rococo Portraitist

Artemisia Gentileschi, Sofonisba Anguissola and Marie  Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun are self portraits contain important clues as to how each of these artists was perceived and how they saw the world.  Compare and contrast these three paintings and come up with some conclusions as to how each artist chose to portray themselves.  What do these portrayals tell us about the role of the artist in the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods?

Marie  Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
with her daughter Julie - 
1789 121 x 90 cm, The Louvre, Paris
Marie  Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun 1755-1842 
Marie Antoinette 1787 oil on canvas 9'x7'

Form: Both these portraits are done in a Rococo fashion.  The brushwork is light almost feathery and often the colors that are used tend to run towards pastel in terms of their hue.  The compositions are fairly stable and symmetrical although the tenebrism tends to create an almost vignette type of effect. In the self portrait the artist has chosen a neoclassical looking garment and the texture of the background is undefined.  In the portrait of Marie Antoinette, the queen is dressed in fairly expensive clothing however the clothing is not terribly ornate or ostentatious.
Iconography:  In both images, the artist has chosen to portray the female as a "good mother" in the manner that Rousseau advocated.  In Rousseau's point of view the role of individuals was predetermined by their innate nature and that in order for an individual to fit into society as a whole one must live in accordance with this nature.  In the case of females, this role was to have children and be good mothers.  Both of these images subscribe to this point of view because these images were meant to be almost advertisements or a form of propaganda that would present a persona to the world.
Context:  By 1789, accusations of impropriety and adultery had destroyed her public reputation.   This self portrait was an attempt to portray herself as a moral and upright Frenchwoman.  The same was true for Marie Antoinette.  In this painting Marie Antoinette is being depicted in modest clothing to defend against accusations of excessive spending and she is also portrayed as the good mother who had also lost a son.  On the right is her brother, Louis, Le Dauphin gesturing toward the empty crib which indicates her loss.
The last portrait of thirty that Vigee Le Brun painted of the doomed queen. The picture shows Marie Therese Charlotte de France, Madame Royale, and her brother, Louis, Le Dauphin.  Louis died of natural causes early in the year that the revolution began. The next younger child, also called Louis then became the second Dauphin. After his father had been guillotined he became known as Louis XVII . This Louis may have been murdered, or may have died of other causes while imprisoned in the temple, but he may also have survuved after having been exchanged for another sickly child. This painting still hangs at Versailles.
Go here for a great bio on Marie Antoinette

Angelica Kauffman, 
Cornelia Pointing to Her Children as Her Treasures, 1785. 
oil on canvas, 40"x50" 
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia
Neoclassic, worked in England born in Switzerland
Stele of Hegeso
c.410-400 BC, Marble, 5'9"
Athens. Classic Greek

Ara Pacis Augustae 13-9 BCE

Form: This painting is Neoclassic in style because it incorporates classical clothing and architecture and is organized in a classical manner.  The composition is also arranged in a similar manner to Grueze's and Poussin's paintings.  Like its Baroque French counterparts, the image is constructed so that most of the figures are placed in the foreground and even though there is the creation of deep space, the background is not as important as the figures. The picture plane is arranged in a sculptural frieze like band that takes its cue from antique sculptural friezes such as those found on the Ara Pacis and the Parthenon.  Like its classical counterparts, the image is constructed so that most of the figures are placed in the foreground and even though there is the creation of deep space, the background is not as important as the figures. 
Stokstad goes into the specific story of the Cornelia and the Gracchii and so this next section will be dedicated to some other aspects of the image.
The use of classical imagery, such as the togas and columns, and a story that deals specifically with self sacrifice for the generations of the future.  The classical clothing and arches referred to a tradition that was considered more dignified than the light classical themes expressed in paintings like Watteau's.
The lighting and the frieze like placement of the figures are equally a part of the iconography of this image because these formal elements directly refer to those classical traditions.  Compare Watteau's style of painting and see how the formal qualities of each actually are part of the iconography.
The individuals being represented are also all physically beautiful and this refers to the classical concept of kalos (Greek for beautiful and moral.)
In a twist on the classical vocabulary found in the Stele of Hegeso, Kauffman corrects the iconography and updates it.  The prescribed role of woman is specifically expressed in this image as that of a mother rather than a selfish woman who cares only for jewels.  This philosophy is very much in keeping with Rousseau's ideas concerning that of the "happy mother" and in her depiction of Cornelia she is almost changing the meaning of the image found on the stele.
Context: According to WebGalleries,
This fine painting combines the 18th century attributes of loving and attentive mother with Roman classicizing elements. Kauffmann presents us with the narrative subject of "exemplum virtutis" or example of virtue. Here a wealthy women sits showing off her jewels. When she asks Cornelia to present her jewels, Cornelia raises her hand to bring forth her sons, Tiberus and Gaius, saying "These are my jewels". The subjects are clothed in roman dress and set against a roman background. An interesting comparison can be made to Jacques Louis David's "Oath of the Horatii". A child prodigy, Kauffmann produced her first commissioned work before the age of 13. After the death of her mother, she traveled through Austria and Italy with her father, painter Joseph Johann Kauffmann. She assisted him by painting in the backgrounds of his works, but she also received her own commissions and soon established a solid reputation in her own right. She was influenced by Correggio and the Carracci and copied their works in the galleries as part of her artistic training. Later her style reflected a neoclassical flavor influenced by Benjamin West, Sr. Joshua Reynolds and the classicizing elements at Herculaneum.
In 1766 Kauffmann was invited to London. She produced many portraits and decorative painting but preferred history painting which was considered the highest artistic genre and reserved only for her male colleagues. Despite her inability to secure a formal artistic education or study the male nude, Kauffmann produced paintings which depicted classical mythology, history and allegory. She received commissions from the Royal courts in Naples, Russia and Austria. While often dismissed by traditional art history as a mere decorative or sentimental artist, she was successful enough to purchase her own home from earned commissions and live a comfortably stylish life. Another testament of Kauffmann's success was that she was one of the founding members of the British Royal Academy in 1768.

neo.clas.sic or adj (1877): of, relating to, or constituting a revival or adaptation of the classical esp. in literature, music, art, or architecture -- n -- n or adj vi.gnette n [F, fr. MF vignete, fr. dim. of vigne vine--more at vine] (1751)  2 a: a picture (as an engraving or photograph) that shades off gradually into the surrounding paper b: the pictorial part of a postage stamp design as distinguished from the frame and lettering 3 a: a short descriptive literary sketch b: a brief incident or scene (as in a play or movie) -- n ²vignette vt vi.gnett.ed ; (1853) 1: to finish (as a photograph) in the manner of a vignette 2: to describe briefly -- n


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