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18th- and 19th-Century France — Neoclassicism
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Overview

The French Revolution began in 1789, when citizens stormed the Bastille prison in Paris. Within a few years, France had adopted and overthrown several constitutions and executed its former king. It found itself at war with most of the Continent and endured horrible violence at home during the Reign of Terror. Finally, in 1799, the successful young general Napoleon Bonaparte seized control and, in 1804, proclaimed himself emperor. Though he made important administrative reforms, he was preoccupied by constant warfare and his heroic but failed attempt to unite all of Europe by conquest. After being defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled and the Bourbon monarchy was restored in the person of Louis XVIII.

With the revolution, French painting resumed its moral and political purpose and embraced the style known as neoclassicism. Even before 1789, popular taste had begun to turn away from the disarming, lighthearted subjects of rococo; as revolution neared, artists increasingly sought noble themes of public virtue and personal sacrifice from the history of ancient Greece or Rome. They painted with restraint and discipline, using the austere clarity of the neoclassical style to stamp their subjects with certitude and moral truth.

Neoclassicism triumphed—and became inseparably linked to the revolution—in the work of Jacques-Louis David, a painter who also played an active role in politics. As virtual artistic dictator, he served the propaganda programs first of radical revolutionary factions and later of Napoleon. As a young man David had worked in the delicate style of his teacher François Boucher, but in Italy he was influenced by ancient sculpture and by the seventeenth-century artists Caravaggio and Poussin, adopting their strong contrasts of color, clear tones, and firm contours. David gave his heroic figures sculptural mass and arranged them friezelike in emphatic compositions that were meant to inspire his fellow citizens to noble action.

Among the many artists who studied in David's large studio was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Unlike his teacher, Ingres did not involve himself in politics and spent most of his youth in Italy, returning to France only after the restoration of the monarchy. During his long life, he came to be regarded as the high priest of neoclassicism, pursuing its perfection after younger artists had become enthralled with romanticism. A superb draftsman, Ingres insisted on the importance of line though he nevertheless was a brilliant master of color. A mathematical precision pushes his work toward formal abstraction despite the meticulous realism of its surfaces.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, French, 1780 - 1867, Marcotte d'Argenteuil, 1810, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.24

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One of his contemporaries noted that Houdon, the most successful portrait sculptor of his day, "pushed truth to the bitter end." This bust captures the fleshy and disheveled scoundrel Cagliostro, who bilked the courts of Europe as an alchemist and mesmerizer. He was implicated in the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which galvanized public opinion against the French royal family when it appeared that Marie-Antoinette had purchased an extravagant necklace at a time of strained public finances. In fact, an ambitious dupe had made the purchase in hopes of currying the queen's favor. Cagliostro was suspected of acting as a go-between, and though no charges were proven, he was expelled from France in 1786, the same year this bust is dated. He died in a prison in Rome about fifteen years later, condemned by the pope as a heretic.

Cagliostro's spirited portrait contrasts with Houdon's cool and impersonal Diana. Cagliostro's eyes, for example, are drilled to indicate the pupil, whereas Diana's blank, undifferentiated gaze reveals neither spirit nor human emotion. Houdon copied Diana from his 1776 plaster model for a full-length statue, a practice he followed frequently.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, French, 1741 - 1828, Giuseppe Balsamo, Comte di Cagliostro, 1786, marble, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.103

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Shown from the shins up, two elegantly dressed women and two young boys, all with light skin, sit together on a bench in front of a stone balustrade with a forest landscape beyond in this horizontal portrait painting. The people are brightly lit from our left but the darkened sky suggests dusk. The boys lean onto the woman at the center of the composition, and the second woman sits to her right, our left. All of the people have rosy cheeks, delicate noses, and their pink lips all turn up in slight smiles. The woman on our left sits with her body angled towards her friend but she turns her face to look at us with brown eyes under curving brows. Her wavy, flint-gray hair is loosely bound up so it frames the sides of her face and curls over her shoulders. Her swirling white, head covering is edged in gold and tied in a bow over her left ear, on our right. Her long-sleeved dress has a tight-fitting bodice and a low, scooped neckline lined with pleated white fabric. Her dress shimmers from sapphire blue to dusky pink, suggesting it is iridescent taffeta. Large pearls hang off the end of round, gold, hoop earrings, and a glimmering gold sash is tied around her waist. She sits with her left hand resting on her friend’s right shoulder, closer to her, and she gestures towards one of the young boys leaning on the friend’s lap with her other hand. The second woman sits with her body facing us and she looks off to our left with gray-blue eyes. Her silvery gray, upswept hair is covered with a long piece of white fabric with pink stripes, twisted loosely into a turban-like head covering. She wears dangling gold earrings and her dress is striped with parchment white and rust red. Her right hand, on our left, rests on her friend’s knee, and her other arm is wrapped around the older boy. He kneels on the bench and leans forward, wrapping the arm we can see around her torso. His face near hers, he looks up at her from under his lashes. A dimple marks the flushed cheek we can see. His chestnut brown hair falls around his shoulders and he wears a gingerbread brown suit. The smaller and younger of the two boys rests his head on his crossed hands on her thigh, and looks out at us. He wears a white garment with a lilac purple sash tied in a bow around his waist. There is a pale pink rosebush in the lower right corner of the painting, near the kneeling boy’s foot. The landscape beyond the balustrade is filled with dark green trees against a slate blue sky. The painting is done with blended brushstrokes, giving it a soft, almost hazy look.

Madame Vigée Le Brun was part of the world she painted and, like her aristocratic patrons, was under threat of the guillotine after the revolution. She was forced to flee Paris in disguise in 1789. She had been first painter to Queen Marie–Antoinette and her personal confidant. The queen had intervened to ensure her election to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, an honor accorded few women.

More than two–thirds of Vigée Le Brun's surviving paintings are portraits. Most, like this one, are of women and children who are idealized —flattered—into a kind of family resemblance. These unrelated young women, for example, could easily be mistaken for sisters. Their garments, airy silks and iridescent taffetas, are almost more individual than their faces, although both women were friends of the artist. The picture was hailed as a tribute to friendship and maternal love when it was shown at the Salon of 1787.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, French, 1755 - 1842, The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien, 1787, oil on canvas, Gift of the Bay Foundation in memory of Josephine Bay Paul and Ambassador Charles Ulrick Bay, 1964.11.1

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A man with pale peach skin and dark hair wears a military uniform and stands in front of a desk in this vertical portrait. He nearly fills the composition so seems close to us, and he looks directly at us. His body is angled slightly to our left and he tucks his right hand, on our left, flat against his chest between the buttons of his jacket. His navy-blue waistcoat is white along the front where is seems to be turned back and fastened with brass buttons along his chest. The jacket has red cuffs, gold epaulets on the shoulders, and three medals affixed to the chest. White britches end just below the knee and white stockings covering his calves are wrinkled at the ankle above black shoes with brass buckles. A candle burns low in a lamp on an ornately carved and gilded desk behind the man. Books and papers are piled on the desk to our right. More papers and a thin ceremonial sword rest on a chair in front of the desk to our right. The chair is also carved and gilded, and is upholstered with scarlet fabric decorated with bees. The legs of the chair kick up the forest green carpet underfoot. A tall clock stands on the wall opposite us and reads 4:13. A few capital letters are written on a scroll of paper on the chair, “COD.” The artist’s name is also written as if printed on a scroll of paper on the floor behind the desk to our left: “LVD.CI.DAVID OPVS 1812.”

David described Napoleon's tireless dilligence: "He is in his study. . . . The candles flickering and the clock striking four remind him that the day is about to break. . . . He rises. . . to pass his troops in review."

It is unlikely that Napoleon actually posed for this portrait despite its convincing detail. The painting is an artful contrivance to convey three aspects of his public image: soldier, emperor, and administrator. A volume of Plutarch's Lives positions him with the great generals of ancient history and reinforces the meaning of the uniform, sword, and campaign maps. Embroidered on the ceremonial chair are the golden bees and N of his imperial emblem. And on the desk, rolled papers—the Code Napoléon, whose reforms are the basis of French legal theory—recall his civic role.

Jacques-Louis David, French, 1748 - 1825, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.15

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Shown from the lap up, a woman with peachy skin, wearing a white silk dress and feathered headpiece, sits facing and looking at us in a harvest yellow upholstered chair in this vertical portrait. She has blue-gray eyes and a rounded, slightly pink nose. Her thin lips are closed and pulled back with shallow dimples at the corners of her mouth. Chestnut brown ringlets frame her face and fall to her shoulders under a white hat or headband covered with curling, billowing white feathers. Light reflecting off the cloth of her high-waisted dress suggests that it is silk or satin. It has a lace-lined square neckline and puffed short sleeves. She crosses her arms at the wrist and her hands rest in her lap, holding opposite forearms. A red shawl with silver and blue trims wraps over her left arm, on our right, and bunches up behind her against the yellow chair. The artist signed and dated the work in yellow paint against the dark background behind the woman: “L. David 1813.”

When David married Marguerite-Charlotte Pécoul, the young daughter of a prosperous builder with connections at Louis XVI's court, he was literally twice her age. Their marriage was at times stormy; they separated, divorced, and remarried. David spoke of her as a "woman whose virtues and character had assured the happiness of his life." Political disagreements, particularly his attachment to the ruthless Robespierre, may have exacerbated their personal differences. However, after Robespierre was executed and David himself imprisoned—and threatened with the guillotine—his wife rallied to him with great courage. Her tireless appeals secured his release, and they remained together until her death.

David's frank but sympathetic portrait catches not only the homeliness of his wife's features, but her intelligence and directness as well. Unlike many of David's works, this portrait was painted entirely by his own hand. Its technique is freer than the austere style he applied to less intimate subjects. The satiny texture of her dress, unadorned by jewelry as Madame David surrendered hers in support of the revolution, is created with heavy brushes of thick pigment, the plume with lighter strokes of thinner color. These exuberant surfaces contrast with the restrained precision of the accessories in Napoleon's portrait.

Jacques-Louis David, French, 1748 - 1825, Madame David, 1813, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.14

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David Johnston, who was painted at the age of nineteen, became a progressive industrialist in the ceramics business and served as mayor of Bordeaux. This portrait was produced while Prud'hon was at the height of his fame, in the same year that Napoleon awarded him the Legion of Honor. Unlike most other painters in France, Prud'hon did not fall under the influence of David's austere style. His work, by contrast, has the shadowy softness of Italian Renaissance painters Leonardo da Vinci and Correggio, whose works he studied. The firm lines and hard contours of color preferred by his comtemporaries throw their subjects into vivid relief, while Prud'hon's more gentle gradations of tone lend romantic, sometimes erotic ambiguity instead. Compare, for example, this portrait with the sharp intensity of Ingres' Monsieur Marcotte.

Prud'hon, his life marred by personal tragedy, was passionately admired by romantic artists of the following generation who saw in his work an alternative to the tyrannie davidienne, the dictates of a neoclassical style that eventually lapsed into rigid dogma.

Pierre Paul Prud'hon, French, 1758 - 1823, David Johnston, 1808, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.84

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Ingres painted this scene while he was living in Italy. The painting's extreme visual accuracy, which reproduces Michelangelo's Last Judgment at the right, is so precise that the painting would appear to be an eyewitness account; however, at that time the pope was being held virtual prisoner in France after having been brutally removed from Rome by French forces following Napoleon's annexation of the Papal States.

The circumstances of the work's commission are somewhat surprising, since Ingres painted it for a prominent French official in Rome who might have been expected to avoid such a potentially controversial subject. He was Charles Marcotte, a good friend of Ingres' and one of his most important patrons, whose portrait is in the Gallery's collection. (Ingres included his self-portrait here on the left, holding a halberd). By the time the painting was exhibited in Paris, events changed dramatically. Napoleon's defeat and exile, the return of Louis XVIII, and the pope's own restoration to Rome removed the controversy from Marcotte's commission.

Ingres, unlike David in whose studio he studied, remained blind to politics, devoting himself instead to the perfection of his art.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, French, 1780 - 1867, Pope Pius VII in the Sistine Chapel, 1814, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.23

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When his friend Marcotte first suggested that Ingres paint Ines Moitessier, the wife of a financier and jurist, he demurred. Ingres changed his mind after being struck by her "terrible et belle tête" (terrible and beautiful head.) The author Théophile Gautier described her as "Junolike," and Ingres presents her with the imposing remoteness of a Roman goddess. Her stance is severe and strongly silhouetted, her monumental shoulders stark ivory against the somber, restricted colors around her.

Ingres insisted on painting every detail from life, so he could achieve, in his words, "the faithful rendering of nature that leads to art." With minute accuracy he has recorded the light–absorbing darkness of her lace and velvet costume, the gleam of gold jewelry, the gloss of her elaborate coiffure. The emphatic reality of these details contrasts with her unfocused gaze, contributing to the sense that she is somehow removed from life.

Ingres began to pose Madame Moitessier in the 1840s, but the work languished. This second attempt was begun after the aging artist—he was 71—had been roused from depression by the prospect of his remarriage in 1852.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, French, 1780 - 1867, Madame Moitessier, 1851, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.18

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