Neoclassical Art: Abandoning Opulence

Last week we talked about the beginnings of the movement away from the showiness of the ostentatious Baroque and decorative Rococo periods and the move away from exclusively religious art that began in the Lowlands of Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. This trend began to spread across Europe and into the Americas from the mid-eighteenth and lasted until the early nineteenth centuries and is known as the Neoclassical period. One of the main reasons was the general public´s reaction to the opulence championed by Royalty on the Continent during the mass movements toward democratic societies. Another reason was the rediscovery of ruins at Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid 1700´s and the publication of Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Art by art historian Johann Winckelmann. These factors led to a powerful revival of Classical Antiquity that lasted nearly two centuries.

The earlier, but previously unrecognized art of such men as Nicolas Poussin, who specialized in classical history paintings and Claude Lorrain´s famous landscapes, became the inspiration for a new wave in realism for artists long after these artists deaths. The movement actually began as an architectural movement because of the plethora of Classical Roman buildings in Rome. This fact placed the real beginnings of the movement back into the heart of Italy, the home of the original Renaissance. There is really no particular year or event that can be clearly seen as the defining beginning of the Romantic and Neoclassical periods.

The movement developed a much more serious and unemotional flavor than had ever been seen in the art world. Reflecting the heroic styles from the Greeks and Republican Romans, using plain and somber colors instead of bright pastel colors, with only a few highlights was the general theme of this artistic style. The art tried to promote the ethical “superiority” of antique art, which celebrated moral narratives like self-sacrifice and self-denial. Both sculpture and paintings dropped the theatrical and whimsical earlier styles and was a great deal more organized, emphasizing theme and linear design rather than the effects of light, which by this time were much better understood, color and atmosphere. Simply comparing the art of Masters like sculptor John Flaxman, Henry Fuseli and William Blake with the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Dante Alighieri and others will demonstrate the huge influence artists from the Classical Period had on this period.

The Dutch Golden Age: A New Renaissance

The 16th Century saw the opening of one of the longest continuous wars in human history, the Dutch 80 Year War, which was a revolt against Spanish Control over the Low Countries. It was toward the end of this interminable war that the Dutch Golden Age of Painting began and because of the influence of Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer the art world began its next important period. The Dutch Golden Age began during the Middle of the Baroque period. The reasons for the Dutch dominance in art during this period are many. The break with the traditional conservative and very Catholic Spanish control, especially since the Spanish Inquisition was still going on in some locations, led to a complete restructuring of Dutch society and Dutch art was one of the first areas to feel the changes. There are a number of easy scholarships that allow students to study the period in depth.

Dutch art of the period is considered Baroque but in reality many of the aspects of the Baroque style, such as the love of splendor and idealization, are missing, making this style part of the Baroque period but separate from it, being fascinated more with realism that with pomp and grandeur. This mini-period lasted from about 1628 until the French invaded the Low Lands in 1672 and it was during this period that the concept of “genres”.

The Calvinists took over the religious aspects of Dutch life during this period and, unlike the Vatican, banned religious painting inside the Churches. While religious paintings were permitted in homes the fact was the most people could not afford them and very few religious paintings were produced during this period, the artists preferring to concentrate on scenes from real life, landscapes, peasant life, animals, flowers, and maritime paintings. This was also the period when the “Hierarchy of Genres”, which held that some styles were better than others and this drove painters to want to produce work that would last through the ages. Keep in mind that the greats like Da Vinci, who only painted for money to finance is inventions, and Michelangelo, who painted out of piety, were not concerned as much about money and fame in art as they were about mechanics and religion.

With one notable exception, The Young Bull (Paulus Potter 1647), which was huge ( Nearly 10 foot wide) most paintings of the period were relatively small, and the only really large paintings were usually family group portraits. Wall painting had been common for literally thousands, of not tens of thousands of years, but during this period the practice essentially ended in Europe. Walls were decorated with hanging paintings, which were painted on either canvas or wooden panels and some artists even painted over many surviving Golden Age paintings with new subjects, a practice which began because new frames and canvases were expensive. There was also very little sculpture done during this period and was usually only commissioned for tomb monuments or for decoration of public buildings or areas.

The “Misshapen Pearl”: Studies in Baroque (Pt. 1)

Mannerism was followed in the late 16th Century by the Baroque period. The word Baroque is a French word for “misshapen pearl” and was applied to the period because of the garish beauty of its art and architecture. The style began in Northern Italy during around 1580 and lasted until the early 1700´s, which makes it one of the longer periods. The period reflected the brewing battle between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic establishment.

The battle began when the Catholic Church announced a “counter” Reformation in the late 1550´s and began to use art to influence people´s opinion of the Church. The commissioned many pieces that were biblically correct and visually stunning, reaching people on a nearly visceral level. The Church used Masters like Bernini and Rubens to create dramatic paintings using revolutionary techniques like casting certain figures, who are standing in deep shadow, in bright but soft illumination. While Renaissance art was highly stylized, Baroque was much earthier and realistic. For the first time artists painted about live on the streets instead of in the palaces and the masses flocked to this art. Artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer ruled the art world in northeastern Europe and Caravaggio ruled the south. New scientific discoveries, brought on by the Renaissance and the work of men like Da Vinci and Galileo were rapidly changing the way people looked at the world. Dozens of new trade routes, with both Asia and the newly discovered Americas, with thriving colonies, had produced an entirely new form of art.

Art was only purchased by the privileged monied classes for most of history. But now that the economy had begun to create a thriving middle class, more careers in education, eventually leading up to medical advances until we now have jobs like astronauts and careers in software engineering opened up as more people could pay for school and educational levels increased, artists began to produce on a much faster scale and Baroque went through many changes through the years.

The Baroque Style, which we will study for the next several articles, is an “absolutist” style. Baroque is all about exaggeration, colossal sculptures, movement and a great deal of emotion. Like the misshapen pearl it is both more and less than it should be. We can see the influence of this period in other periods, like Gothic, surrealism, Art Deco, and many others. But the period was torn by war and religious conflict, each event which had its own influence on the period and we will explore each of these events and discuss how they changed what might have been.

Mannerism: The Renaissance Realized

The last several articles have concentrated on the art of the High Renaissance, with emphasis on Da Vinci and Michelangelo. While we must move on to the next stage, Mannerism, we continue to welcome questions about any of our previous articles. The term “mannerism” has been used in many different contexts in the art world, the most common is when it is applied to the art that flowed out of Italy and much of Europe in the nearly 60 years following the High Renaissance. The style is said to have started around 1520, when many of the great Masters, like Michelangelo and Da Vinci were still alive, and lasted until about 1580, or the beginning of the Baroque Period. While the main branch of Mannerism, which originated in Florence and Rome, was over by 1580 the style continued well into the 17th century in the rest of Europe, especially in Germany, where it finally fizzled out in favor of Gothic art in the early 1800´s. A teaching career in art history specializing in this period can be fascinating.

The term “mannerism” can be traced to the Italian word maniera and loosely means manner or style. The word however can be used as a noun or adjective, as in “he has style”. But the flexibility of the word causes some confusion when it is used to describe an entire period in art history. Some people use the term to describe the lifestyle of the artist and some use it to describe their work style. When we are talking about Mannerism however we are talking about the style of art, not a specific artist. There are a number of artists who contributed heavily to the Age of Mannerism whoever and we will address each in later articles.

The style of mannerism features, when compared to the Renaissance, many art concepts that were quite revolutionary. The style uses things like a collapsed perspective or precariously balanced poses to put the viewer off balance and elongated forms and irrational settings to keep them there. While classic styles evoked expressions of wonder, art done in a mannerist style evoked shock and adventure, a mystery that few could resist. A more recent example of this phenomenon can be seen with the development of rock music in the late 1950´s and 1960´s, replacing the use of the orchestra and adding electronics to create a sense of excitement overload.

Many of the early mannerist artists were students of students of the Masters, like Michelangelo and Raphael and Da Vinci. These students had the temerity to add style techniques from pre classical times and Hellenistic styles to the classical techniques developed by the Masters. Originally these artists were referred to as anti-classical. The contrasts continued of course. Classical art featured the natural and mannerist favored the artificial and extreme.

But the term “la maniera” was not meant to be a complement. Artists of the time were seen to be rebels and their art was seen by many writers of the time as offensive to the masterpieces of men like Da Vinci and Raphael. But while they were using the term to describe particular artists, the term has been used to describe the period for over a century.

The “Other” Renaissance Man: Michelangelo

The title of Renaissance Man is usually attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo most certainly shared that pedestal with him. In our last article we mentioned that Da Vinci, while being responsible for some of history´s greatest works of art, was not an artist of passion. Da Vinci created works of art so that he would have money to fund his real passions: Science and engineering. Michelangelo on the other hand, was a man of deep passions and was an artist to his soul. He was an engineer and innovator as well, but only in ways that related to his heart. His inspiring St. Peter´s Basilica for instance was merely a decorative housing for his artwork, as his work in the Sistine Chapel´s Alter Wall and ceiling demonstrates. His fresco work is was especially prized by the Church in Rome and the Vatican still holds a great amount of this one artists work.

While the largest part of his work was inspired by Christian images there were a number of pieces, even some ordered by Church Cardinals, such as the statues Hercules and Bacchus. Even his most famous work in marble, David, was not produced to glorify the Church or Christianity but was instead meant to symbolize the freedom of Florence after the oppressive rule of Girolamo Savonarola, a monk sent by Rome to try to squash the Renaissance. But it was Michelangelo´s work on the Sistine Chapel that shines down on us from history and many people do not know that this entire job was created as a way to embarrass the great man.

Michelangelo had been invited to Rome by Pope Julius III in order to design the Popes Tomb. But the great artist Raphael had already been working in the city for some years and did most of his work for the Church. Michelangelo´s presence was seen as a threat by Raphael, who was seen as the master of fresco painting, and he wanted Michelangelo to fail in a spectacular way. Michelangelo was quite unfamiliar with fresco painting and Raphael lobbied to have him do the ceiling and alter wall in the chapel. But Michelangelo would not be humiliated. The original order was for a scene featuring the Apostles but the Master decided that this was not good enough, instead painting not only the creation scene, in three parts, but the genealogy of Christ, upon which the entire Christian Church was founded.

A pharmacy technician from Idaho or bank clerk from Miami, vacationing in Rome and visiting the Vatican, cannot possibly understand the vicious political in-fighting among the many artists and Michelangelo himself found many of his works being called being called “sacrilegious”, simply because he featured a great deal of nudity. There are a few left handed scholarships that will allow students of history to study the politics of the time and allow them to get a better understanding of when these great works were created.

Many of the artists of the time were either homosexual or bi sexual and much of Michelangelo´s work reflects that this was very probably the case with him as well. The problem with identifying the Master´s sexual orientation is that his personal habits probably drove away any potential lovers, male or female. Completely obsessed with his art, Michelangelo´s personal habits were atrocious and he was seen my many in Rome and Florence as an obscene man. But the fact is that this artist, by working extensively for the Vatican, ensured that both his work and his writings would survive for study today.