One man, dressed in rags, sits stoically in his throne as a laurel wreath is gently placed atop his head by an otherworldly angel. Surrounding him is his audience; men and women varying in facial expressions, dress, and appearance. All these personalities are so dissimilar to one another, yet so familiar to us. There is Shakespeare! There is Virgil! There is Raphael Sanzio! The man in the centre turns out to be Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ depiction of historical and mythological figures in his painting, Apotheosis of Homer embodies the neoclassical movement that hit popular painting like a tidal wave from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. Neoclassical art enjoyed popularity as a result of a backlash against the popular styles of the day which were viewed to represent the degeneracy of art. Ingres’ painting perfectly reflects the spirit of neoclassical painting: elements of the new meeting the glories of the past.
The historical environment that gave rise to neoclassical paintings was that of resentment. Neoclassicism arose from a rejection of the then-dominant style of art known as Rococo which was viewed to be frivolous and overcomplicating with its use of colors and curving forms. Neoclassical painters wanted to remove themselves from this approach to painting, and it found its ideal source: the past. At the time, classical antiquity became the popular motif with the archaeological discoveries and newfound interest in classical Roman and Greek societies. If the art of the new world represented a “decadence”, then painters turned to what was in their view a more composed, simple, and virtuous society for inspiration to paint. The history of classical Rome and Greece offer a backdrop for many of these painting. In the Apotheosis of Homer, the architecture in the background screams classical Greek society, which is appropriate considering Homer is the main feature of the painting. But, the painting offers a broader illustration of what neoclassical paintings represented: an attempt to elevate and immortalize the past in the context of the present and future.
German art scholar, Johann Joachim Winckelmann acted as a decisive influence in the rise of neoclassicism. He argued that the works of ancient Greece, in particular, had a “noble simplicity and a quiet grandeur” to them – something more universal and timeless. Neoclassical painters sought to capture this universal and ageless significance. Stylistically, as opposed to rococo paintings, neoclassical paintings placed more focus on symmetry and with greater focus on the faces of its characters to tell the story. Less became more. As a result, the themes of neoclassicism became more important than its style. Themes that were brought to forefront during the French Revolution became ideal: from patriotism to the nobility of self-sacrifice, the subject matter of neoclassical paintings employed character and mythology of the classical societies to convey their sentimental messages. Neoclassicism borrowed elements from other styles of paintings, such as romanticism, by promoting virtue over style.
Neoclassical paintings reflected a more modest style from the Rococo style that dominated cathedrals and mansions at the time. Reflecting the political atmosphere in France at the time, neoclassicism sought to bring about change in the art world by mirroring art’s distant past. The fact that it is still being debated today suggests that the style succeeded in resonating with the future generations.