Romantic and Neoclassical Paintings

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugene Delacroix were contemporaries — but they practiced two very different styles: the former was a Neoclassical painter and the latter a Romantic painter. Neoclassicalism emphasized symmetry and simplicity and found its inspiration in the ancient art of Greece and Rome: its practitioners celebrated the artistic styles of the Greco-Roman world, rejecting the drama of the Baroque and adopting a more intellectualized approached to the visual arts. The subjects of these paintings were often political, social historical and classical — a portrait of the Horatii, for example, or of a scene in Homer’s Iliad. The visual style was decorous, concise, restrained, balanced, rational, and sometimes witty: it appealed to the Enlightenment thinkers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Romanticism on the other hand was more emotional: its subjects were more often focused on nature, the individual, the common man, the spirit of the times (“Comparison”). Attention to fine detail was less important than the capturing of a certain feeling. In each of these genres, the role of woman is featured differently — as Ingres’s Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People show respectively.

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Ingres’s Joan and Delacroix’s Liberty are two distinct representations of woman. While both are idealized, each is presenting a unique ideal that is also exceedingly rich and complex. Joan is presented by the Neoclassicalist as full of dignity, calm, strength, heroic leadership (her battle armor), and femininity (her legs are mostly covered by a long skirt worn over her battle armor). A halo encircles her head signifying her saintliness: her eyes are directed upwards towards Heaven, whose decrees she has followed in liberating France. She is depicted as still, stable, strong yet humble: she has not taken on this mission as a result of her own will but rather has subjected her will to God’s will — it was His desire that she lead the French, not hers. This is why her eyes are directed upwards: she is like the icons of the early Church, whose fingers are fixed in a pointed manner towards Heaven, alerting the viewer to the reality of that which is above, to the end goal that all humans should be thinking about and moving toward in their everyday lives. Ingres’s Joan is remarkable because she is so self-possessed, so modest even in her battle garb, which her maidenly virtue covers up so as not to appear dressed like a man. She celebrates her sex in a way that is conventional, orthodox yet attractive: she does not bare all in the same manner that Delacroix’s Liberty does. In the Romantic painting, Liberty’s chest is exposed, symbolically illustrating to her followers that she will feed them in the New Age: the people will drink of the milk of Liberty. There is no sense of such revolutionary doctrine in Ingres’s portrait of Joan. Joan is humble whereas Liberty is proud; Joan is self-possessing whereas Liberty is flaunting; Joan is restrained and ordered whereas Liberty is depicted in the midst of a chaos and war, bodies rising and falling, hair tossed, skirts waving, flags flying, guns pitched and smoke blowing. Joan is not portrayed in the midst of battle because for the Neoclassicalist, the battle is an occasion of violence that is best left off stage: violence is brutish, offensive, perhaps necessary, but better left to those who must engage in it: the ordered and rational mind takes more pleasure in viewing the subtleties and nuances of a hero in a posture like that of Michelangelo’s David — mission accomplished, the long night over, the day arrived and the sun shining.

In this sense, Ingres’s Joan is somewhat anachronistic to modern times: strict Feminists may be attracted to Joan’s strength of character and ability to lead into battle, but they might also balk at her conventional modesty and her humble devotion to God — a nod both to the power of the patriarchy and to the separateness of the roles of men and women. Joan represents a kind contradiction for the modern mind, which is more likely to see in Liberty the type of womanhood that it is accustomed to celebrating: a woman taking the lead, a woman in action, rallying the men behind her, using her sexuality to attract attention, adopting a political stance, engaging in revolutionary ideas, acting vociferously in public: leading the children in ways of the revolution (the child behind her raises a pistol in a salute to her passionate leadership. The bodies of Liberty’s foes lie at her feet as the people march forward emerging of the smoke and din of battle. She looks over her shoulder at those who follow her: her eyes are not directed upwards like those of Joan’s, whose ultimate destination is Heaven. Liberty’s eyes are directed downwards at the earth: her ultimate goal is earthly, worldly, social and political — not spiritual or religious. She is the anti-Mary, the anti-Virgin. There is nothing submissive about her. She does not submit to a higher power but rather acts as the higher power — the force of guiding light and intelligence. She is the spirit that will move and intervene. She is Joan without Joan’s modesty, without Joan’s grace, without Joan’s sense of hierarchy, proportion, balance, and reason.

Liberty eschews reason for will, logic for passion, discourse for force. Liberty demonstrates quite vividly that there will be blood when she arises to power — for Liberty does not spring full-grown out of the head of Zeus like Athena but rather comes to life like one of Goya’s monsters dreamt of while Reason sleeps. She is beautiful — but deadly. She is sure of herself, but her conviction will only lead to a type of authoritarianism and totalitarianism that is unrelenting, unyielding, inflexible and unforgiving: in her posture is the new age of political correctness — if one objects, he or she will pay the price. The old Joan must be put away and the new Lady Liberty put on. She is the embodiment of revolutionary Romanticism — the anti-thesis of measured, constrained, ordered Neoclassical thought. She dares one and all to confront her. Joan, on the other hand, appears mild and lovely by comparison — in spite of her battle garb — garb which Liberty does not even don in the face of battle: Liberty needs no such protection since, being a spirit — an ideal — she possesses none of the humanity that she seems to inspire in others. If a bullet penetrates her, it penetrates nothing — for she is a symbol: if an arrow pierces Joan’s heart, she dies. This is the difference: Joan is corporal — real; Liberty is an illusion, a phantom — an idealistic enterprise that will lead men to war but that will never truly ever be embraced — because she is part of a Utopian fantasy. Joan at least looks for her paradise in the next world; Liberty dares men to make their paradise here. Joan puts God and his interests first; Liberty puts man and his desires first. Joan sees Heaven as the All; Liberty sees men’s desire and will as the most important point. Joan is saintly; Liberty is Nietzschean.

In conclusion, the Neoclassical and the Romantic styles of painting were different because they emanated out of different philosophical orientations. The former looked backwards towards the Greeks while embracing a rationalistic tone; the latter looked forward to the possibilities of a future in which the Old World ways were overthrown and the new, Rousseauean life of the senses, of the passions, of the ideals of the Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) were enshrined and enacted based on a love that is pure and hard like a “gem-like flame” — as Pater put it: “To burn always his this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” For Joan, such ecstasy was to be found only in union with Our Lord. Liberty makes no such acknowledgment: for her, ecstasy springs from the tumult of spirits within.

Works Cited

“Comparison.” Weebly.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Literature. VictorianWeb.

A Trinity of Paintings

Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine, El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross, and Jacques-Louis David’s The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries are three paintings from three distinct styles (Renaissance, Mannerist and Neoclassicalist) that all represent an individual holding something that represents a very revealing aspect of thought. In the first, Leonardo’s Lady is clutching an ermine (a weasel, prized for its fur — but definitely not an animal that a lady would ever pick up and cradle in real life). In the second, El Greco’s Christ is carrying the cross — the instrument upon which He would die and by which He would effect salvation for all souls who have faith in Him. In the third, Napoloeon is clutching — himself . . . in the typical Masonic expression, common among so many dignitaries of the era. What each character is holding (the ermine, the cross, himself) is symbolic of the historic trends of society throughout the period from the Renaissance (mid-15th century) to the Mannerist style (17th century) to the Neoclassical Era (19th century). Society was moving away from the type of rich but mannered ideas of the Renaissance world to the self-important grandiosity of the Romantic-Enlightenment world of the 1800s. From Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine through El Greco’s Christ to David’s Napoleon, one can see and progression of historical significance that relates the underlying transformation in social and political order of the few centuries in question.

The fact that each character is holding something close to his person indicates a meaningful relationship. The lady’s ermine represents two ideas: one — richness of fur, the style of luxury of the prized weasel; two — calmness of the passions: “a symbol of virtue and purity” (“The Lady with an Ermine”). By holding the weasel in her arms and exercising control over it with her long fingers, the lady is showing that her passions are in check — that she is not unbridled or unhinged. Her face bespeaks volumes of strength and mastery over self. She is in total control of her nature and would never been seen on one of the daytime shows so popular in modern times where undignified women traipse about challenging one another in a very weasel-ish demonstrations of their own lack of grace. For Leonardo, the Lady is a particularly appealing subject because her own nature is a reflection of the larger world’s with its cyclical processes and ability to bring forth new life. It can often be just as unbridled as a fierce spring thunderstorm or as a riotous showdown on daytime television between two wild women. The Lady’s ability to hold the ermine in her arms and remain poised and decorous indicates that she has what it takes to keep all things together: her center will hold; her poise is rooted in a greater strength, which is emblematic in El Greco’s portrait of Christ — a spiritual rock that was recognized by the Renaissance but that was in danger of being overthrown by El Greco’s world of revolutionary forces unleashed by a tidal wave of antagonism against the Church, ultimately to be reflected in the political and social upheaval wrought by the representatives of Revolution — Napoleon and the secret society Masons he is clearly signaling in his from the of the classical world (“Ars Quatuor Coronatorum”). Napoleon was expressing a different kind of decorum — one new to the world, which had for centuries celebrated the Christian ideals throughout Europe. The Masonry supported by Napoleon, himself shaped by the Romantic-Enlightenment doctrine transforming the New Age, represented a new ideal — one that put man and naturalism at the top of totem pole, displacing the Old World beliefs about God, sin, the Devil and sanctifying grace in the soul.

The Old World belief is most clearly expressed in these three paintings by El Greco, whose Christ clutches the cross on the way to Calvary — embracing that which will ultimately take His life but able to do so because of His faith and trust in His father’s will. Christ’s sacrifice is the sacrifice that the Old World believed in, that Roman Emperor Constantine submitted to, and that Europe confessed for a millennium — until Europe broke down under the weight of a superficial confession in the late Middle Ages, when wealth and vice began to spread and the profane began to supplant the sacred. The loss of faith that resulted spread like contagion: men turned away from the God on High that the Old World icons and saints pointed to with their hands and eyes in all their artwork. Instead, hands would disappear into waistcoats as men would seek to reassert some control over society through their own artificial means, through their own artful construction, through their own devices, forces, wills and philosophies. They would seek to regain what the Lady in the 15th century clearly had — control over self, self-restraint, order, reason, passion — but passion that was not out of hand, that was not a mockery of the feelings that are at work in the heart and in the mind when one’s soul is inflamed with the good. What the Leonardo’s Lady demonstrates by holding the ermine is a richness of soul that would suffer greatly in the coming centuries as the stability of Western society would collapse into war and chaos and Revolution. The Revolutionaries would seek to regain what the Lady once held — composure, clarity, dignity, repose, self-confidence — but their aim would be totally different — would be oriented towards a new, Revolutionary doctrine rather than towards the Old World one concerning supernatural grace.

In conclusion, in Leonardo’s Lady, El Greco’s Christ, and David’s Napoleon, one can see a progression of thought that indicates a movement in Western society’s soul. At the center of this trinity of paintings is El Greco’s Christ — coming in the Mannerist school — sandwiched between the Lady and the Emperor — like a cry of one vanquished but never wholly forgotten. El Greco’s Christ is, even still, the centerpiece of human history, the marker by which mankind dates all events — though BC and AD have been replaced by the politically correct markers BC and BCE in order to circumvent the significance of the Christ’s Incarnation; nonetheless, it remains like a phantom speaking from the other side of the grave — telling the world that, try as it might, the is no replacement for the hand that subdues the ermine and makes it a passive recipient of the grace that the Old World recognized and sought after with faith.

Works Cited

“Ars Quatuor Coronatorum.” Freemasonry.

“The Lady with an Ermine.” Italian Renaissance. http://www.italian-renaissance-art..html