Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy, “Aeneas and Companions in Latium” (circa 1790-1793) black ink and wash with white gouache highlights on brown paper (21.4 x 16.3 cm)

PARIS — Over the course of history, political revolutions have often sparked parallel artistic revolutions, pushing artists to invent new modes of expression to better engage with their transformed social realities. (Think of the Russian Revolution ushering in Socialist Realism, or the Industrial Revolution triggering the reactionary movement of Romanticism.) But in the case of the French Revolution, instead of starting a whole new movement, many artists opted for revivalism. Revolutionary Generation: French Drawings (1770-1815) from the Fabre Museum illustrates how, as the pastel frivolity of the Rococo movement went out of fashion, France’s insurrectionist artists adopted a narrative Neoclassicism as their predominant mode, drawing on ancient Greek and Roman art for inspiration.

On view at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, the exhibit features 80 of Montpellier’s Musée Fabre’s revolution-era drawings, originally assembled by the artist and collector François-Xavier Fabre, a student of preeminent Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Ranging from pencil sketches of reclining nudes to intricately rendered scenes from Greek mythology, these dexterous drawings are marvelously mesmerizing. Take Fabre’s own “Naked Man Grabbing a Stone Cube” (circa 1787-1792), picturing a young, buff, clenching male nude. It is both stone cold academically astute and symbolically intriguing, revealing the sprightly potential inherent in all revolutionary hopes.

François-Xavier Fabre, “Naked Man Grabbing a Stone Cube” (circa 1787-1792), black pencil drawing with white highlights on paper (58 x 44cm)

But the fully developed heroic phase of revolutionary Neoclassical art is perhaps best exemplified by David’s drawings, which embody the rational ideals of basic human rights and moral rectitude put forth by philosophers like Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau — ideals that were embraced by France’s growing bourgeoisie. As such, David’s art, which drew inspiration from Roman antiquity, reflects the end of France’s monarchy-aristocracy and abolition of the Feudal system, even while looking incredibly grandiose.

Following David’s grand paragon, the art of the nascent French Republic seized upon Ancient Rome for examples of artistic representations of virtue and heroism. We see this certainly in Jean-François-Pierre Peyron’s electrifying drawing “Study for Young Athenians and Athenians Drawing Lots to be Delivered to the Minotaur” (circa 1778). David’s classical revivalism — coupled with revolutionary fervor — can be seen as new and distinctive for its emphasis on historic knowledge of ancient art and architecture. This new-old knowledge was enhanced by the 18th-century excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the exploration of the ancient monuments of the Greek islands. So with the birth of republican patriotic ideals, many artists were inspired to draw group scenes based on the moralizing myths of Greco-Roman antiquity. We see this unmistakably in Philippe-Auguste Hennequin’s drawing “Orestes’ Remorse” (circa 1800), based on the Greek Orestes myth; in Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy’s dramatic “Aeneas and Companions in Latium” (circa 1790-1793) drawing; and in Jean-Guillaume Moitte’s “Venus, Persistently Irritated with Telemachus, Asking Jupiter for His Demise” (1780).

Franois-Xavier Fabre, “Study of Antique Chair Covered with Drapery” (1796) graphite heightened with white chalk on brown paper (43.8 x 35.4cm)

By including some pretty wonderfully contrasting pre-revolutionary drawings, such as David’s “Study after Guido Cagnacci’s Young Martyr” (circa 1775) and Jean-Honore Fragonard’s wildly lavish fête galante drawing “The Slap” (1785), the show demonstrates how Rococo’s jubilant extravagance was overthrown by a severe Neoclassicism that accentuated the moral climate of the final years of the monarchy’s regime. Most illustrative of this morality art is the divine retribution depicted by Jean-Baptiste Regnault in his drawing “The Deluge” (circa 1789), based on the great flood myth.

Later, contradictory, intimately serene scenes, like Fabre’s “Study of Antique Chair Covered with Drapery” (1796), inspired by the art of classical antiquity, communicate more settled hopes for the new French Republic that grew out of giddy political-social upheaval.

The art world was by no means spared by this deluge, as some royal project commissions vanished or were abandoned as certain artists chose exile over revolution. For these expats, Italy was a favored destination, and many of the sensitive small drawings on view here seem inspired by those of the Renaissance. They thus provide an important artistic service today. They reverse the trend of imposing, grandiose contemporary art and monumental political art, where individual sensitivity is superseded or shattered by bombastic sensationalism. For as Antoine-Laurent Castellan’s early 19th century drawing, “Cloud Study” (circa 1812-1818), suggests, even puffy clouds can suggest the smoke of burning revolution.

Antoine-Laurent Castellan, “Cloud Study” (circa 1812-1818) Sepia wash on paper (19.3 x 23cm)

Charles Meynier, “Milo of Croton” (1795) black and brown ink with brown wash on paper (44.5 x 33.7cm)

Revolutionary Generation: French Drawings (1770-1815) from the Fabre Museum, curated by Michel Hilaire and Rose-Marie Mousseaux, at the Musée Cognacq-Jay (8, rue Elzévir, 75003 Paris) continues through July 14th, 2019. 

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Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion...

One reply on “How Artists of the French Revolution Embraced Neoclassical Revivalism”

  1. The millions who died in France’s revolutions and wars of conquest were surely thinking of David and Diderot as they died fear and pain.

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