Neoclassicism was in part a political phenomenon. In the second part of the eighteenth century, encouraged by the classical ideas that the Enlightenment had spread (Tocqueville, Montesquieu, Rousseau…) and rejecting the Baroque period and its Baroque monarchies, 13 British colonies in the Atlantic coast of North America established an independent republican government, modeled on Greek and Roman principles: it was the beginning of the United States. They wanted liberty, protect individuals, and constrain tyranny and they used also ancient models to try to reform politics. A decade later, France followed the way of the United States, and Napoleon (the son of the Revolution) will impose these rational new ideas throughout Europe.
This new world and mentality will create a new art. They rejected the exaggerated complicate Baroque style and its characteristic chiaroscuro and looked for a simple and clear style based on ancient Mediterranean models, including Etruria, Carthage, Egypt, and Persia.
For example, American interest in the broader history of the Ancient Egypt (Cleopatra, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, mummies, and obelisks) could be seen in the “Washington Monument”, which in fact is a giant obelisk; “Washington Square Arch”, in New York City, honors Rome; and “Andalusia”, home of Nicolas Biddle near Philadelphia, imitates a Greek temple. We can find parallel buildings and architectonic models in France, highlighting the “Pantheon” by Soufflot in Paris.
“There is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled … by imitating the ancients,” the German historian Johann Winckelmann declared in his art book, “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture”, 1755. Then, Winckelmann will be really important for the great archeological interest of the Neoclassic period and the interest in collecting antiquities. Antiquary was, for example, Charles-Louis Clerisseau, who assisted Thomas Jefferson from 1785-89 (he was serving as American Minister to France), in producing designs for the Virginia State Capitol, a parallel building to the “Maison Carree”.
As we are seeing, American and French arts walked parallel, since both countries identified each other due to their revolutionary feelings and achievements. Then, Neoclassic artists in both countries will use topics from the history (past but also present), heroic topics to reflect their heroic future once they had released from the Baroque chains. They admired order, observation, clarity (no more chiaroscuro), elegance and reason set in a mood of quiet grandeur. Jacques-Louis David will be the portraitist of Napoleon and Rembrandt Peale of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Anyway, the leading American painter of that generation will be Thomas Cole, father of the posterior, and already Romantic, “Hudson River School”. Cole’s “Course of Empire”, a five-painting narrative cycle, was completed in 1834. “Course of Empire” illustrates, in five related panels, what the artist called Savage State: Pastoral State, Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. This series perhaps represents better than any other American artwork the Neoclassic love for the classical past. It is an instructive tale. It depicts and spans the rise and fall of an unknown , but clearly classical, civilization.
Sculpture was really popular during this period: in white marble and highly polished. Here, it was Italy and Antonio Canova the point of reference and most sculptors, also American sculptors, went to Rome or Florence to learn the technique and to see the classical models in situ. Then, America had a first generation of skillful sculptors: Thomas Crawford, Hiram Powers, Edward Sheffield Bartholomew… and even women sculptors, specially Harriet Goodhue Hosmer.
In conclusion, Neoclassicism was a prolific period for arts and for recovering the roots of the Western culture, able to create a new more democratic society with a way of thinking based on the reason, as Plato or Aristotle one day had proposed.
Video with paintings by Thomas Cole