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The Portrayal of Women in
Classical vs. Neoclassical Art
Detail from The Sabine Women
An Alliance of Two Eras
The art of ancient Greece inspired artists during the 18th and 19th centuries who admired the clarity, precision, and restraint of the art produced during antiquity. Thus the Neoclassical artists based their subject matter on the mythology and literature of ancient Greece. Neoclassical paintings and statues imitated ancient sculpture, and Wedgwood vases resembled Greek urns. Neoclassical painters include Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), and Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842). Notable Neoclassical sculptors of the female figure include Jean-Antoine Houdon ("Diana," 1776) and Hiram Powers ("Greek Slave," 1843).
Women in Ancient Greek Art
The favorite subject of ancient Greek artists was the idealized male figure rather than the female figure, but women appeared in ancient art as well. Archaic Greek statues called kore depicted young women, and scenes of women in daily life were painted on ceramics and murals. In sculpture, women were often portrayed as goddesses such as Aphrodite or Athena. The ancient Greeks also carved images of young women into caryatid columns. Female nudity in art was rare in early Greek art, and it usually had either religious or erotic connotations, while male nudity was considered an appropriate reflection of society at the time. Women as the subject of art were often confined to vase paintings of courtesans and slave girls. Therefore the initial portrayal of nude goddesses such as Praxiteles' "Aphrodite of Knidos" was scandalous. Such portrayal and the potent appeal of the Classical marble figures came to be called the Greek cult of the nude (Spivey 159). Often private and public activities of women, such as bathing, weddings, and crafts were considered acceptable subjects for vase painting. In fact, women's activities were featured prominently in the arts more so than in any other ancient culture. At times the religious and domestic aspects were combined and an artist would depict, for example, Aphrodite pulling thread from a loom (Robertson 116).
EXAMPLES of Greek art:
Aphrodite of Knidos, by Praxiteles, c. 350 B.C. Supposedly this is the statue that created the basis for the female nude in Western art in later centuries. This statue is noted for its innovative realism, sensuous pose, and dreamy expression. The figure stood in a circular temple that was built specifically for the statue and that was open on all sides, displaying every angle of the statue. At Praxiteles' time a sculpture of a nude woman was considered scandalous, especially a goddess such as Aphrodite, as it makes the divinity seem more vulnerable and personal (Spivey 309).
The Peplos Kore, c. 530 B.C. This statue is of a young woman of ancient Greece alongside a painted reproduction. The Neoclassical ideals of the 18th century made it hard for many people to accept that ancient Greek sculpture was painted with bright colors. Kore were often brightly painted and wore gaudy jewelry, in contrast to the stoic clothing of women in Neoclassical art. Neoclassicists, who preferred the pure white beauty and austerity of marble, imposed their aesthetics and morality onto ancient Greek culture. These statues were not meant to be images of ideal female beauty, but rather offerings to Athena (Spivey 159).
Hydria by Phintias. The women depicted on this hydria, a type of Greek vase, are most likely courtesans at a men's symposium. The wives and daughters of citizens led very sheltered lives, so hetairai, or courtesans, were painted on vases as providing music and entertainment for the male figures. Phintias' women have a muscular build as if they are modeled after the male nude figure, which was the favorite subject of Greek artists. The basic structure of the female form in art was established much later than the male form (Robertson 27).
Hydria with Aphrodite in Chariot by the Meidias Painter. An example of Greek ceramic painting with images of various women including attendants, muses, brides, and goddesses. The scene represents a garden of paradise with deities of light and love. Apollo and Phaon, the ferryman of Lesbos, are also depicted on the vessel (Robertson 240).
Women in Neoclassical art
In Neoclassical art, women were presented as idealized figures from Greek and Roman mythology. Artists also portrayed female figures from ancient literature such as Medea. Portraits of women of the era were often produced in classical style. Composition of artwork featured more dramatic poses, yet retained the clarity of the ancient style. French painter Jacques-Louis David said that "antiquity has not ceased to be the great school of modern painters, from which they draw the beauties of their art. We seek to imitate the ancient artists, in the genius of their conceptions, the purity of their design, the expressiveness of their features, and the grace of their forms" (Holt, 4).
Women also became the symbols of ideals such as the Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity of the French Republic, represented in sculptures of women as rigid figures dressed in Greek robes. At the same time, portraits of popular society women such as Madame Recamier were given a sensuous charm (Janson, 47). Women also played the roles of mourners (especially leaning on a column or urn), muses, goddesses, angels, and personifications of qualities such as justice or hope.
Swiss painter Angelica Kauffmann set herself apart from other women painters of the Neoclassical era, in which women were not permitted to draw from nude models. Rather than limiting herself to portraiture and still lifes, she courageously insisted on becoming a history painter. She was also one of the founding members of the Royal Academy in London, which was second to the city of Rome as the center of Neoclassicism. Her paintings, in contrast to those of Jacques-Louis David's, depicted women as muses or goddesses dominating a composition of passive male figures (Harris 174).
EXAMPLES of Neoclassicism:
The Sabine Women Enforcing Peace by Running Between the Combatants by Jacques-Louis David, 1794-99; oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Depicts the story of the Sabine women who persuaded the Romans and Sabines to cease fighting (Holt 12).
The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, 1784; oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. In contrast to David's "Sabine Women," the women in this painting are depicted as fragile and frightened, while the men are stoic and fearless (Harriman 240).
Jupiter and Thetis by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1811; oil on canvas, Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, France. This scene depicts Thetis persuading Jupiter to intervene on the Greek side in the Trojan War, while Jupiter's wife Juno jealously watches (Irwin 314).
Vigée-Lebrun with her daughter Julie by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1789; oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Paintings by female painters such as Vigée-Lebrun and Kauffmann often had a maternal theme. Vigée-Lebrun served as court painter to Queen Marie Antoinette for several years until the French Revolution (Harris 190).
Cornelia Pointing to Her Children as Her Treasures by Angelica Kauffmann, 1758; oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia. This painting combines the 18th century attributes of the devoted mother with classical elements. Here a wealthy woman shows off her jewels, and when she asks Cornelia to present her jewels, Cornelia raises her hand to bring forth her sons as the example of her riches. The subjects are clothed in classical dress and set against a classical background (http://www.webgalleries.com/pm/colors/kauffman.html).
Portrait of Madame Récamier by Baron Francois Gérard, 1805; Musée Carnavelet, Paris. Portrait of Juliette Récamier, considered one of the most intellectual and beautiful women in Paris at the time. Gérard depicts her in a classical style and setting with columns, Neoclassical furniture, and garments designed after the drapery of classical statuary (Spivey 324).
The Artcyclopedia (Neoclassical Art): Explanation of the Neoclassical movement with links to individual artists
More about Ancient Greek Art: Site with links to general resources on the art of antiquity
The Sculpture Gallery: Examples of reproductions of both Greek and Neoclassical sculptures and vases
Links to Artist and artwork information are available in the above paragraphs.
"Angelica Kauffmann." (2002) Retrieved November 4, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.webgalleries.com/pm/colors/kauffman.html
Boardman, John. (1996) Greek
Art. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
"Greek Art and Architecture" (2002) The University of Colorado. Retrieved October 17, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://harpy.uccs.edu/greek/.
Harriman, Helga. (1995) Women in the Western Heritage. Guilford: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc. T
Harris, Ann Sutherland and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists 1550-1950. (1976) New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Holt, Elizabeth. (1966) From the Classicists to the Impressionists. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc.
Irwin, David. (1997) Neoclassical Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Janson, H.W. (1985) 19th-Century Sculpture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Kleiner, Fred S. and Christin J. Mamiya, eds. (2001) Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 11th Edition. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc.
Robertson, Martin. (1992) The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Spivey, Nigel. (1997) Greek Art. London: Phaidon Press Limited.
Spivey, Nigel. (1996) Understanding
Greek Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Vidal, Mary. (1999) Deception
and transformation in David's Cupid and Psyche and Apuleius's Metamorphoses.
Art History, Vol. 22, Issue 2, p. 214.
Page Design: J. Alice Miller, 2002, Brenau University, Honors seminar 300h.