During the Renaissance and in the century following the sense of individuality and self grew, alongside this came a sense of them and us, of nationality. The Catholic church underwent the Reformation and in the new Lutheran protestant church Gods word was available to all and open to personal interpretation. Popish superstitions and practices were rejected and long held beliefs in the right of rule that had been supported by the church were called into question.
Describing this climate the philosopher and mathematician d’Alembert (1717-1783) wrote in 1758 “ ……..from the principles of the natural sciences to the foundations of revealed religion, from metaphysics to taste, from music to morals, from theological disputes to questions of trade, from the laws of princes to those of peoples: everything has been discussed, analyzed, or at least brought up” (Eitner:3)
This ferment grew into a philosophy of Enlightenment, their ideal was a renewal of society through the application of scientific methods and a return to moral health.
This desire to start anew and the belief in the perfectability of man was reflected in both theories and art.
Eitner states in his book Neoclassicism and Romanticism “ The belief in the perfectability of man and the general progress of the human race, two notions deeply embedded in the ideology of the Enlightenment, needed the support of history. …………..The belief in the superiority of the ancients became, in the minds of some, a substitute for a guiding religious faith.” (Eitner:4)
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Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was one such person, schoolmaster, librarian, art historian and theorist he wrote prolifically on ancient art in a vigorous unscholarly way that appealed to a wide audience. His studies of Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman works that he found in the galleries , vaults and gardens of Roman palaces, at Naples, and at the new excavations of Herculaneum were recorded in his book The History of Ancient Art (1764) and his word paintings of what he discovered contributed to the formation of the neoclassical style in art. He placed the Apollo Belvedere as the highest ideal of art.
This excerpt from The History of Ancient Art describes how he saw beauty. “ But nature and the structure of the most beautiful bodies are rarely without fault. They have forms which can either be found more perfect in other bodies, or which may be imagined more perfect. In conformity to this teaching of experience, those wise artists the ancients, acted as a skilful gardener does, who ingrafts different shoots of excellent sorts upon the same stock……………..they sought to unite the beautiful parts of many beautiful bodies. (Eitner:18)
Eitner, Lorenz: Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750 – 1850 Vol 1 Enlightenment/Revolution, (1971) Prentice-Hall International Inc,
Honour, Hugh: Neo-classicism (1991) Penguin Books,
Cassirer, Ernst: The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1979)
Princeton University Press, USA