Neo-Classicism Period

This purpose of this essay serves to discuss the portrayal of both women and men within the neo-classicism period in France. In order to do this one first needs to analyse and compare the concepts of Classicism and Humanism, seeing how they relate and differ. The analysis of these two movements are essential to understanding Neo-classicism and its influences as well as their reasons and interpretations for the use of female and males forms in their various creations of artworks .

Defining and understanding the concepts of Classicism

In order to understand the influence that Classicism had and why, it is important to examine Classicism first from the Greek society where their basis of artistic creation was influenced by and stemmed from their mind-set, outlook and ideals based within their society.

According to (Greenhalgh 1996) The Classical qualities that have given Greek art its prominent place in the development of Western art are marked by “clarity and unity, balance and restraint, symmetry and proportion, harmony and decorum”.

To paraphrase (ARH2601 2013:4) The most successful point of the Greek’s artistic achievement within Classicism can be seen as their dominant use of the human form mostly depicted in an idealised fashion with any natural imperfections having been removed. “In the classical period, all imperfections of the human body are purged in favour of an idealised flawlessness. The classical nude is eternally youthful, serene, dignified and liberated from all constraints of nature”. (ARH2601 2013:5).

With this said the male figure dominated the portrayal of the human form in Greek society and art from this period, with a lesser focus and emphasis on the female form and portrayal of women.

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It can be said that at this time beauty was something associated with and defined by men rather than that of women. It was also more acceptable for men to be portrayed in the nude than was it was for women. Substantiated by (ARH20601 2013:9) “In Greece the male form resigned supreme and male homosexuality was a recognized practice.

Greek women on the other hand, were not generally regarded as suitable objects for higher human affections, were not permitted in social life and there beauty not rated to that equal of me.” (ARH20601 2013:9). Through these characteristics of Classicism, specifically their use of the human form, we can see its effect and influence on movements such as humanism, realism and idealism which essentially influenced Western art and provided the guidelines and standards for what they viewed and termed as beauty.

Further elaborating from (ARH2601 2013:13) “This synthesis of humanism, realism and Idealism in the representation of the freestanding nude came to define the standard of beauty in Western art and had a profound influence on Western cultural expression at least until the 19th century”.


As described by (ARH2601 2013:39) humanism is best characterised as human experience and an ideology that has underlining elements in all areas of modern thought, including philosophy, education politics and the arts. “In the most generalised sense ‘Humanism’ may be described as a world wide-view that places humanity, human experience and the human realm at the centre of all consciousness” (ARH2601 2013:39).

Neo-classicism and its roots

Neo-classicism can be seen as the Age of Reason due to the belief by philosophers, that we as society are able to have control over our destinies through learning from and following the laws of nature (Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic 2014:sp). The subject matter of Neo-classicism was characteristic of Patriotisms, sacrifice, courage, honour and human rights. Its artistic styles reflected symmetry, proportion and simplicity achieved during the Renaissance period as well as that of Classicism.

Formal composition, accurate detail and solid lines are other key artistic features noticeable in the Neo-classical style and a popular angular and triangle composition also very commonly seen in Classicism.According Dr Gersh-Nesic (2014:sp) “Neoclassicism continued the connection to the Classical tradition because it signified moderation and rational thinking but in a new and more politically-charged spirit”. To paraphrase, this links to the Greek’s outlook on their artistic characteristic being a reaction to their state of mind and way of thinking shaped by the society of their times.

The evident characteristics that can be seen in that of neo-classicism are that of clarity of form, sober colours, shallow space, strong horizontal and verticals, often framing the artwork in that of a triangular composition, also very evident in the classical movement, particular a composition favoured by the Greeks. It is also known for its temporary settings and costumes.

The analysis and discussion of two Neo-classical artworks to determine the portrayal of men and women to understand what they signify and how they are being represented as a man or women in the artwork.First painting of discussion is that of Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784.

David modelled his male figures on the ideal Greek warrior and the focus was on the ideal human from. With that said to understand the warriors as a portrayal of men in the artwork and what they symbolise, it can be argued that these men are being depicted as reflecting man in society and what they stood for in terms of patriotism, self-sacrifice and their duty to society and their country at the time.

We can come to this conclusion considering the background and historical circumstance in which the artwork was created, as described by Gersh-Nesic (2014:sp) “France was on the brink of its first revolution in 1789, and the Neo-classicists wanted to express a rationality and seriousness that was fitting for their times. Artists like Jacques-Louis David supported the rebels through an art that asked for clear-headed thinking, self-sacrifice to the State (as in Oath of the Horatii) and an austerity reminiscent of Republican Rome.” (Gersh-Nesic 2014:sp).

The background is being depicted as flat with much darker colours contrasting that of the use of colours in the foreground, focusing emphasis on characters and action taking place in the foreground. Characters that are dominant in the artwork, such as the men are portrayed in a rigid and triangular composition, whereas the women in the artwork,

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784 (salon of 1785) oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m (Louvre) expressing slightly more emotion than the men, are portrayed in a curvature composition giving those more of a vulnerable representation, almost as if they are in mourning.

Kampen (1988:17) points to the way in which women are depicting as failing to live up to “males codes of behaviour”, their emotional display and lack of control indicating a weakness that designates them as outsiders to the important narratives of civic virtue and patriotism, as stated in (ARH2601 2013:33). Therefore the women in this artwork can be described as being depicted as inferior to men by not upholding the same responsibly and duties expected of them by society and in the patriotic ideals required of them.

The second painting being discussed is Jacques-Luis David’s The Death of Marat (1793)

To paraphrase (Kristy Puchko 2015:sp) in the interpretation of David’s, Death of Marat (1793), it has been described as an artwork of propaganda with a mixture of fact and fiction almost appearing as if it were a crime scene like photo. What David chose to incorporate in the artwork which can be seen as close to the truth of what was left behind at the original scene was a green rug, bathtub, papers and pen.

Although a distortion of reality created by David was his decision to not include and portray Marat’s physical imperfections, which was a skin condition he was well-known for having. Instead, David chose to portray Marat as in a more idealised manner as a rather handsome looking man with no imperfections. Figure 2

Fig2. Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat (1793). Oil on Canvas. Muse Royaux, Brussels. Thus being a common trait of Greek artists in the Classical period, which favoured the idealised form. Marat can be seen as being displayed as man associated with being a martyr by the composition positioning of Marat’s body, chosen by David. A comparison can be drawn to that of the death pose of Jesus in Caravaggio’s, The Entombment of Christ. Thus further emphasising a duty of patriotism and a self-sacrificing ideology which was one of the themes and beliefs of society’s values at the time.

Art historian E.H. Gombrich, explained of the creation of The Death of Marat: “He had learned from the study of Greek and Roman sculpture how to model the muscles and sinews of the body, and gave it the appearance of noble beauty; he had also learned from classical art to leave out all the details which were not essential to the main effect, and to aim at simplicity.” (Puchko 2015:sp).

Therefore both Marat ‘s death as well as him as a man can be seen as heroic and him being represented as a man who was willing to sacrifice his life to achieve his revolutionary ideals which was a key characteristic trait particular for men to have at the time in which Neo-classicism formed.


By comparing the two movements of Classism an Humanism, particularly its influence within Western art, one can see where Neo-classicism gets its roots from and many of its adopted characteristics, specifically the portrayal of men and women in art works being based on the views and ideologies at the time which can be dominantly seen as Patriotisms, sacrifice, courage, honour and human rights.

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Neo-Classicism Period. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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