The Classical Idea in the Visual Arts: Greek, Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Neo-Classical Greek Classicism Greek Civilization

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Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Derived from Roman and Greek prototypes and theory.

Austere simplicity, severity of plane, edge, corner, and cubic form, and a poetry of geometry, precision, and proportional relatiohships.

Corncob Capital and Tobacco Leaf Capital, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe for the US Capitol, Washington DC, c. 1815
For all of Latrobe’s devotion to the artistry of the ancient Greeks, he kept in mind that America was his patron.

Americanized his capitals in the classical mode: in the vestibule of the Senate wing, and for the Senate rotunda the tobacco leaf is substituted for the acanthus in the capitals and corncob capitals, with cornstalks for the fluting.

An important canon of the neoclassical creed demanded the modernization of classical forms, rather than a slavish imitation of them. In subscribing to this principle, Latrobe continually infused new life into an ancient architectural vocabulary.
Capitol,_Thornton-Latrobe-Bulfinch_,_1793_to_1830'>US Capitol,Thornton-Latrobe-Bulfinch, 1793 to 1830

Lying at the center of the Capitol, the Rotunda is a circular room, 96 feet in diameter and 180 feet in height. Although the original Architect of the Capitol, Dr. William Thornton first envisioned the design, construction of the Rotunda did not begin until 1818. The Capitol is the oldest federal building in Washington and began the classical revival theme of the city. Modelled on neo-classicism, the Rotunda was meant to recreate the Pantheon, an ancient domed Roman temple. The curved sandstone walls are divided by fluted Doric pilasters. Wreaths of olive branches line the frieze above.

The current dome was a late addition to the Capitol. The Capitol's original dome was finished in 1824. However, after additions to the wings of the building it became disproportional. This was a concern, but it was the fire hazard it posed that made a new dome necessary. The dome is made of cast-iron and masonry. It features columns, a peristyle, pilasters, brackets, and windows crowned by a statue.

The statue, Freedom, which sits atop the dome is 3 feet taller than originally planned. As a result, the height of the dome was lowered and the design was altered to use a double domed technique. The revisions lowered the height of the dome from 300 feet to 287 feet. The Statue of Freedom is 19 feet and 6 inches tall.

A Scottish physician, Dr. William Thornton, won the competition. George Washington laid the building's cornerstone in 1793. Congress occupied the building in 1800 even though it was not yet completed. Construction progressed slowly as the sandstone used had to be shipped from a distant quarry to the job site. Funding was inadequate and workers did not enjoy laboring in what was then the wilderness of Washington. Three different architects, Stephen H. Hallet, George Hadfield , and James Hoban, were employed to oversee the construction.

In 1803, Congress allocated more funds to resume construction. Benjamin Henry Latrobe was appointed architect. Latrobe modified the original plan and made adjustments to improve the quality and rate of construction. Work on the building began progressing more quickly, but soon stalled when funding was diverted to prepararions for an upcoming war with Great Britain.

In the War of 1812, the Capitol was set on fire by British troops. a large rainstorm prevented it's destruction. Latrobe was rehired to complete the restoration in 1815. He took advantage of the oppurtunity to furthe amend the design and introduced new materials, such as marble found near the Potomac. Latrobe was later forced to resign because of delays and cost overruns. In 1818, Charles Bulfinch, was appointed Architect of the Capitol. He finished construction on the House, Senate, and Supreme Court chambers by 1819 and completed the last part of the building in 1826.

American Neoclassical Sculpture
Horatio Greenough (1805-1852)

George Washington



12' height

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Commissioned by Congress in 1832.

James Fenimore Cooper--recommended Greenough

This work was intended for the Capitol Rotunda.

This was the first time an American had received a commission from his own government for a large, important piece of sculpture.

Greenough was America's first famous sculptor

From prominent Boston family. Went to Harvard and at about 20 went to Rome to experience the ancient and modern classics.

Washington was completed and delivered in 1841.

Unfortunately by this time, the enthusiasm for Neoclassical sculpture in the US had passed and the sculpture was poorly received.

One congressman said it should be thrown into the Potomac River "to hide it from the world."
The lost statue of Zeus was the inspiration for this monumental sculpture—by Pheidias, the 5th century BCE sculptor whose colossal ivory and gold Zeus which one sat in the god's Doric temple at Olympia in Greece.

Zeus was one, if not he most famous classical statue in antiquity.

Greenough wanted to endow Washington with the nobility, grandeur, virtue of the greatest of the ancients.
Typical Neoclassical effort to aggrandize and immortalize Washington.

To clarify his significance for later generations.

Greenough posed the great founder as the most powerful Olympian god.
He also used Houdon's bust of Washington as the model for the head.

With rhetorical gestures, Washington offers us a sword and points upward in a declaratory manner--much like David's determined Socrates.

Seated in Greek chair [throne-like]

Wear Greek sandals.

Wear garment unknown to Americans

Giving up Greek sword with left hand.

Points upward, heavenward with right hand—in the manner of Raphael’s Plato in the School of Athens.
Most 19th century Americans would not have know Greenough's source(s).

And without this reference, the statue seemed rather ridiculous.

They were not familiar with neo-classical criteria for the work
The abrupt juxtaposition of Washington's portrait set on a idealized seminude body led to a disappointed reaction from the statue's patrons and the public.
Didn't like godlike status of a father figure familiar to all.

They felt their beloved George Washington did not need to be represented as anything or anybody but himself.

The sculpture was ridiculed unceasingly.

Greenough blamed the harsh interior light of the Rotunda of the US Capitol for the displeasure where was placed in the center.

Finally the statue moved outdoors to the Capitol grounds. There it was even less appreciated.

There for decades exposed to weather and began to deteriorate.

Then went to Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Good example of how style and attitude can change--important feature of the modern world.
Think about the statue--impressive monumental scale

Commanding composition

Continues to convey the heroic and even godlike characteristics often ascribed to Washington during the period of the early American republic.
Compare with other Washingtons.
Ex. Jean-Antoine Houdon

George Washington




State capitol, Richmond, Virginia
During the French Revolution, Houdon produced few portraits of leading personalities of the new era.
He was in sympathy with the goals of the Revolution--at least during its early, moderate phase.

But not politically active.

Remember how David assumed dictatorial powers over the artistic projects of the Revolution --well he strongly disliked Houdon.
Houdon found himself --relegated to the sidelines and also suspected at one time during the Terror..

In 1795, he was suddenly evicted from his studio and had to sell part of its contents to stay afloat.

Earlier he had met Benjamin Franklin in 1789 and John Paul Jones. Did numerous busts of both.
When the Virginia legislature wanted to commission a statue of Washington--they contacted both Thomas Jefferson and Franklin who were in Paris at the time-in early 1780s.
They recommended Houdon as the best sculptor in the world.

He came to American to model Washington directly.

In 1785 he spent two weeks at Mount Vernon as Washington's guest.

Took measurements.

Make casts of his shoulders and hands.

And modeled a bust from life--Washington would not let him make a cast of

his face.
From 1786-1788, Washington held no public office; he was simply a retired general, a gentleman farmer.

One of the most famous of Houdon's works.

Wears a uniform.

Right hand rests on a cane.

Left hand rest on the sword [of war] that was no longer needed in peacetime.

But it is suspended in a bundle of 13 rods, the Roman fasces [a bundle of 13 rods tied together with an axe face, used in Roman times as a symbol of authority]: symbolize the union of the original 13 colonies.

Washington grasps the bundle with his left hand.

Behind is feet is a plow--a symbol of peace.

Serene expression and relaxed contrapposto pose derived from sculpted images of classical athletes.
These attributes, with their classical allusions, blend easily with the contemporary dress and the contrapposto stance.

Hardly aware of its antique origin.

Impressive image of Washington.

Also a meticulous record of his physical appearance--in the framework of personality of the Enlightenment.

This is how Americans visualized the Father of His Country.
[Greenough did much to establish sculpture of a high standard in America…But it would be for others to create works that struck a responsive chord in popular taste.]
HIRAM POWERS (1805-1873) accomplished this very thing in both his portraits and his ideal pieces.

Powers born in Vermont.

Was a mechanic and maker of gadgets.

Went to Cincinnati where he first started modeling in the 1820s.

He was so good, that a prominent local patron, Nicholas Longworth, offered to send Powers to Italy to study.
Before he went to Italy, Powers spent 3 years in Washington, DC, creating busts of political figures.

Hiram Powers

Andrew Jackson



34 in high

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Extraordinary portrait of Andrew Jackson

"Old Hickory"

He posed several times for Powers in the White House.

Supposed he told Powers "Make me as I am, Mr. Powers, and be true to nature always…I have no desire to look young when I feel old."

Jackson's beliefs disclose a pragmatic American's respect for realism and straightforward truth.

Expressed more of the aesthetic preferences of his countrymen than he probably realized.

Powers was capable of capturing every line and wrinkle in the leathery old face.

For justification of such a naturalistic style, there was always the example of ancient Roman portraiture, for example the veristic sculpture of the Old Roman /Patrician.

The classical allusion was completed by terminating the bust in a togal-ike drapery about the shoulders.
The bust was modeled in clay, and then cast in plaster, but soon after Powers got to Italy he began translating it into marble.
In 1837, Powers settled in Florence, where he spent the rest of his life.
Before long, his studio was on the list of places visited by tourists from many countries.
It was an ideal statue of a nude female figure that brought Powers international fame-the much celebrated
Hiram Powers (1805-1873)

The Greek Slave



5’ 51/2”

Settled permanently in Florence in 1837

Neoclassical in form—like Greek statue

But Romantic in subject matter.

Support the Greeks fight for Independence against the Turks in the 1820s had captured had won the hearts of Europeans and Americans.

Think of Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios
Powers plays to those sympathies.

A beautiful Greek maiden;

This Greek captive has been put up for sale on the slave block in the Turkish market.

She is represented at this moment--stripped of her clothing and forced to endure the lascivious stares of lewd men.

Her wrists chained.

She modestly turns her head to avoid their lustful gaze.

She is also identified as a Christian--a cross hangs on the post beside her.

Her faith protects her and gives her strength in this time of woe.

In the Victorian era--some explanation/justification for nudity:

Powers issued an explanatory pamphlet, lest Victorian sensibilities object to the nudity, stating that it was "not her person but her spirit that stands exposed."

The sculptor convinced the public that this work of the Greek Slave was a demonstration of Christian virtue over heathen lust.
Even ministers advised their congregations to go see the Greek Slave to learn from the lesson of moral strength and faith that it offered.
The Greek Slave was the first nude sculpted by an American artist. First exhibited privately in London in 1845, the sculpture subsequently came to America where it was banned in Boston. However, it was very popular with the New York public who stood in long lines and paid 25 cents to view the sculpture. It was also exhibited in the American section of the first World Exposition in London's Crystal Palace in 1851. Powers created seven versions in his workshop in Florence; the statue was in such demand that he was able to charge the then unheard-of-price of $4,000 for each of its seven replicas. Orders for full-size copies poured in patrons from several nations. This sculpture also had mass popular appeal as it was reproduced in miniatures in plaster, marble and china, which decorated many American mantels.


Viewers recognized a dim association with the bathing goddess--Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles of 4th century BCE--late classical Greek art.

Viewers marveled at the virtuosity of the marble links of chains

And the details of the tassels on the robes.

First nude by an American artist.

Banned in Boston.

Suppose to represent the spirit, not a particular woman.

Extremely popular sculpture. Won the hearts of Americans.

People paid to see this in NY and later in London.

Reproduced in various forms-miniature, china, etc.

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