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Neo-Classicism, Romanticism and Realism

The end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented art diversity. New ideas and styles that appeared either co-existed peacefully or tried to overcome each other. One of the most significant and influential styles in the art of this epoch were neo-classicism, romanticism and realism.

Neo-classical art was the artistic realization of such a philosophic idea as Enlightenment, which originated in France in the eighteenth century. The key feature of this movement was the belief that “the culture… could only be free, unprejudiced and subjective” (Bietoletti, 2009, p. 8). To a certain extent, this art was a reaction to the previous period of Rococo, which used excessive details and decorative elements, so the artists who worked in neo-classical tradition tried to avoid the high level of embellishment and return to the main principles of antiquity. Simplicity was one of the praised qualities that should be present in any work of art. However, at the same time it was offered to imitate the grandeur that was typical of many ancient Greek temples, statues, etc.

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Jacques Louis David, a prominent French painter, was one of the key artists working in the neo-classical tradition (Monneret, 2004). His painting The Death of Socrates (1787) is a very impressive example of neo-classical principles. David depicts the moment when Socrates is going to drink poison as the Athenian rulers refused to believe in his innocence and sentenced him to death for his ideas and teachings. The key theme of this painting falls under the main rules of neo-classical art. Moreover, the fact that Socrates is accused of his knowledge and philosophical pursuits is sure to find a great response in the minds of those who believed in the ideas of Enlightenment. The background of the scene is rather simple, and the people depicted at the painting are dressed without any excessive decorations. The artist exerted every effort to draw the attention of the audience to the meaning of this painting and not to some florid and jocular details, like it was in case of Rococo movement.

Romanticism is often viewed as an artistic movement completely opposite to Neo-Classicism, but actually they have more similarities than it may seem. Romanticism also highly valued the impression that is produced by the piece of art. “Romanticism was ‘a way of feeling’ rather than a style in art” (Brown, 2010, p. 10). However, the methods they used to achieve it were quite different. “Romanticism was characterized by a belief that emotion was more important than reason”, which can be regarded as the principal difference between neo-classical and romantic art (Bietoletti, 2009, p. 33). The representatives of this movement were fond of using natural, ethnic or folklore motifs in their works. Landscape painting was the prevailing genre in the romantic period. In most cases, romanticists depicted extreme manifestations of natural forces, such as hurricanes, sea storms, etc.

Wanderer in the Storm (1835) by Carl Julius von Leypold is an example of such a romantic painting. The major part of this work is occupied by a landscape during a storm, probably in late fall, but the figure of the wanderer also plays an important role. This image was widely-used by many German romanticists both in art and literature. It is a symbol of human search for the truth, which, according to the principle of romanticism, can be understood only via emotional experiences. The painting is quite melancholic, which is also typical of the romantic art pieces. Leypold also uses some references to antiquity (in this case ancient ruins), but his approach is quite different from the one employed by neo-classical artists. In this painting these ruins do not symbolize the grandeur of the previous epoch, but the fugitive nature of human efforts.

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Realism tried to move to a new level of the art development and find new themes to analyze in the paintings. The artists who worked in the realistic tradition mostly painted the modern life and not historical or mythological scenes. They did not accept idealization of the portrayed people, so they were shown as they were in reality with all their flaws and defects. Social and political topics were also quite popular as they allowed the artists to show the true nature of the contemporary life.

One of the painters that were at the core of this movement was Gustav Courbet. He applied this innovative realistic approach at his painting called A Burial at Ornans (1849). Stremmel and Grosenick (2006) consider this painting and the work of Courbet in general one of the first powerful steps in this art movement. This art piece shows, in contrast to the above-mentioned neo-classical The Death of Socrates, the burial of an ordinary person who was not famous, rich or powerful. The composition of this painting also does not fall into the classical tradition, which is why A Burial at Ornans was several times rejected by popular artistic salons. There is absolutely no sign of idealizing the people present at this funeral. They are all dressed in dark clothes, and some of these people seem to be in an awful emotional condition as they cannot overcome the shock. This painting is indeed “a piece of the mirror in which generations behold themselves”, as one of the French critics described realism (Lombardi, 2009, p. 8).

To conclude, all these artistic movements paid great attention to the depiction of human life and nature, but the principles they used were different. Neo-classicism, romanticism and realism were focused not on the external decorative elements, but on portraying the internal human thoughts, feelings and emotions through a variety of artistic techniques and devices.

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