The Greek Revival Of The 18th Century

ACCORDING to our account so far, throughout this whole book, either of architecture, painting, or sculpture, it will appear that the earlier eighteenth century represents the foot of a hill whose gradual descent began about 1530.

We shall not, however, be entirely just to our subject without remarking that to the simile of decline, which has been used above, we must add one which indicates an ever widening expansion of Italian culture and of the original force and attainments of early modern Italian civilization; an expansion which would justify and explain a gradual loss of original quality and strength as far as exterior and borrowed forms of art are concerned. Such a simile may be found in those expanding circles of waves or ripples which we notice when a stone has been thrown into a pool of water. Corresponding to the suggestions of this simile, we find the civilization of Russia or of Scandinavia beginning to show more modern tendencies in the eighteenth century and that England and Prussia became the most powerful and active factors in its political history, as compared with an earlier political inferiority to the Netherlands, Spain, and France, which in their turn had been the superiors of seventeenth century Italy, although originally borrowers from her greatness. It is undoubtedly from this point of view that we must explain the great perfection of English painting in the eighteenth century; the time of Wilson in landscape, of Gainsborough and Reynolds, Lawrence and Romney in portraits, of Hogarth in caricature, of George Morland in farm scenes and the like, as compared with earlier English obscurity in the matter of great painters (p. 181). So again it is at the close of the eighteenth century that we find the dawning genius of early American painters, like Copley and Gilbert Stuart, again in dependence on an inspiration and style of earlier English origin. The revival of art in England belongs, however, to a time, that of the later eighteenth century, when northern Europe in general was beginning to assert its independence of Italian Renaissance influences in a way which I must now describe. The sketch of the later course of the history of art, after the middle of the eighteenth century, moves properly from the history of Renaissance sculpture as just concluded in my last chapter, because it was in sculpture that the art de-cadence of the early eighteenth century was most clearly visible, and because it was in the study of ancient Greek sculpture as contrasted with this decadence that modern art began its new career.

Sculpture had been the art in which decadence was most apparent because the picturesque and sentimental tastes of the later Renaissance were least adapted to its proper conditions of dignity and repose. Architecture was re-strained by its dimensions and serious practical problems from sinning invariably as it did frequently, but we have given examples of its mistakes of profusion of ornament, and of lack of sense for construction (Fig. 51 and pp. 97-102).

We have also found that the seventeenth century produced its greatest school of painting in a country (Holland) whose religion, location, and history were most remote to that of Renaissance Italy. Still, Renaissance painting was the art which held to its best for the longest time and which never entirely sacrificed its greatness. Its ascendency and relative perfection as compared with later Renaissance architecture and sculpture are marked, and we should not be far from the heart of the matter in saying that the defects of these arts for the given time were largely due to a pictorial influence and tendency not befitting their necessary dignity.

If we should go still deeper in attempting to explain the gradual decline of art, it would be by saying that the intellectual inspiration of the Renaissance had exhausted its subject matter. Italy had risen from the study of Roman history and Latin literature to greatness, but in the middle of the eighteenth century Europe had subsisted on the fruits of Italian thought and energy for at least two hundred years. A new force and a new center of activity, new thoughts and new interests were needed.

In the history of governments we see how the system of early modern history had grown decrepit and weak, how the despotic monarchies of the eighteenth century had lost their former hold on popular favor and support. Just as the French Revolution at the close of the eighteenth century was an explosion of protest against a fossil stage of government, so the intellectual thought of Europe had its revival just preceding, which in fact resulted in this political explosion.

The turning point in the history of Renaissance and modern art is the revolution in taste caused by the revived study of Greek literature after 1750. We have seen that the Greek men of letters, driven into Italy by the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, spread and cultivated the study of Greek in Italy. But these studies were crippled by the social and political disasters which came to notice in our account of Michael Angelo (p.223) and of the decline of the historic Renaissance (p. 37).

The older social aristocracies of Italy which had cultivated these studies were now ruined and dispersed. The Catholic Church Reformation, which accompanied the Protestant reform, took alarm at the pagan and infidel tendencies which the intellectual worship of paganism was supposed to have caused, and it was in the Greek circles of Italy that these tendencies had been manifest.

To the changed attitude of the Roman Church was added a still more important cause the natural tastes and predispositions of the mass of Italians in favor of Latin, and the ease with which they could learn it, through its connection with their own tongue. To these various causes we may attribute the decline in the estimation of the Greek authors and the general indifference to them which became the rule throughout Europe.

In spite of exceptions and some apparent contradictions, Greek studies were mainly ignored in the seventeenth century and during the first half of the eighteenth century. At this time there was only one university in Germany having a professorship in Greek the University of Göttingen.

The father of the Greek Revival, John Winckelmann, who was in early life too poor to buy many books, had not been able up to the time when he was thirty years old even to borrow a copy of Sophocles. No edition of Plato had been published in Europe at this time since the year 1602. No Greek authors had been published in Germany for one hundred and fifty years. No school books for the study of Greek were available when Winckelmann, as schoolmaster at Seehausen, introduced the study of Greek into his school. He was obliged to write out texts for his scholars these manuscripts are still in existence.

Leading French critics did not hesitate to ridicule the Greeks. One of them (Pérrault) compared Homer to the ballads of the street singers of Paris, Voltaire declared the AEneid to be superior to all the Greek authors taken together. Such were the general results of the attitude of the later Renaissance and of its enthusiasm for Roman antiquity and Latin literature. The neglect of Greek may possibly be less apparent in England, which country was most exterior to the influence of the later Renaissance and its prejudices, but Macaulay has contributed valuable hints on this matter of English neglect of Greek, in his essay on Addison.

All this was changed by the epoch-making life of Winckelmann, who rose from a position of extreme poverty and obscurity to be the leading antiquarian and art critic of Europe. It was not till the year 1755, when he began his residence at Rome that any indication of this distinction became apparent, and he had already reached the age of thirty-eight. In the following thirteen years he did work which revolutionized the taste and art of Europe.

It was a time before the foundation of the later museums of the North and when the antique statues were almost exclusively confined to Rome. Here they were supposed to be works representing Roman history and civilization and explaining Latin literature. Strange as it may seem, Winckelmann’ s announcement of the existence of a Greek art as perpetuated by Roman copies was a complete revelation to his age, which was quite ignorant of the originals subsequently brought from Greece to northern Europe like the Parthenon marbles of the British Museum.

This announcement was not made suddenly or ostentatiously, but by a series of reversals of interpretations of the ancient statues in Rome, which had been given interpretations based on Latin literature and Roman history.

To this reversal of the older Italian interpretations of the statues Winckelmann added a new point of view in their criticism. In the early Renaissance it had been the realistic study of natural form which had interested the Italian. The ancient statues which the Italian especially admired were those few in which the anatomic details were most exaggerated. These were shown by Winckelmann to be works of the Greek decadence.

On the other hand, the taste of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries for exaggerated, ostentatious, and theatrical art had entirely overlooked the virtues of repose and simplicity in the works which Winckelmann now proved to be simply Roman copies of lost Greek originals. Still farther he specified the various historic styles within the limits of Greek art and gave their proper rank to the conceptions of the fifth century before Christ, the period of Phidias.

These points were first made known to the world in Winckelmann’s History of Art, published in 1764. The effect of this publication was electrical. In proving the Roman statues to be copies of Greek originals a new conception was involved of the general origin of Roman civilization and Latin literature. It was no longer possible to es-teem the Latin authors above the Greeks when these were seen to have been the models followed by the Romans.

Thus the study of ancient sculpture re-acted on the study of ancient literature. The Greek authors suddenly became fashionable. The impulse thus given by Winckelmann was aided by Lessing, who published, in 1766, his ” Essay on Laocoön,” critically establishing the superiority of Homer and lowering the position which had been awarded the French critics and dramatists of the eighteenth century.

Now came the influence, first on Germany, and then on all Europe, of the German poets Goethe and Schiller and their followers, who stood on the platform established by Winckelmann and Lessing and owed their own greatness to the inspiration drawn from the Greek literature. The whole of Europe was now permeated by a new antique fever resembling the Renaissance and known as the Greek RevivaI, or Philhellenic movement.

The influence on modern art was phenomenal. Even in clocks and furniture no style of design was now tolerated but imitation of the Greeks. The Renaissance style of architecture was combated by another which appealed to the constructional principles of the Greek temples as contrasted with the ornamental and unstructural use of Greek forms borrowed by Italy from the Romans.

In practice the two styles were, however, frequently amalgamated, for not all architects were capable of sharing the literary enthusiasms of the new movement. Still a pronounced simplicity in architectural forms was a feature of the Greek Revival, and the Greek porticoes and colonnades were everywhere copied and applied to modern buildings. Many were even made in direct imitation of the shape of the Greek temples, as numerous churches and public buildings still attest.

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century the Greek Revival was the most pronounced feature of European history. Even politics showed this influence and the revolutions in both France and America were largely inspired by an ideal of republican institutions drawn from the study of Plutarch’s ” Lives,” which was the most popular book of the time. In ladies’ dress the style now known as that of the “Directory,” and represented by the short-waisted ladies’ dress of the time of the American Revolution, came into vogue as a copy of Greek simplicity. In music the subjects of Gluck’s Operas are a reminder of the same enthusiasms.

In statuary the same movement was equally visible. The theatrical and sentimental style of sculpture was abandoned and a new one was founded, based upon an external imitation of Greek art. In this taste the Italian Canova and the Dane Thorwaldsen, long resident at Rome, were the first and most prominent lights, and the imitation of the Greeks in sculpture is only in recent years beginning to yield to a more original and truly modern style. In this recent movement the sculptors of the United States are among the foremost, and taken in mass have probably achieved the best results of modern sculpture.

In painting the classical spirit also showed itself, and its first leading light was the Frenchman David, a con-temporary of the French Revolution and of the times of Bonaparte. In this art, however, the first and most obvious result of the Greek Revival was a return of appreciation for the period of Raphael, whose virtues of repose and simplicity were parallel in painting to the same qualities of the Greek sculpture. In other words, the results in painting were more apparent in a changed standard of appreciation toward old Italian art than in a new style of modern painting.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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