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Neoclassicism and the French Revolution

To be ignorant of history is to remain always a child - Cicero
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The philosophical movement of the 18th century called the Enlightenment brought reason to political discussion. The enlightenment philosophers (philosophes) believed that there were natural laws to the universe and that these laws could be discovered through rational thought. The enlightenment did not limit itself to philosophy. There were similar developments in art. The frivolous and elaborately decorated Rococo gave way to the art movement called Neoclassicism.

The movement began in 1765 as a reaction to Baroque and Rococo styles and a desire to return to the classical elements of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. Visual art emphasized austere linear design. Subjects were classical themes.

Aude Sapere

The motto of the Enlightenment was "aude sapere" or dare to think. This came through in neoclassic art as well. In paintings, the content was usually meant to be uplifting and make a moral statement.


The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David, 1787
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Death of Socrates is a good example of this. The painter, Jacques Louis David, was the preeminent neoclassic artist. He promoted the values of the enlightenment and French Revolution in his work. The ideals of the Enlightenment philosophy were put into action by the French Revolution. David illustrated these ideals as he chronicled the revolution.

In the Death of Socrates the subject is the symbol of the enlightenment himself: Socrates. The ancient Greeks had the first enlightenment - the struggle between superstition and reason. They were pioneers in the search for man's nature. By his death he became a martyr for truth. He chose to take the cup of poison hemlock rather than stop teaching.

In this scene Socrates takes the cup of hemlock almost casually as he continues his teaching to his mourning followers.


Jacques Louis David, Self Portrait

David quickly became an avid supporter of the French Revolution. He joined the "Mountain" and then later the "Jacobins", the most radical elements of the revolution. He became the official French painter. He survived the revolution to become Napoleon's offician painter.


The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment Primary Sources

The French Revolution

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité: The French Revolution a HistoryWiz exhibit

Part of Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment, a HistoryWiz exhibit

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