Eros and Neoclassicism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

This page explores the relation between eroticism and Neoclassicism, an 18th century art movement which is generally characterized as austere, severe and puritan, but which has a vast amount of erotic art which reflects the sexual repression of the zeitgeist.


Reaction against rococo

Neoclassicism was a reaction against rococo frivolity and the lax morals of the Ancien Régime.


Yet, under closer scrutiny, neoclassical puritanism proves to be hypocritical or at least superficial, much like Greuze's moral paintings. There is an undercurrent of repressed sexuality in many neoclassical paintings. Even in the work of Jacques-Louis David himself, the pope of neoclassicism and the effective dictator of the arts after the French Revolution, prurient details such as bare-breasted woman crop up in paintings like Sabine Women.

Homoerotic strains

Strains of homoeroticism are evident in Jacques-Louis David's Death of Bara and paintings of Patroclus and Hector.

Also to consider is Winckelmann's sublimated homosexuality evident in his descriptions of male heroic nudity. See his description of the Apollo Belevedere:

". . . a mouth shaped like that whose touch stirred with delight the loved Branchus. The soft hair plays about the divine head as if agitated by a gentle breeze, like the slender waving tendrils of the noble vine; it seems to be anointed with the oil of the gods, and tied by Graces with pleasing display on the crown of the head."


In the heteroerotic domain there was Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's (1758 - 1823) Venus and Adonis[1], Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson's (1767 - 1824) Endymion Asleep and Pierre Narcisse Guérin's (1774 – 1833) Jeune fille en buste. More by Guérin here[2].

In Italy there was the sculptor Canova who became famous for his marble sculptures that delicately rendered nude flesh. His work became known under the moniker of 'erotic frigidaire', a phrase coined by Thomas Hess to describe the sculptures of Canova, but the description fits the whole of neoclassical erotica.

In Great Britain there was Fuseli whose macabre eroticism is displayed in such paintings as The Nightmare.

Anthropological prurience

anthropological prurience

There is a case to be made that this voluptuous counterreaction within Winckelmannian neoclassicism must have been influenced by the work of a generation of classical archaelogicalists with "prurient" interests. These were Baron d'Hancarville, Sir William Hamilton, Richard Payne Knight and Vivant Denon.

They all showed an above average interest in ancient erotica. In print, this resulted in Priapées et sujets divers (Hamilton and Vivant Denon), The Worship of Priapus (Knight) and the more fanciful Veneres et Priapi, uti observantur in gemmis antiquis (d'Hancarville), all published during the 1770s and 1780s.

Both strains of neoclassicism -- the asexual and voluptuous ones -- harked back to the Greco-Roman culture. Yet, both having the same source, both were inspired by a different recollection bias. The asexual ones followed the Apollonian asensual style proposed by Winckelmann, our group of prurient archaelogists followed or the Dionysian style proposed.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Eros and Neoclassicism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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