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March 15, 2006

Decline and Fall of the Classical Face

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Once upon a time painters had this crazy notion that their goal was to create beauty.

That was back in the 19th century. Today many painters think their goal is to create "edginess," but that's a post for another time.

Let's say it's 1840 and you're an academic painter planning your next submission to the Salon. The subject matter will be historical and, if possible, uplifting. And the whole thing should be beautiful and "finished" (worked over so that brush-strokes are invisible, or nearly so). You want to include images of young women, nude or partly nude, because that will be fun to do and because it should please most viewers -- who don't mind a skin-show so long as the rest of the enterprise has a high moral tone.

Of course those women must have beautiful faces. It's a virtual no-brainer regarding the general appearance: you will borrow from Greek and Roman sculpture. Why? Because such sculpture was Beautiful, and if the Academy and the public want beauty, then use a proven example. The fact that your subject might be a Classical theme is a further consideration.

I should add that not all women in paintings looked like Greek statues, but it was a common enough practice in those days.

Okay. I haven't exactly researched this using primary documentation and all that. But the expedient of simply looking at such art makes it hard to come up with a more convincing explanation why women in academic paintings of that era look a lot more like classical statuary than northwestern Europeans in 1840 -- half a dozen short generations removed from us.

What interests me is that painters slowly abandoned Classical faces over the second half of the 19th century, even in paintings with Classical subjects. I have no solid explanation why this happened and will just wave my arms and shout something about zeitgeist and the progressive forces launched by the Industrial Revolution pushing aside previously held beliefs that Greece and Rome were unsurpassable. Friedrich von Blowhard's insights on this point are welcomed.

Enough talk. Let's have a look.


Venus de Milo - head.jpg
Venus de Milo.
What could be more Classical than this Venus? Note the high nose and strong chin.

David - Telemachus.jpg
"The Farewell of Telemachus and Eurcharis" by Jacques-Louis David, 1818.
One of David's last works. Very Classical face on the woman.

Leighton - Girl with a Basket of Fruit - 1863.jpg
"Girl with a Basket of Fruit" by Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1863.
Here the nose isn't so high, but the chin is strong.

Rossetti - A Vision of Fiammetta.jpg
"A Vision of Fiammetta" by Dante Rossetti.
Rossetti liked his models to have a Classical look even though he was a Pre-Raphaelite, not an academician.

William Bouguereau - Nymphs and Satyr - 73.jpg
"Nymphs and a Satyr" by William Bouguereau, 1873.
A Classical subject, but Bouguereau paints the Nymphs as though they were French. Note the facial expression on the nymph near the center.

Waterhouse - Circe Invidiosa - 92.jpg
"Circe Invidiosa" by JW Waterhouse, 1892.
Classical mythology, but Circe's face isn't very Classical in this late 19th century work.

Waterhouse - Destiny.jpg
"Destiny" by JW Waterhouse, 1900.
A turn of the century painting and the face appears normal, not at all like a Greek statue. Note the turned-up tip of the nose.

By the 20th century the Classical face was, pardon the expression, history (aside from the stray mural in buildings based on Greek and Roman architecture). Realism was trumping classicism by the 1880s. Then Post-Impressionism, Expressionism and all those other isms took their turns as the goal of beauty itself was swept aside.

While it might be possible to argue that Realism is making a halting, painful comeback, I see little evidence that Classical faces will reappear in art other than ironic, distorted guises.

What do you think?



posted by Donald at March 15, 2006


How did the painters manage to find enough models with classical faces? Or did they just change the faces on their models to look more classical?

Posted by: Peter on March 15, 2006 03:18 PM

I don't think "beauty itself was swept aside." Probably the idea of what was beautiful simply shifted.

Posted by: the patriarchy on March 15, 2006 03:25 PM

Ok. Too rushed, but initial impressions. Rossetti was obsessed with another man's wife, in a nutcase Dante-Beatrice emulation. Other late examples are Alma-Tadema using his very plain wife in almost every painting, and John Godward, maybe the last classicist, using one model in many paintings who was not particularly attractive. IIRC, Godward, because of talents and inclinations, specifically wanted the focus to be on the beautiful surroundings (marble, fabric, background, composition, pose) and the model was just a prop.

OTOH, pre-David (Chasserieau) say for instance Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin, Titian had models of non-classical appearance. It may simply be a matter of what "ladies" are available as models.

Or it may be Romanticism moving to Realism, and track along with Wordsworth to Shelley to Tennyson to Kipling & Arnold. The late Classicists, post 1870-1920, may be ironic and nostalgic. The emulation of Empire was hard to sustain innocently by 1900.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 15, 2006 03:26 PM

Check out the work of Carlo Maria Mariani and Ted Schmidt. The old traditions live on, at least here and there. I took a class with Schmidt once, and it was fascinating to watch his demos. The guy really knows how to draw a classical head. It's fun that he teaches at the NY Academy, a hyper Beaux-Artsy place that was funded initially (largely) by Andy Warhol.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 15, 2006 03:54 PM

Check out this computer generated ideal beauty from the sixties: Miss Formula, the girl with everything.

The guy looks like the prodigal son of the American Gothic farmer, doesn't he? Grew tired of country life, moved to the big city, got his PhD, invented the perfect woman - perfect I tell you! - spent restless nights tortured by his prophetic dreams of Usenet binary groups. Goes to show that Puritans always end up badly.

"I see little evidence that Classical faces will reappear in art other than ironic, distorted guises."

I think classical got its name because it's permanent - because of its endless potential for rebirth. If the Dark Ages couldn't kill Ionic columns and Plutarch and civic repubicanism, I don't think the postmodernists can, snark all they might. The Ancients had more substance than us, let's face it, and I don't think we can bring them down. And even if we did, they'd still be there waiting for the next round, like the seeds of wheat found in King Tut's tomb. If one age can't see the merit in a face like this (the Apollo of the Belvedere), the next age might, or the one after.

Veering slightly OT, here is a good article about what classical architecture - and its connotations of permanence - meant to early Americans like Jefferson and Bulfinch and Biddle.

Posted by: Brian on March 15, 2006 04:06 PM

I think you should have named this post the decline of the Neoclassical Face. While Baroque and Rococco artists of the 17th and 18th centuries were well aware of (and had all studied) Classical statuary, they weren't as constrained by the classical figure-and-face canon as the late 18th century-early 19th century neoclassicists. Certainly Velasquez had little patience for imitating statues, no matter how culturally prestigious, in his multifigure compositions, let alone Rembrandt! This is not to disrespect the Neoclassicists; they had very specific aesthetic notions and highly developed theory undergirding their choices, more so probably than any body of artists since their time.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 15, 2006 04:43 PM

Cruelty Alert: I thought the "decline and fall of the classical face" was...Elizabeth Taylor. OK,OK...I'm scum.

Posted by: annette on March 16, 2006 01:58 PM

Here's Rossetti's Helen of Troy ("the face that launched a thousand ships"):

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 16, 2006 11:37 PM

Personally, I like a face that you can know for certain is expressing an emotion, or a play of feelings. This "Classical Face" is pretty handy for that.

Not that folks such as Richard Edson and Caroline Rhea are without other types of charm.

Posted by: j.c. on March 16, 2006 11:57 PM

Some scattered responses ...

Peter -- I suspect they made use of those plaster casts that were common in art schools and studios in those days. But Rossetti's muse, Jane Morris, really looked like his paintings where she was the model (to judge from photos of her).

Patriarchy -- I agree our concept of "beauty" changed somewhat, but lots of PoMo art is not beautiful nor was it intended to be so.

Friedrich -- Yes, I should have used "neo." My feeble excuse is that I took art history 47 years ago. And a second, even more wispy, excuse is that I've been concentrating on Impressionism in my recent reading to the detriment of other periods.

Bob -- I was dealing with (see reply to FvB above) Neoclassicism as promoted in academic art and not earlier schools. Interesting that the Dutch often dressed historical figures like themselves.

Michael -- Thanks for the links; I might make use of them in later posts.

Brian -- Interesting thoughts. Classical Greece and Rome were high-points not exceeded on almost any criterion for many centuries. Thus they were held in awe by "lesser" societies. I suspect the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution led Europeans to have more self-confidence by the late 19th C and so classicism began to fade. I'm not sure if or how it might return.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 17, 2006 12:55 PM

Flipping the question around, why do the Greek statues look like that? Did they really look different in those days and have evolved the more familiar look now or was it just the style? Have skeletons been studied to figure out what the ancient Greeks must have looked like?

Posted by: JM on March 17, 2006 02:34 PM

JM -- Expert help is needed to answer the question you pose -- and it's something that occurred to me too.

While it's certainly possible (maybe even likely) ancient Greeks looked like that, it might also be possible that the sculptors did some tweaking so that their work looked better in the position (high up? with/without a lot of sun?) they were to be placed. Architects are known to have bulged columns for optical-effect reasons after all, so why not sculptors?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 17, 2006 02:42 PM

Some thoughts on why the "Classical" Greek Statue Face looked like it did:

(1) Not to be facetious, but often things that seem stylized in art are actually quite, um, realistic. I remember looking at a lot of Byzantine art showing people with what appeared to be highly stylized faces with unbelievably exaggerated eye sockets one day in a library. I went directly from the library to a copy store, where the proprietors were Greek, and looked exactly like the people in the Byzantine paintings, ultra-accentuated eye-sockets and all.

(2) The other possible explanation, which may be 180 degrees away from the first, is the Greek love for geometrical underpinnings in their 'realistic' statuary. Polykleitos, one of the developers of the Classical idiom and the creator of a sculpture known as 'Canon' because it had what were considered perfect proportions, remarked: "Little by little, with many numbers, beauty emerges." I'm not generally a Platonist, but I suspect the very longstanding allure of the Classical idiom derives from the 'rectification' of everyday realism by an intensely pondered, fairly mathematical idealism. In other words, the Greeks weren't just making high sounding noises when they referred to idealization in art; they seem to have actually figured out some relationships that still resonate in the human brain.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 18, 2006 04:31 PM

There are a few classical artists who aren't falling for the pomo or "realism" traps of insipid, rehashed romanticism of the worst sort. Classical artists, as is not generally understood, did not copy from models but constructed and invented their figures out of their imagination. And imagination is what is most sorely lacking in neo-"edgy" art cranked out by the megaton by contemporary academics...

Posted by: raphael on March 18, 2006 10:54 PM

Friedrich -- Interesting points. I was in Greece in September 2004, but wasn't blogging and didn't give the women's noses and chins the attention they clearly deserved. It is interesting that many Greeks have quite fair skin: I would have expected more of an olive tinge, given the climate. Italians are noted for having prominant noses even if one sets aside Jimmy Duranty. Perhaps this nose was found more often in the Greece of Classical times -- subsequent migrations might have altered appearances.

As for your second point: gee youv'e read a lot of stuff I haven't gotten to yet. Or maybe your Lousy Ivy Education wasn't totally lousy.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 20, 2006 01:55 PM

Friedrich, that is certainly interesting to know. I had suspected that the ancient Greek sculptors were indeed rendering some idealized figures handed down by some guru, just like the modern ones were imitating the ancient Greeks.

BTW, I think Indian sculptures favor the idealized over the realistic.

Posted by: JM on March 21, 2006 05:06 PM

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