Classical Art? A Review – by Guy Walton

Caroline Vout, Classical Art, A Life History from Antiquity to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), ISBN 9780691177038

The title given to the review of Vout’s book in the TLS (January 4, 2019), “Crafting a Canon,” is somewhat misleading. The author, in fact, does not discuss precisely what has been said about the canon (body and facial proportions in Greek, Roman and later art), nor does she single out a group of works, either ancient or modern. But her book does challenge the idea that what constitutes “classical art” is a settled issue. She is synthesizing well-worn debates, drawing them together to present a broad view of her topic and extending it across the centuries.

Vout stresses that the original contexts which gave birth to the term “classical” are obscure, and that the understanding of the meaning and style of many of the works often referred to as “classical art” has radically changed over time. Her study centers on many famous works and traces some of their imperfectly known histories. These are mostly Roman works made for Roman patrons in antiquity. Some are marble copies of famous Greek bronzes. Unfortunately, most of these works are preserved in a damaged state or as fragments. Given this fact, it is surprising that these sculptures have been considered to be among the greatest masterpieces of Western art.

Classical Art unfolds in 10 chapters arranged chronologically. Chapter 1 is an excellent introduction to the book’s essential aims. It begins by discussing her title: “Classical art is a battleground. ‘Art’ is worrying enough for archaeologists. ‘Classical’ is a step too far,” since, in her view, it places misleading value judgments on art objects. She then examines in some detail the history of marble copies now in Naples of a lost Athenian monument. She asks probing questions like: At what point did the original sculptures in bronze become art? Portraying a man and a boy, the originals were erected near the Athenian Agora by Kritios and Nesiotes. Their works were made as a replacement of an earlier monument on the same location by Antenor, one commissioned after the Persians had removed Antenor’s work in 480 BCE. The subject matter adds to the sculptures’ stylistic interest, as it seems to reflect on the culture of Athenian Democracy. The man and boy, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, were called “the Athenian Tyrannicides because of their attempted assassination of Peisistratus, the brother of an Athenian tyrant. As R. T. Neer remarked in his Art and Architecture of the Greek World (2012), “stylistically, the group is a benchmark on the history of Greek sculpture.”  Neer, quoting Stuart: “The Kritios group literally marks the birthday of the classical style in Athens.”

As a result of this approach, the copies of the two figures have appeared as set pieces of the UK’s Final Secondary Examinations on “Greek Architecture and Sculpture.” Vout, however, hesitates to accept the prevailing view of these marbles, which she considers inadequate and questionable. She points out troubling aspects of this reading while noting that it omits important elements, including the statues’ possible expression of homosexual meaning, and suggesting there is a good deal more to be said about the intended meaning of these figures. Then she reviews the history of their interpretation up to today in some detail. This first chapter might stand alone as a lively scholarly essay. It would certainly be suitable for use as assigned reading for ancient art courses, or for art history survey courses, since it convincingly questions a number of traditional ideas about how Greek art of the fifth century BCE has traditionally been seen. The whole chapter is available online at Princeton University Press under the book’s title and “Setting the Agenda.”

Chapter 2, “Finding the Classical in Hellenistic Greece,” is perhaps less interested in the classical aspect of the title than in trying to locate the point where certain sculptors came to be widely recognized internationally as great masters. Vout first stresses the early function of Greek sculpture as votive gifts and civil monuments, one where artistic value was of secondary importance, and she searches for indications as to when technique and aesthetics may have emerged as important elements of sculptures, thus causing them to be seen as artworks. She remarks that the early recognition of certain artisans through signed works was a turning point, one that seemed to be fully manifest when, in the mid fourth-century BCE, Asian rulers like Mausolus of Halicarnassus enticed Greek sculptors with reputations to come from abroad to work for them.

Turning then to a few surviving ecphrastic works (often poetry), beginning with writers such as Posidippus (270’s to 240’s BCE in Alexandria), she notes some early attempts to characterize important features of certain artists’ styles and aesthetic achievements. This allows her then to describe the spread of a similar high valuation of Greek art to Rome, the subject of her very important Chapter 3, “Making Greek Culture Roman Culture.” Vout begins Chapter 3 by documenting the initial ambivalence of the early Romans in their valuing of Greek art—their seeing it as a civilizing element for Roman culture, but also one that risked the corruption of Roman morality and mores, possibly leading to a different, effeminate society. She turns our attention to Pliny the Elder (Natural History, first century CE) and to others who clearly make this point. Eventually Greek sculptures of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE came to be displayed in Rome for their aesthetic value as prestigious decorations in public places, palaces and villas. She notes that the emperor Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE) caused an uproar in Rome by trying to move Lysippus’ Apoxyomonos (The Scraper, fourth century BCE) to his bedroom out of public view, as it had become a symbol of Roman high culture. Vout sums up her discussion of “classical art” in Rome as follows: “With Rome holding all the cards and worrying away at the effects, positive and negative, of dealing with them in different ways, Greek art became Roman (it had to not to remain dangerous) and Roman art [was] something shaped in dialogue with it.”

Near the beginning of Chapter 4 Vout relates “how the Rome of our last chapter gradually shifted in status from repository of culture to cultural exemplar. It [the chapter] sets the scene for classical art to become European currency.” She also stresses in one section called “Collecting Like Caesar” (one of her chapter subtitles) that Greek sculpture, since it was collected by world leaders in antiquity, came to exemplify political power and influence and, after a time, it came to do so for later Europeans as early as the Middle Ages. At this point she begins her continuing discussion of the important role that the attitudes of great European collectors of the Renaissance and Early Modern periods played in defining what constitutes “classical art.”

Vout begins Chapter 5: “This chapter and the next [Chapter 6] ask how the Renaissance view of classical art…came to color Europe’s understanding of Greek and Roman culture, and its emulation of this culture, until at least the mid-eighteenth century.” She tells part of this story by discussing some beautiful Italian Renaissance portraits (among them Lotto’s Andrea Odoni, 1527, Titian’s Jacopo Strada, 1567-1568, Morone’s Alessandro Vittoria, 1552, and Bronzino’s A Man, 1554-1555), where the sitters are shown with antique statues. Her emphasis is on intense art appreciation leading to a deeper admiration of the value and character of classical works. Her position is perhaps best exemplified by her description of a visit to Isabella d’Este’s Grotta of the Corte Vecchia at Ferrara (after 1519), where a marble sculpture of Cupid by Michelangelo (1475-1564) is compared unfavorably to an antique version of the same subject by viewers who carefully examined the two. She quotes a 1573 text by August de Thou: “They only show the ancient one second so that connoisseurs could only judge on seeing them how in these sorts of works the ancients outweigh the moderns.”

The intensity of the appeal of the ancient statuary at this time is further exemplified by the words of Nicola Maffei, who says in a letter to Isabella from Rome quoted by Vout; “I have fallen in love in the [Vatican] Belvedere, with an extraordinarily beautiful youth named Apollo, in such a way that I cannot refrain from going to contemplate his celestial beauties at least twice a day.” An equally passionate and aesthetically sensitive tribute to this Belvedere Apollo, one not mentioned by Vout, is one carved in marble: the great Apollo and Daphne (1623, Villa Borghese, Rome) by the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese to be shown with his collection of antiquities at his Roman villa. 

There appears to have been limits to those enthusiastic viewers’ success in identifying real Greek masterpieces, even when they did connect statues with old texts—such as with some works by Lysippus of the fourth century BCE (his Hercules in the Farnese collection, or his Apoxyomenos at the Vatican). These works were, after all, only copies of lost originals. As time went on, however, and as Vout’s book shows, the list of the recognizable classical masterpieces in Rome ultimately grew to an impressive number.

Chapter 6 stresses how works exhibited at the Belvedere Court of the Vatican, the Capitoline Hill in Rome and in Roman palaces (e.g. Palazzo Farnese) and elsewhere came to be seen as setting the standard for what was thought to be great Greek art. After all, as Vout notes, Versailles’ marble garden statuary, which included many copies of ancient “masterpieces” and modern works in the ancient style, aspired a century and a half later to be those of a “new Rome,” not a “new Athens.”

Here Vout also discusses the important role of European court society in “Shaping the Canon,” concluding that both acquiring real antiques and copying famous works in Rome became widespread. An important example of this is the group of important statues made for King Francis I of France by Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570). Cast by him in plaster in Rome, they were later rendered in bronze in France and now remain at the Chateau of Fontainebleau.

England is brought into the picture through the influence of the publications of Francis Junius (1591-1677), secretary to the Duke of Arundel, who gathered together a collection of classical statues rivaling that of monarchs. Junius’ books are seen by Vout and others as the beginning of the systematic study of ancient art. She notes that these books were heavily mined more than a century later by the likes of Winckelmann (see below) and Lessing, and that they were particularly important for its discussion of ancient writings on art.

Fig. 1. Pompeo Batoni, Sir Wyndham Knatchbull-Wyndham, 1758-1759. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation, AC1994.128.1. Image courtesy of LACMA.

Chapter 7 is about the eighteenth century, a period that represents a third high point of “classical art,” after Ancient Rome and the Renaissance. Vout explains that a very high sensitivity to ancient sculpture was a part of the cultural development exemplified by English tourists on the Grand Tour. She quotes what Jonathan Richardson, Sr. wrote about England in 1715: “No nation under heaven so nearly resembles the ancient Greeks, an elevation of thought, a Greatness of Taste, a Love of Liberty, a simplicity, and Honesty among us which we inherit from our ancestors.” Englishmen are the focus of this chapter. Vout recognizes a homophilic culture here, and stresses that these men were particularly successful in acquiring antiquities and copies of them. She examines their self-representation, as in some portraits of British travelers shown with canonical antiquities painted by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787). She also describes the encoded messages related to travelers’ changed ways of viewing famous statues, for example seeing in the Vatican Apollo Belvedere “noble simplicity and calm grandeur.” Thus, not only is Batoni’s Sir Windham Knatchbull-Windham posed as if at the Roman temple at Tivoli and with famous statues, but his portrait reflects the pose of the Apollo Belvedere, seen then as both refined and yet virile (Fig. 1).  

J. J. Winckelmann (1717-1768) thought Batoni’s painting one of the best portraits of the world. He is quoted as saying, “[Art] is about beauty in its purest form…accessible in the direct encounter with a particular object…[and shows] what a new attentiveness to ancient sculpture might mean to modern art, and for the modern gentleman.”  Vout notes that Winckelmann is also widely credited with adding a new dimension to the idea of “classical art,” as he turned his refined aesthetic sensitivity to examining closely the character of certain ancient works. He recognized what he thought was a classical Greek style with noble simplicity and calm grandeur] as being exemplified by the Apollo Belvedere and similar works of idealized naturalism. He thus drew attention to what he believed to be the need to rewrite the whole of the history of “classical art,” separating what he considered Greek sculpture from the Roman though his opinions were open to wide criticism, in both his time and later. Vout also turns to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) to describe the new eighteenth-century sensitivity to art: “Surrounded by ancient statues, we feel our selves in the midst of a vigorous natural life, we become aware of the diverseness of human forms and are led directly back to human being in its purest state.”

Rooms in great English houses reflecting this aesthetic are examined here—Holkham Hall, Norfolk, and several others—along with the sculptures shown as part of these décors. These works were mostly plaster casts of restored Roman copies of Greek and Roman works with some contemporary sculpture added. This style is seen by her to be manifest in the neoclassical sculptures of Joseph Nollekens (1730-1823), a practitioner of “contemporary classical art,” though the art of Thomas Banks (1705-1805), such as his relief Death of Germanicus (1774) at Holkham Hall, might better have been substituted for this choice.

A problem that arises with Vout’s largely using the attitudes of English Grand Tourists to characterize new developments in eighteenth-century artistic culture is that the important story of classical art elsewhere in Europe is shortchanged. More extensive comments would seem to be justified on the role of artists such as Antonio Canova (1757-1822), who worked for a galaxy of European notables, and Bertil Thorvaldsen (1770-1824), who in 1820 had 40 sculptors working in his Roman shop, but, most particularly, the many French artists of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris (with its related French Academy in Rome). Sculptures by them rival or surpass in quality the English works that she discusses. The well-known Apollo and the Muses (1666-1672), a monumental group of six over life-sized figures in marble by François Girardon (1628-1715), a work made in a style based on the Apollo Belvedere and other antiquities epitomizing the art preferred at the time of the young Louis XIV, is not mentioned by Vout. Yet its importance for decades following and for eighteenth-century taste is clearly asserted by the grand setting devised for it a century later by Hubert Robert (1733-1808), the Bains d’Apollon (1777-1781)at Versailles, which remains in situ today.

Vout might also have mentioned the Milo of Crotona (1670-1686) made for Versailles, a major work widely seen as a masterpiece around 1700, by Pierre Puget (1620-1694). Milo was a thoughtful commentary on, and alternative to, the Vatican’s Laocöon while it also reflects the style of the Farnese Hercules. Another French work, a famous example of “classical art” of the eighteenth century, The Oath of the Horatii of 1784 by J. L. David (1748-1815), is mentioned by Vout in Chapter 1, but only for its use of one of the Tyrannicide figures, not as an example of the art of its period. There, Vout helpfully cautions against a political reading of this use, since in David’s day the statue was probably believed to be a Roman gladiator.

Since art education at the French Academy began with years of drawing from plaster casts of Roman/Greek sculptures, and from years of study at the Academy’s outpost in Rome, generations of excellent French artists were also molded on this aesthetic found a bit later in England. The important theoretical writings of the French critics and artists related to “classic art” might also have been mentioned by Vout, given their international influence in both the training of artists and the shaping of criticism.

Chapters 8 and 9 head off in different directions but are nonetheless important parts of her story. In Chapter 8, “Seeing Anew in the Nineteenth Century,” Vout deals with the end of the Roman/Greek canon that had prevailed for more or less three centuries. After Napoleon celebrated it by bringing its most celebrated works to Paris in 1798 for his Musée Nationale, these statues were returned after his fall to Rome and to increasing obscurity. Across the nineteenth century the preference came to be for authentic Greek works (e.g. the Parthenon marbles and other original works by Greek artists, and those made for Mausolus) acquired by the British museum. These in turn inspired archaeology in Greece and the uncovering of hundreds of works unknown earlier, eventually adding Archaic Greek Art, and even earlier Greek and Mediterranean art, to the history of Greek art. Vout appropriately discusses the subsequent writing of a new art history that came with these new discoveries and with continued research.

Then, in Chapter 9, Vout reaches far ahead to the twenty-first century, since she believes there is no doubt that Classical art is still held in high regard and continues at times to have an impact on contemporary art. Here her strategy is to examine the messages conveyed by the way classic art is displayed in museums. She asks us to consider the displays of museums such as The Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the Greek Miracle exhibition (1992-1993) in Washington, D.C., or the display at The Museum of Classical Art at Cambridge, her home museum. As an interesting extension of her study of public museum displays is her discussion of the display of ancient works along with contemporary art at the Mougins Museum of Classical Art (Alpes-Maritimes), where “Yves Klein’s Blue Venus sculpture…shares space with four Roman statuettes of the goddess in bronze and marble, with Salvatore Dali’s Venus as a Giraffe of 1973, and Paul Cezanne’s drawing of the Venus de Milo (1872-73). Behind [is] Andy Warhol’s screen print Birth of Venus [after Botticelli].” She ends her book with a chapter entitled “And the Moral of this Story,” remarking there, “The longue durée of this book is what makes its contribution.”

Good books tracing a broad picture of aspects of art history over long periods are a great rarity these days, and this book should be warmly welcomed as one of them. This is a book that deserves to be read straight through for its argument. It is a study on a high level of contemporary criticism and scholarship in the challenging mode of Mary Beard. Princeton University Press has produced a volume worthy of Vout’s well written text. There are 50 double column pages of end notes and a similarly extensive 50-page up-to-date bibliography.

Guy Walton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History, New York University, NY


Cite this note as:  Guy Walton, “Classical Art? A Review,” Journal18 (September 2019), http://www.journal18.org/4129.

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