When the ruins of Pompeii came to light, they caused a revolution in taste-stripping away rococo gilt, reshaping the female figure, and leaving a deposit of pseudo-Greek temples from Moscow to Mississippi- although what sometimes passed for “classical” would have bewildered the ancients.
The rediscovery of the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum beginning in 1738 created a fashion sensation in design and architecture based on classical antiquity. There was a great aesthetic response to the demands of this new market. The rage for antique and the excitement over the new discoveries were eagerly taken up by architects and interior decorators, and a trail of painted interiors, based on the frescoes at Herculaneum and Pompeii soon stretched across the length and breadth of the Continent through in particular Robert Adam in England and Chalgrin in France.
As in architecture, so in other art forms: Pompeii and Herculaneum set the tone. Their influence is visible in every material and in almost every facet of life. Even men’s dress followed the prevailing trend, with Beau Brummell giving the lead. He applied those principles of restraint, naturalness, and simplicity, the Georgian version of Winckelmann’s famous slogan of ” noble simplicity and calm grandeur,” to his personal appearance. The result was a style more austere and more dignified than any before or since. It soon dominated the world of fashion, and its influence is still with us to some degree.
The chaotic history of male costume, alternating between that too fine and too coarse, came to a close on “that bright morning” to quote max Beerbohm, “when Mr. Brummell at his mirror, conceived the notion of trousers and simple coats.” Women,s dress had, of course, fallen into line with the new fashion much earlier. By 1787, the new “Grecian mode” was already making inroads on the hoop petticoat: by some it was held to be indecorous, for the soft gowns clung to the figure “like wet drapery” and revealed it for all to see; by others it was held to be dangerous, for no modest female, they said, was safe without her hoop- it was the rampart that protected her virtue. Fashion, however, has always triumphed over virtue and decorum.
The lady of fashion threw away her hoops, kicked off her petticoats, put on knickers, and dropped her neckline dangerously low. And her figure, if we can take art as our mirror, followed the pattern of her dress and changed to more classical proportions. The round rococo nudes that had bounced across Boucher’s canvases or frolicked in a Fragonard landscape were very different from the stately ladies drawn by David and Ingres. Like everything else, the female figure had to conform to the ideal.
Not only was their shape changed, but their attitude and posture. When Boucher’s Miss O’Murphy had sprawled invitingly bottoms-up on her silk cushioned sofa, and where Watteau and Rubens had sought inspiration in the ample buttocks of their models, the neoclassical artists’ approach was almost exclusively frontal. “The bottom,” Sir Kenneth Clark said, “is a baroque form,” and as such it had to go. The new line was harder, more severe, more classically correct. Where the baroque and the rococo “gave promise of pneumatic bliss,” the neoclassical promised pleasure only to necrophiliacs. The flesh had hardened into marble.
The pendulum of European art had swung once more: it was Renoir who said,” The female nude rises from the sea or from her bed; she is called Venus or Nini.” In the early eighteenth century Nini reigned supreme. Gay, charming, and lively, she bounced around in pink and plump profusion and offered herself to one’s inspection without standing on ceremony, only to be banished into the background in the 1770′s, like a skittish parlormaid on the return of her stately mistress, Venus.
The eternal classical beauty, exhumed from the ashes of Pompeii, quickly reco
The return of the classical had free play, even if some of its forms would have surprised a Greek or Roman. Although the antique was tghe touchstone of perfection, the eighteenth century was somewhat indiscriminate in its sources. The product had to be classical , but whether the source was from Rome of the first century A.D. , Greece of the fourth century B.C. , Italy of the quattrocento, or England of the eighteenth century, as long as it looked antique it would sell. For anything that was ancient was excellent.
And so across the ceilings of Europe, across its pottery, tapestries, and its canvases, danced a frieze of assorted gods, and goddesses banging cymbals, playing harps, carrying urns, and decked out in flowing veils. The coiffures were sometimes modified, the nudes were sometimes fig leafed, and their actions often invented- but their classical inspiration was unmistakable. And if they differed a little from the purity of the original, it is hardly surprising. Perhaps, each age creates its own Greeks, and the eighteenth century was smugly satisfied with its version.
“But the modern phenomenon of anti-civilizational xenophilia is an intellectual problem. The adoration of cultures other than our own, the worship of gods other than those we were brought up with, a devotion to all religions other than the one our parents believed—what A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas call in their book the “revolt of the civilized against civilization” with its admiration for pre-civilized social forms and a love of the exotic, the strange, and the outré—this is indeed a genuine puzzle. It is by no means obvious how it arose. What is clear at the outset, however, is that it involves an inversion of much that is natural, normal, and universal in social life.” ( Roger Sandall )
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. ( Keats, Ode On a Grecian Urn)