Humanism in European Art and Society


One of the main themes of the renaissance was the rebirth in the interest of classical themes or greco-roman culture. Many artist, either through paintings, sculptures or architecture, portrayed this general movement by using Greek/roman themes, such as pillars, and integrating it into their works. But it wasn?t just an interest in greek/roman architecture or appearance but also their cultures.

An essay looking at various European paintings and how they were used to capture the essence of European culture, both old and new.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David (1799)

This is an old essay from I wrote for my European high school history class back in the day. Some minor edits have been made before re-posting it.

One of the main themes of the renaissance was the rebirth in the interest of classical themes or greco-roman culture. Many artist, either through paintings, sculptures or architecture, portrayed this general movement by using Greek/roman themes, such as pillars, and integrating it into their works. But it wasn’t just an interest in greek/roman architecture or appearance but also their cultures. With this many artist also tried to portray or capture the essence of many heroes and events of roman or Greek mythology. While it may seem that the interest in greco-roman culture, or humanism, would soon fade to be followed by another fad, this was not the case, and throughout Europe’s history artist continued to portray greco-roman culture, but at the same time they were reflecting on the ideas of their times. Starting in the renaissance, we will see how Europe’s view of greco-roman culture has changed or stayed the same all the way to the pre-WWI years.

The School of Athens
by Raphael (1509).

Raphael’s The School of Athens is one of the crowning achievements of renaissance art, for it captures the interest that they had in greco-roman culture. Raphael painted The School of Athens in 1509, late in the renaissance but even then interest in greco-roman culture was still high and you can see this in the painting because from Plato to Aristotle, this portrait is jam full of recognizable Greek and Roman personas of interest. But this painting also show the interest the artist in the late renaissance had in philosophers and the culture of Greek and Rome rather than the warriors and fighting of the Greeks and Rome. That is also a key difference between much of the older admiration for the Romans and Greeks, which focused many times on their military success and their great empire. Rather this new interest in greco-roman culture was much more ‘enlightened’ because it sought to understand the philosophies of the Greeks and Romans more. The picture depicts Aristotle and Plato in the center, they seem to be coming from a hall, and the picture is clearly oriented so that your eyes automatically rest on the pair. Raphael shows many the onlookers staring at the two, as if in a hope of gleaning some knowledge from them. At the same time this parallels what was happening during the renaissance, they were trying to re-learn the teachings of classical philosophers and seek knowledge from them, so the onlookers in the painting might just represent not only the actual people but the people of the renaissance and their search for knowledge. Raphael was also so bold as to put himself into the picture, a sign that the lives and the public perception of the artist had changed and people started recognizing individual artist achievements, unlike in the middle ages were it wasn’t widely accepted to recognize the artist. During the middle ages painters didn’t sign their paintings but now the artist did But Raphael wasn’t just following a trend, he was suggesting that he himself was in the ranks of such great people, such geniuses and this might then imply that Raphael was aware of the emergence of the idea that the artist were geniuses, after all the renaissance is remembered for the art and not for the wars and the politics.

The Rape of the Sabine Women
by Nicolas Poussin (1636).

The work itself is great because so many things are left up to interpretation as to why he put who where, such as why Diogenes is lying on the steeps and not standing up talking to people, which most historians say is because that is how Diogenes, he was more laid back in his philosophies. Another interesting part of the picture is the stone box that someone is leaning on, in the center of the picture, why is it there and what exactly does it represent? But the painting also presents the people in a life-like manner, so that it is easy to believe that this really happened. At first I thought that he assembled the great Greek philosophers without considering that they might have lived in different ages, but as it turned out, through some research, all of the people(or at least all the identifiable ones) lived at the same time and his depiction of Aristotle as younger than Plato and Diogenes is accurate, which also then adds to the realism. Also it seems that Raphael learned how to use perspective very well, a technique that Brunelleschi and Francesca pioneered earlier. The hallway looks like it reaches back while people who are farther away seem smaller and it all looks right and there seems to be no odd angles. As a whole this is a great piece of renaissance art and everything represents the trends of the era, the realism of the human body, and interest in greco-roman culture.

Nymph and satyrs
by Nicolas Poussin.

Nicolas Poussin painted The Rape of the Sabine Women in 1636, during the height of the thirty years war. Poussin is considered to be one of the great 17th century French artist and the subjects of his paintings never seemed to stray far from classical antiquity. His paintings, from Les Bergers d’Arcadie to Nymph and satyrs, represented renaissance interest in the human body, many of his painting have people who are perfectly shaped and sculpted but rarely do the people appear natural, either by way of their dramatic poses or facial expressions. Many of Poussin’s paintings also represent the frozen moment in time, a snapshot of the action that unfolds, but while most art does this, his emphasizes the drama of that moment, rather than the accuracy of it. The Rape of the Sabine Women probably best represents this idea, for it captures not only the moment in the pillage of a city, but it also captures the many exaggerated and overzealous movements and expressions that these people are going through or having. His paintings are considered neo-classical, and they were an attempt to imitate the style of renaissance artist and their interest in greco-roman culture.

Les Bergers d’Arcadie
by Nicolas Poussin.

The painting itself reflects upon the times that it was painted in, Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years' War and many areas were in turmoil. The confusion of the people in the picture is representing the confusion of many of the people in Europe a the time as to why this war was happening. But a good look at the painting reveals that many of the faces of the women getting carried away are dramatic and in a way somewhat staged. Maybe while the people of Europe were not quite clear as to the cause of the war, they at the same time recognized that many of the events in the war were bound to happen and that the Europe was really just a stage were the great leaders could play out their ambitions. One way to tell that the painting ties into the wars of religion that were going on during the 17th century is to look at a young man in the left hand corner of the painting, who is looking onto the scene with a surprised but somehow aloof look on his face and is holding a cross upside down in his hand. This might represent that while religion was one of the key causes of the wars during the time, it was really only used as a spring board and many time was a spectator in the events it helped cause.

Death of Marat
by Jacques-Louis David.

Many critics of the painting say that the people portrayed in the painting are superb specimens of the human body but are also not very lifelike. While I can somewhat see where they are coming from, I can’t quite totally agree with them. First the people in the painting are very good models of human beings, the men have hard, fine tuned muscles were as the women’s skin looks soft and voluptuous. But the critics say that the people are hardly life like and this is were I come into some conflict. Do they mean the people in the painting don’t look lifelike themselves or that they don’t look lifelike because of the unrealistic poses they are in? If they are referring to the actual people themselves, I would say that they look lifelike, only you wouldn’t likely see someone with that much symmetry and body tone very often. But when in reference to the poses that the people are in, then the people do look wholly unrealistic. This is supposed to be a bunch of men pillaging a city of its women, in real life this would be spontaneous and everything would be chaotic, but here that is not so. While there is much confusion in the scene it is controlled confusion, the women being taken are all in dramatic poses, such as the two women in the left foreground of the picture. Also on the left foreground of the painting you see a old man holding onto a younger man who has a knife while at the same time a women on the ground is holding onto him. In real life the man wouldn’t have the knife held so high if he intended to stab with it and why are all the three people in such dramatic poses if this is supposed to be an ugly spontaneous scene? Other than that the painting is very well done, it makes great use of perspective and the action in general is portrayed nicely.

Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804
by Jacques-Louis David.

Jacques-Louis David painted The Intervention of the Sabine Women in 1799, the year Napoleon staged his successful coup d’etat that overthrew the Directory. As can be seen, the interest in the event that lead to and the events that happened after the Rape of the Sabine Women, the event were the Roman’s kidnaped the women of Sabine in order to produce more male heirs. Jacques-Louis David is famous for his many romantic and classical paintings, from his portrayal of the martyr Marat in Death of Marat to his romantic painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps. After Napoleon came to power David was a active supporter of him, as can be seen in his painting Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804. Before he started painting Napoleon many of David’s paintings had the theme of roman antiquity, his famous Oath of the Horatii exemplifies this. During the french revolution David supported the revolutionaries and many of his paintings at the time had to do with the french revolution, from The Tennis Court Oath to Death of Marat. People began to see many of David’s paintings as propaganda for the French revolution, they highlighted the best moments and made martyrs out of people. But his support for the revolutionaries, even the radical ones like Robespierre, got him put into jail and it was there that he finally came up with the idea for The Intervention of the Sabine Women after his wife had come to visit.

The Tennis Court Oath
by Jacques-Louis David.

The painting is said to represent not only David’s love for his wife but a plea to the people to reunite after the events of the revolution. Taken literally the painting can represent the wars that still raged as a result of the revolution but at the same time people are in conflict as to wether to continue this behavior. It is possible to see woman in the middle of the picture as David and others pleading for the wars with the other countries to be stopped. But once you know that the man on the left is the woman’s father and the man on the right is the woman’s husband then it is possible to see this as an attack on the people that killed their own country men. Taking it one step further it is possible to then see the man on the left as the old regime and the man on the right as the new regime and as they fight the innocent people who want nothing to do with this are caught in the middle and this is generally what happened. As the aristocracy/ emigres got the monarchies of Europe to attack revolutionary France, the peasants and other country folk wanted nothing to do with it but were dragged into the conflict anyway. Taken as a whole the picture, in the end, represent a portrait of the troubled time Europe was in and David’s thought that it should be stopped.

Oath of the Horatii
by Jacques-Louis David.

The painting itself is beautiful and the people in the painting look realistic but at the same time, like Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, the poses and the dress of the people instill the fact that this might be myth, and therefore not everything has to be as it would in reality as can be seen by the people that are posing. The first people that you notice are in an unrealistic stance/pose are the two warriors on either side of the woman in the center. The man on the left has his weapon, a sword, pointing at the ground away from the man on the right and has his shield in a position were he can’t easily block the spear that the man on the right is getting ready to throw. Another thing you notice is the fact that neither is wearing much clothing, not even something to cover up their private parts, which considering that one is a Roman warrior you would think they would know better than to fight without any armor. This and many other oddities keep you from being completely being engrossed in the painting but you could defend some of them as being aesthetic, such as the men not having any clothing. Since he is trying to recreate a scene from Roman mythology/culture then maybe he is also at the same time trying to copy the renaissance artist interest in the human body, and here we can defend his not putting armor on the soldiers. Of course when taken from this viewpoint then I tend to like the piece better, as I look at it for the beauty of the scene rather than for the realism of the scene and that is what David was probably trying to portray, the symbolism of the painting was supposed to take precedent over the realism of the painting.

The Coliseum
by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted The Coliseum in 1896, which is a beautiful image of three women near the Coliseum during roman times, which you can tell because the Coliseum is still new and it has not decayed yet. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema might not be so well known but he did paint many beautiful paintings, from the vibrantly colored roses in The Roses of Heliogabalus to the lovely water reflections is A Favourite Custom many of his works were a pleasant take on greco-roman culture and he used soft colors mixed with vibrant colors and great texturing to make his paintings feel alive. While the impressionist were making an impression on the European art scene Alma-Tadema choose to keep with the realist views of the past and many of his paintings subsequently were very realistic, some of them you look twice to make sure that some parts are not photographs. Many of his paintings are of Greek or roman women, and unlike Rape of the Sabine Women most of the people in his paintings seem to have natural stances or seem to be in the process of an action that would probably happen in the scene he is portraying. He also used roses in many of his paintings and many times these were the highlights of the paintings, if you look at Unconscious Rivals the first thing you are likely to notice is the vibrant roses. Alma-Tadema was Dutch, so many of his works were created during the time of Dutch neutrality and general not much unrest happened there, and so his paintings might reflect the pleasant and quaint life many upper-class people in the Netherlands experienced at the time.

Unconscious Rivals
by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

The painting The Coliseum is a great example in the continued interest in greco-roman antiquity but at the same time it has several clues that tie into the events of the time. In the late 19th century the Netherlands was a pretty stable country and not much of interest was happening there but Europe in general was in a time of change. Britain’s place as the industrial leader of the world was being threatened by the United States’ and Germany’s increased production and many were unsure what would happen now that rivalries between the nation’s, Germany and Britain, were heating up. So when looking at the picture you can see the woman in blue staring down at something, what it is the viewer cannot see, but in a way that represents the mood of Europe at the time, they were unsure as to were Europe was going. Combine this with the tensions that were still going on between Russia and Austria over the Balkan region, you can see why Alma-Tadema might have been skeptical of the future of Europe. But at the same time the painting represents an optimistic outlook on the future, for maybe the women in the picture see something good over the wall, for none of them look alarmed at what they see. But looking closely at the painting you notice something to the left of the woman in blue, what looks like a procession of soldiers coming down through the city. And maybe this hints at the hope that whatever wars or conflicts that will happen will be resolved and the winners would have had to suffer much. Though it is possible he was never thinking this, pre-WWI many people thought the impending war would be the same and that it would be much glory to whatever nation/empire they resided in. The colorful yellow flowers and the time of day, either early morning or mid-late afternoon, suggest that this is supposed to be a peaceful image and the people are looking toward a bright future. The young Coliseum in the background could probably represent the fact that Alma-Tadema wants to be able to compare some parts of society today with that of Rome, possibly that of prosperity. He could have chosen a different time period when the Coliseum didn’t look so new but he choose to show it when it was new to highlight his optimism he hoped for.

A Favourite Custom
by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

The Coliseum is a great looking piece of art, the Coliseum itself is painted very realistically and the bronze sculpture in the background actually looks real, to such a point that I still can’t tell if its painted or wether he inserted an image into the painting. All the objects are well done and they all seem to have weight to them, one problem I noticed though is the lack of perceptive really. Some of the objects, while looking real, seem to have to hard of edges and there for seem pasted on, it doesn’t look like the sculpture is as far behind the white bowel as it is intended to be. The women are produced very realistically, their skin is soft and puffy looking and their cloths are very textured, there are many wrinkles and the seem to flow naturally. While the some of the other painters I analyzed had realistic models they didn’t have very realistic poses, but in the case of The Coliseum this is not true, for each of the women, from the little girl pointing to the older woman in white looking, all the poses look natural. Alma-Tadema has captured the scene just right, there is no over dramatic poses or over toned muscles, just a peaceful scene of three women in Rome near the Coliseum.

The Roses of Heliogabalus
by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Throughout European history people have been interested in greco-roman culture and the ideas that stem from this interest. In the early renaissance a renewed interest in the work, style and culture of greco-roman culture came into being under the name Humanism. This interest lead to many artist painting Roman or Greek themes, such as Raphael’s The School of Athens, which was a grand example of not only the interest in the look of greco-roman culture but a renewed interest in the teachings of Greece and Rome. After the renaissance this interest in greco-roman culture did not die and instead of changing the focus of their interest in greco-roman culture, the artist did more of the same, only this time they went for more dramatic scenes from greco-roman antiquity. And so from this stems Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, a superb example of how the interest in Greece and Rome was kept alive. But while Raphael’s The School of Athens depicted people in a semi-realistic manner, in both pose and body build, Poussin’s work displayed the people with perfect bodies but unnatural poses. His focus wasn’t so much on the accuracy of the scene as he was trying to capture the meaning/symbolism and the action of the scene.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps
by Jacques-Louis David.

A century and a half later Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women portrayed a later event in the same story of the Sabine women, and in an interesting twist nothing much had changed, even though Europe itself had, possibly showing that even when cultures and politics change, art doesn’t have to conform to the ideas of the time. The painting once again went more for the moment and the symbolism rather than accuracy and it works. While he could have painted everything accurately it would have ultimately cluttered the picture and left it more of a historical reference than a dramatic retelling of the story and the myth. But while not a lot seemed to have changed in that century and a half period, the opposite is true for the next painting. Alma-Tadema’s The Coliseum is almost the opposite of the last two paintings, in that it doesn’t so much strive for symbolism and story telling as it really just tries to show a moment in the life of some people, who are neither heros nor legends. This painting though follows in the footsteps of the realist movement, so it is not a surprise that he tries to paint life as he imagined it would be, not as he would have liked it to be. Over the years, from the many roman looking pillars of government buildings to abundance of greco-roman related art, Europe’s interest in greco-roman culture has never disappeared but at the same time it did not always stay the same, just like European society.

Works Cited

  1. Alma-Tadema, Sir Lawrence The Coliseum, 1896. Source
  2. History of Holland by George Edmundson. Source
  3. School of Athens. Source
  4. The Rape of the Sabine Women. Source
  5. Jacques-Louis David. Source
  6. The Intervention of the Sabine Women. Source
  7. Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Source
  8. Nicolas Poussin. Source

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