A taste for classical art, 1730-1770

The revived taste for the classical world enhanced the interest in Antiquity that had spread across Europe since the Renaissance, and it became a key aspect of the eighteenth century. Knowledge of Antiquity was honed thanks to the publication of illustrated anthologies and archaeological excavations, giving connoisseurs and artists a reliable yet varied frame of reference.
The middle decades of the eighteenth century were marked in France by debates designed to transform contemporary arts by making them adopt a more balanced stylistic approach, one influenced by ancient art. A revamping of France’s Royal Academy of Sculpture and Painting—notably its educational activities—brought a breath of fresh air to history painting and sculpture. The writings and interest generated by high-profile individuals such as Caylus, Mengs, Winckelmann, and Diderot significantly influenced art lovers and public opinion. Polemical debate on architecture and the respective merits of Greek versus Roman art, notably prompted by Piranesi, contributed to this regeneration of modern art via ancient art.
The capital of the arts was Rome, where it was possible to compare ancient and modern civilizations. While the further discovery of vestiges of Antiquity spurred the production of paintings that sought to recreate the magic of ancient Rome, it was also exploited by architects who adapted the ancient idiom to their own vision. In order to reconstruct an ancient setting in their own interiors, refined connoisseurs commissioned paintings, sculptures, furniture, and other objets d’art that cultivated a highly elegant “Greek” style.
In the third quarter of the century, ambitious artists in Rome and Paris such as Anton Mengs, Benjamin West, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze reinvigorated history painting by turning to ancient art and to the French classical tradition as incarnated by Nicolas Poussin.