“Under a Greek Sky…”

About to finish his course of studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Jacques Louis David recognized his career as an artist in France would be solidified if her were to win the Prix de Rome. David competed for the Prix de Rome in 1773 but was unsuccessful. After a period of depression ameliorated by his fellow students who successfully pulled him out of his sorrow, David recommitted himself to strive once again for the prestigious French travel scholarship first established in 1663 by King Louis XIV. In 1774, David won and was awarded a bursary that allowed him to study at the Rome Academy for three to five years of research. All costs were covered by the French state.

Spending years in Rome amongst the classical architecture ruins of ancient Rome complete with sculpture images of the glory that was Rome, David filled drawing tablets and sketch books with images drawn from primary sources of classical form as exemplified by Roman artisans. Upon his return to Paris, David had a clear vision of how he wanted to establish his career as a painter at the end of the 18th century. David brought his notebooks and drawings which would provide him with a bounty of images for the narrative paintings that would elevate him to the pinnacle of French painting at the end of the 18th century. This time frame for a young and talented artist to formulate his future coincided with the violent political, cultural, economic and military unrest that was the French Revolution of 1789! David found himself in the right place at the right time to shape the future of French painting during the fin de siecle.

Johann J. Winkelmann, the famed 18th century German art historian and archeologist, wrote the following in his seminal book Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture (1755): “Good taste, which is spreading more and more throughout the world, had its beginnings under a Greek sky…To take the ancients for models is our only way to become great, yes, unsurpassable if we can.”

What are your thoughts on the choice of an emerging young painter to cast his eyes backward into the past and embrace another round of classicism? Under David’s leadership, France lead Europe into a cultural expression that is known as Neoclassicism (New Classicism)! Two of these drawings were from David’s Roman journal and the other drawing is a preliminary sketch for his great masterpiece The Oath of the Horatii.

David, Distraught Woman from Roman Journal
David, Female Head Study from Roman Journal
David, Sketch of Three Brothers of Horace for Oath of the Horatii

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

20 Comments

20 thoughts on ““Under a Greek Sky…””

  1. I think looking into the past and educating one’s self of it is how you look towards the future. I think by doing this David kept the history of ancient Rome alive. To compare that to today, I would say its the same way we make movies and TV shows that show the past. I also think by doing this he was able to improve his technique by viewing the form of past artists and add to his own style. I love the sketch of Oath of the Horatii. The lines through the sketch show how much symmetry is used in paintings.

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  2. I think looking into the past is important both for inspiration and being knowledgable about the history of art. Education is very important in order to keep past artists and styles remembered. Without education and people looking into the past, it would be forgotten. As we educate ourselves about past art, it allows art to evolve more than just change. As we go through the class we can see how art is evolving or growing out of the style of that time period and not just jumping to new concepts or ideas. Without reflection or careful thought, someone may have looked past that and not seen the progress that art holds. Or maybe looking into the past is what takes someone out of a blank moment and shows the artist a way to finish a piece. When I do art, I rely heavily on references and a mixture of ideas to create different meanings. So when I am stuck, reflecting on past art is what helps me through my process. To accept, reflect, and educate on past art is very important to me and I wish I could travel to see the art we are learning about.

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  3. I believe Jacques Louis David’s decision to seek inspiration from past artwork was a smart move. The past masterpieces have clearly seen great success and recognition. Therefore, seeking inspiration from them is a no brainer, in my opinion. Jacques used a winning formula with his own spin to form and lead this new era of art. I actually believe that him using inspiration from the great artists before him is an indicator of his character and humility.

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  4. I think artists looking back on past movements and artists is something that artists often do even today. As a society we often use history to teach us in just about every aspect of our lives and there is no reason that art should be any different. By turning an eye and pulling inspiration from those past movements it shows an appreciation for those styles and allows the resurgence so that those types of work do not get forgotten and die off. By pulling from history it gives people the chance to be introduced to something that they might have never known otherwise and as a whole there is just no reason not to treat what people have done in the past as tools whether it be to create a foundation for your work to grow from or as a way to better hone your craft.

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  5. I think it’s interesting how Winkellman mentions that ‘good taste…had its beginnings under a Greek sky’ in that it is valid perhaps only in the context of Western art history. I would argue then, that great taste had its beginnings under a reflective lens, in which historians, creatives, and intellects expand their interests across the past, present, and future. What Jacques-Louise David did was just that. He studied the masters that were the foundation of Western art, was active in the present sociopolitical environment (becoming a revolutionary), and painted to help set course a new future. His painting, Oath of the Horatii, was painted five years prior to the French Revolution and held so much contemporary significance whilst becoming the quintessential symbol of a new future.

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    1. I also forgot to mention, that in today’s society we can look back not only at the great Roman work, but the work of artists from all over the world of varying histories.

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  6. I think it’s great that at the time young artist, David was able to find inspiration in an older art style. It’s also good to get a fresh set of eyes on an old topic to change up how people can look at it. If not for David looking back maybe art now would be different then if he did not look back at this older art. It can also benefit how David will do art moving on, looking in the past can help the future in a type of way. We now as people even do this looking back at certain types of ways people approached things such as medicine or engineering and even art to inspire us and giving us a new taste in our mouth. Overall its a culture shock to do something like this and its also an eye-opening experience.

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  7. I think for an artist to look back into the past, is a way to be inspired by older art work and style. They can either improve it into their own, or make a painting of their own with inspiration from older artist style. You can think of it in a way how car manufacturers look back into previous models and improve it for their customers’ lifestyle. I really like David’s Sketch of Three Brothers. It looks like he created a repetition effect and made the brothers’ muscles very detailed showing how masculine they are.

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  8. I think its great to take inspiration from the past and older art styles. For me personally, I like to take inspiration from stuff I see in the present day, but its always good to take a look at art throughout the decades.

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  9. I think in a way we all look back on past art styles and copy or mimic them. It is how we all learn. As a Fine Art major with a concentration in sculpture practices, a lot of what I have been taught is how techniques were developed and how to mimic them. Without learning these things, it would be difficult for any artist to make an impact in their interest area or even develop their own personal style. Just as we are all taught American History because we reside in the United States, all artists must be taught the past of their careers and interests.

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  10. I really respect how the artist, David, referenced the work of the Roman artisans. Some may criticize that he was simply “copying” the works of the Romans, but I strongly believe that he was rather educating himself for a new creation of work. If primary sources were there only to be left behind the history, how can we connect history through art? And how can we bring revolution in this society through art if we are all disconnected? David took his eyes in the past and did not leave it in the past, but brought past to his time for new creation. Although art differs from science, many disciplines scientists have left in history aid in modern society for us to grow. I would like to example with a snowball. A small snowball that was formed days ago can be either left to be melted and disappear, or one may choose to add more snow to create a snowman.

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  11. As a young artist, I am constantly using other people’s work I see on social media, in class, and just around Las Vegas to inspire me. So, David was just using his surrounding as inspiration, which is all any of us can do. I think it is important to remember where we come from. In order to respect the work that is created now, we need to understand where we came from, how it was made, why it was made, etc. I did not understand why we needed to take art appreciation until I took art appreciation and it actually taught me how to look at art from the past as more than just old art we’re required to learn about. No, every piece we learn about is a part of history that moved people and we are learning about it for a reason. Art is honored every day in museums and taught as a skill because it is important and it means something. So, if we did not have art from the past to appreciate and learn from, then the creative artist realm of the world would definitely not be as developed as it is right now.

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  12. David was simply using his surroundings as inspiration as stated by one of my peers. I believe we all do this at least once in our lifetime. I believe that educating yourself with other pieces of work is one of the greatest things to do. I say this because if artists aren’t looking back to see how they can achieve greatness like older artists’ then they would be simply forgotten and not paid any homage. David made a smart move by educating himself about past art and not leaving it in the past, he brought it back with a modern-day feel for that specific time period.

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  13. Evolution requires building upon a previous version of something, so it would make sense that Jacques Louis David had to look back in order to grow forward. He needed to understand the art that came before him and build off of it if he was to make something great, just as Winkelmann’s quote suggests. He understood that Classical Roman art was renowned for a reason and sought to recreate a modern version of it, thereby igniting the second round of Classism. Clearly, his instincts lead him to the right place, securing his rightful spot in history.

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  14. I think Jacques Louis David’s choice to paint Neoclassicism paintings was intentional to show how if we don’t learn from the past and change, we are doomed to repeat it. Like Steve Jobs says, ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards’. As artists we can only imagine and speculate the future, but we concretely learn from the old masters who came before us. I believe David’s paintings were so successful because they were in line with prior accepted art trends. People were comfortable with the classical style.

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  15. Davids style of expressing the modern days problems or issues using historical references is quite unusual and fascinating. David was able to learn about and understand roman history to express history through his art. Looking into the past can inspire new ideas, it can teach you how events in the past and how that has lead to where he is now and to tell himself what has changed and not changed since then. It is an inspiration to see his art and his look on history and to know someone centuries ago has the same passion for history as many of us do now.

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  16. I think as new leaders in any profession, we can always learn from the past. Whether we paint, work in business, or even politics, we can all learn from those who came before us and found success. While this is true, we also can take what we learn from the past and develop it into a successful endeavor for the future. David was able to learn and develop his skills from past artists in order to become a prevelent painter during the 18th century.

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  17. I believe that it is necessary to look to the past in order to transform art itself. One that has no knowledge of what has been created in the past cannot fully understand art and will have a harder time when attempting to create something new. For instance, Picasso was classically trained prior to his exploration, in his later life, of his more modern movements and if he wasn’t given a classical introduction and knowledge of art, his modernization of art probably would not have evolved. One must also take into account that the life of the artist’s ups and downs will affect their creations. In my personal opinion, I think it is smart of any artist who takes the time to look back at history and learn from it, because it makes an artist openminded and transforms their work in the long run.

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  18. My thoughts on the choice of an emerging you painter to cast his eyes backwards into the past and embrace another round of classicism is different and somewhat strange but it also something new. The two drawing from David Roman journal and other drawing is a sketch however is a great and thought-out piece of art.

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  19. I believe greatness is a formula, an equation almost, of the sum of your environment, DNA, and the positive mental attitude on your shoulders.In this case, David sought his environment to create his own rendition of greatness. He chose what attributes to keep at a constant but sewed himself into a new polished pavement. 


    To seek refuge in other people’s work that is already considered great I believe is respectful and pays tribute to history. It takes dropping seeds, self-manifestation, and seeing a plan through with consistency to even begin to get to a good start. To turn a blind eye would be foolish, since it is of ignorance to think something is created by nothing.

    He clearly had great skill, his sketches shown that in multiple forms. The attitude carried the weight, the the actions showed the results.

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