The history of Neoclassical sculpture does not simply follow that of
painting. The phenomenon of Neoclassicism, which in painting is
sometimes hard to distinguish from Romanticism, stands out far more
clearly in sculpture. Unlike painters. Neoclassical sculptors were
overwhelmed by the authority accorded since Winckelmann to ancient
statues such as the Apollo Belvedere (see fig.
praised as being supreme manifestations of the Greek
genius, although in fact most of them were mechanical Roman copies of no
great distinction after Hellenistic pieces. (Goethe, upon seeing the
newly discovered late Archaic sculpture from Aegina, pronounced it
clumsy and inferior; see figs. 163
When Winckelmann published his essay advocating the imitation of
Greek works, enthusiasm for the virtues of classical antiquity was
already well established among the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.
In Rome from 1760
on, the restoring of ancient sculpture and its sale,
especially to wealthy visitors from abroad, was a flourishing business.
To these patrons, "classics" such as the Apollo Belvedere or
The Laocoon Group (fig. 217),
to cite only two of the most famous, belonged to
a different world. They were venerated as embodiments of an aesthetic
ideal, undisturbed by the demands of time and place. To enter this
world, the modern sculptor set himself the goal of creating "modern
classics," that is, sculpture demanding to be judged on a basis of
equality with its ancient predecessors. This was not merely a matter of
style and subject matter. It meant that the sculptor had to find a way
of creating monumental sculpture in the hope that critical acclaim would
establish such works as modern classics and attract buyers. The solution
to this problem was the original plaster, which permitted him to present
major works to the public without a ruinous investment in expensive
materials. We first encounter it at the Salons, the exhibitions
sponsored by the French Academy, where success was crucial for young
artists. Without the original plaster, the Neoclassic revolution in
sculpture would have been impossible to accomplish.
If Paris was the artistic capital of the Western world, Rome during
the second half of the eighteenth century became the birthplace and
spiritual home of Neoclassicism. However, as we have seen, the new style
was pioneered by the resident foreigners from north of the Alps, rather
than Italians. That Rome should have been an even stronger magnet for
sculptors than for painters is hardly surprising. After all, it was in
ancient sculpture that the "noble simplicity and calm grandeur" praised
by Winckelmann were most strikingly evident, and Rome offered an
abundance of sculptural monuments but only a meager choice of ancient
painting. (The city also had many skilled artisans in both marble and
bronze.) In the shadow of these monuments, Northern sculptors trained in
the Baroque tradition awakened to a new conception of what sculpture
ought to be and thus paved the way for Antonio Canova, whose success as
the creator of modern classics was the ultimate fulfillment of their
The leading role of Anglo-Roman artists prior to
in the formulation of
Neoclassicism was a result of England's enthusiasm for classical
antiquity since the early years of the century. This precocious
appreciation was political, philosophic, and literary, with a new
nationalism as its common denominator, but this soon turned into a
demand that England become "the principal seat of the arts" as well.
came closest to establishing the creation of modern
classics as the sculptor's true goal. Little is known of Banks' career
before he went to Rome in 1772
for seven years on a traveling fellowship from the Royal
Academy. The Death of Germanicus (fig.
1774, a large relief, shows his
close study of classical sources, yet it is not in the least
archaeological in flavor. While the facial types and drapery treatment
derive from classical sources, the strained poses, the pronounced linear
rhythms, and the emotional intensity of the scene have no counterpart in
They reflect, rather. Banks' admiration for the two chief Anglo-Roman
painters, Gavin Hamilton (who had treated the same subject, but with
much less originality) and Henry Fuseli.
On his return to England, Banks found little demand for his "new
classics." although they were enthusiastically received by the recently
established Royal Academy.
Devoted to the nude and to heroic drama, he nevertheless
sought commissions for funerary monuments, which were the main source of
steady employment for sculptors in England.
The Death of Germanicus. 1774.
Marble. Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England
(bapt London, 22 Dec 1735; d London, 2 Feb
1805). English sculptor. To his contemporaries and immediate heirs,
Banks was one of the most original British Neo-classical sculptors,
distinguished from John Bacon (i) and Joseph Nollekens by his
greater dedication to the antique spirit rather than to the
fashionable classical style alone. His persistent efforts to
establish a market for modern gallery sculpture were exceptional in
an age when most patrons preferred restored antique marbles,
replicas, pastiches, busts and memorials. Sir Joshua Reynolds is
said to have considered him to be ‘the first British sculptor who
had produced works of classic grace’ and John Flaxman ranked him
alongside Canova in stature.
The Falling Giant, 1786
Thetis dipping Achilles into the River Styx,
Monument to Captain Richard Rundle Burges
St. Paul's Cathedral, London
Thetis Rising from the Sea. Marble
bas-relief, 1778. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.