Painting Pompeii: From Neoclassicism to the Néo-Grecs

(Sept.–Oct. 2017)

Working in Marble   King Candaules   Pompeian Interior

The discovery of the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) inspired 19th-century artists to reimagine Greco-Roman antiquity. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 buried both cities and preserved their vibrant frescoes, luxurious villas, and a trove of valuable statues, later unearthed by men digging a palace for Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples. These finds coincided with publications promoting the aesthetic value of Greek and Roman art, most importantly the German scholar Johann Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art (1764) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Della Magnificenza ed architecttura de’ Romani (1761). Inspired by these sources, a new movement known as Neoclassicism began permeating architecture, the decorative arts, and painting. Artists borrowed both antique styles and subject matter. François-Xavier Fabre’s Oedipus and the Sphinx (ca. 1806-10), for instance, combines a Greek myth with stylistic references to ancient art—Oedipus’ face and body resemble an ancient sculpture. Pompeiian themes were especially prevalent in Neoclassical decorative arts—both Wedgwood pottery and Napoleon I’s castle at Malmaison copied motifs from various frescoes.

As Romanticism succeeded Neoclassicism, artists favored as subject matter the actual destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. John Martin and Karl Bryullov depicted the eruption in emotional and imaginative detail (1830–33, Tate, London; 1822, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg). But this fascination with the cataclysm was in turn replaced in the mid-19th century a by a group of young Parisian painters known as the Néo-Grecs (also called les Pompéistes, literally, Pompeii-painters), who dedicated themselves to painting the mundane aspects of life in ancient times. Led by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the group formed in the wake of Gérôme’s sensational Salon debut in 1847 with The Cock Fight (1846, Musée D’Orsay, Paris). Partly inspired by the frescoes from the House of the Vetii in Pompeii, his painting appropriated the classical setting of grand history paintings in order to depict a vignette of daily life popular with the middle class. Gérôme became famous for artworks brimming with archaeological references—several of which are in the Dahesh Collection, including his Working in Marble and King Candaules. Working in Marble shows Gérôme sculpting Tanagra (1890, Musée D’Orsay, Paris) a work inspired by the figurines from the Greek city of the same name, while King Candaules includes an interior designed by the architect Bourgerel, which was in Gérôme’s own words “architecture vraiment grecque.”

After 1863, the Néo-Grec movement waned, but interest in Pompeii and archaeological paintings increased in Italy during the Risorgimento (Rising Again), which led to Italy’s unification (1815–1871). During this period, artists began to depict, and sometimes invent, the nation’s shared ancient heritage. This can be seen in Luigi Bazzani’s A Pompeian Interior, which reconstructs a Roman home, likely based on photographs of various ancient sites—the winged-lion table, for instance, resembles those in the House of Meleager in Pompeii. Pompeiian themes remained popular into the start of the 20th century, though they were never as much in vogue as during the height of excavations at Herculaeum and Pompeii.