From Academic Kids

Neo-Grec is a term usually used to refer to a particular manifestation of the Neoclassical style in the decorative arts, painting, and architecture of France, during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, lasting approximately between 1848 and 1865. It was one of many "Revival Styles" that became popular in the late 19th century. The Neo-Grec vogue took as its starting point the excavations at Pompeii which began in 1848 and was also inspired by earlier excavations at Herculaneum.


Decorative arts

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Neo-Grec teracotta vessels

In decorative arts, it was based on the standard repertory of Greco-Roman ornament, combining motifs discovered in the Greek excavations with elements from the Adam, Louis XVI and Egyptian styles; it can be identified by the frequent use of Classical heads and figures, masks, winged griffins, sea-serpents, urns, medallions, arabesques, lotus buds and borders of anthemion, guilloche and Greek fret pattern. Neo-Grec was eclectic, abstracted, polychromatic and sometimes bizarre.


In architecture the Neo-Grec was generally seen as a transition between the standard Neoclassical style and later Revival Styles. Not only was it popular in France, but in Victorian England, and especially in America. The architectural historian Neil Levine has explained the style as a reaction against the rigidness of classicism. According to Levine, Neo-Grec was a somewhat looser style, which "replaced the rhetorical form of classical architectural discourse by a more literal and descriptive syntax of form." It was meant to be a "readable" architecture. The classic example of Neo-Grec architecture is Henri Labrouste's Bibliothèque Sainte Genevieve in Paris.


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The Cock Fight by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1847

In painting, Neo-Grec influences had already begun after the excavation at Herculaneum in the late 18th century. However, a formal Neo-Grec group of artists was created in the mid 19th century after growing interest in Ancient Greece and Rome, and especially the excavations at Pompeii. The Paris Salon of 1847, an art exhibition, revealed the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, who in The Cock Fight depicted a composition where, at the time of antiquity, a young boy and a girl attend the combat of two cocks. Gérôme gained fame from this exhibition, and in the next year formed the Neo-Grec group with Jean-Louis Hamon and Henri-Pierre Picou--all three pupils in the same atelier under Charles Gleyre. Soon after, many other artists joined the group. Because they were inspired by discoveries at Pompeii they were also called néo-pompéiens.

The paintings of the Neo-Grec sought to capture every day trivialities of ancient Greek life, in a manner of whimsy, grace, and charm, and were often sensual and erotic. For this reason they were also called "anacreontic" after the Greek poet Anacreon who wrote sprightly verses in praise of love and wine. Alfred de Tanouarn describes one of Hamon's paintings as "clear, simple and natural, the idea, the attitudes and the aspects. It leads the lips a soft smile; it causes us an inexpressible feeling of pleasure in which one is happy to stop and view the painting". It can perhaps be said the motto of this group was "the goal of art is to charm". Many Neo-Grec paintings were also done in a horziontal layout as in a frieze decoration or Greek vases.

The Neo-Grec school was criticized in many respects; for its attention to historical detail it was said by Baudelaire "the scholarship is to disguise the absence of imagination", the subject matter was considered by many as trivial. The painters were also charged with selectively adopting the ancient Greek style, in that they left out noble themes and only focused on trivial daily life--they were accused of doing this to support the ideologies of the bourgeoisie middle-class.


The Neo-Grec vogue even made its way into French music through the works of the composer Erik Satie in a series of pieces called Gymnopédies--the title a reference to dances performed by the youths of ancient Sparta in honour of Diana and Apollo at ceremonies commemorating the dead of the Battle of Thyrea. Their archaic melodies float above a modally oriented harmonic basis. The melodies of the Gnossiennes go further in this direction--they use ancient Greek chromatic mode (A - G flat - F - E - D flat - C - B - A) and an arabesque ornamentation.

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