I want to show you some engravings after John Flaxman. I mentioned him as having been an influence on Ingres and although I am not adding him to my !00 artists series I think he rates an aside. Flaxman is a great example of the classical chain that runs through our art history. The romantics and the classicists are opposites. In the late 19th century the Romantics won the battle and there is little of the classical ideal surviving in our modern world.
The victory of the romantics has had the effect of defining "art" itself through the romantic lens. When people talk of passion and even self expression in art and champion the heightened individuality of the artist, they are using the romantic definition. That's fine, but there have been other ways of looking at what art is. I mentioned The Classic Point of View by Kenyon Cox and several people in the comments noted that it can be read online here. I cannot paraphrase the book in this post but it is well worth a read. As I said last night, it is not a terribly easy read, but it is informative and will make you think about what art might be beyond the definitions that are so accepted today. I wrote about that in this post.
Flaxman 1755-12826 was the son of a man who owned a plaster casting business. He made the reproductions of sculpture in plaster that were shown in museums in those days, and are still used to train artists. As a child, John was in the habit of drawing the casts in his fathers shop. At fifteen he began to both show and study at the Royal Academy. At nineteen he was employed by Josiah Wedgewood who had industrialized the making of pottery in England. Wedgewood developed and marketed among other things, a type of pottery called Jasperware. Below is an example of that, designed by Flaxman.
On odd combination of events made this happen, the first was the excavations at Pompeii and other ancient sites that brought a new awareness of ancient Greek and Roman drawing and design, this renewed interest in the classical also occurred in government. Our own Republic is an example of that. The French revolution was awash in Classical posturing.
The second factor was the industrial revolution which made possible the mass production of wares such as these. After textiles, pottery was the second great thrust of industrialization, a good deal of this was shipped to America. As it never rotted or decomposed, the antique shops of New England are still selling it, and the beaches are salted with fragments of pottery from the holds of ships that carried it as ballast till they arrived in American ports. I fed my children every night from 19th century English pottery.
After more than a decade Flaxman left Wedgewood and made his living designing funerary monuments and doing illustration. He did sculpture in the round too, but always seemed the best at the art of bas relief. The illustrations on this page are from the Illiad and the Odyssey. He was particularly suited of course for illustrating those texts.
Flaxman was a close friend of William Blake who occasionally who used his engraving skills to transfer Flaxmans drawings onto the steel plate for reproduction. Another odd little connection here too, like several other artists who I have remarked upon, Inness and Metcalf, Flaxman was a student of the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist turned religious philosopher and mystic. That guy keeps popping up again and again too.