Morality and Virtue in Neoclassical Visual Arts

The somber, stoic and virtuous paintings of the Neoclassical movement are a direct counter-movement to the pastel opulence and frivolity of the Rococo period that directly preceded it. While Rococo artwork favored the Rubeniste style of flushed cheeks and fuller figures doing nothing in the most beautiful way possible, the Neoclassical, more Poussinistes style, works that followed used somber colors, linear and stable compositions and they had very specific moralistic views.

Exemplum virtuitus, the model of virtue, took many forms in Neoclassical works. These works are related directly to the Enlightenment era and political movements that rejected aristocratic hedonism and frivolity, represented by Rococo art. Resurgence in the study of humanism and the sciences sparked and further study of classical antiquities. Violent rejection of the aristocracy gave way moralistic and virtuous paintings that took the form of Biblical stories, Greek and Roman myths and dramatic paintings of heroes of the American and French wars of the 1700’s.

In this post, we will analyze the virtues of motherhood, noble self-sacrifice and triumph over adversity.

Cornelia Presenting Her Children as Her Treasures (1785), Angelica Kaufmann

This Neoclassical work highlights the renewed interest in stories of classical antiquity, spurred by the discovery of ancient Roman ruins such as Pompeii. It is worth noting that Kaufmann traveled there personally. In this painting, the story of Cornelia is of the ancient Roman leaders Tiberius and Gaius Graccus. The brothers Gracchi were politicians that sought social reform and were seen as friends to the general Roman citizen. Sound familiar to the American and French revolutions?

The Brothers Gracchi were credited with receiving their foundation in ethics from their mother, Cornelia. When Cornelia is asked by another person what she considers her treasures, she gestures to her children instead of jewelry or other material possessions. . This painting’s virtuous message is that the truest and most valuable treasure of a woman is her children (Martin). For me, this seems like an intentional jab at the opulence of the ruling aristocrats of the time.



The Death of General Wolfe (1770), Benjamin West

Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe thrust history painting into a new form. Rather than painting Biblical scenes, Greek or Roman stories, he painted an event that had happened a mere seven years prior. Major-General James Wolfe was mortally wounded on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War). West’s patron, Archbishop Drummond, urged him to paint the figures in togas to emphasize the timeless heroism of the Major-General (Zygmont).

Despite West’s insistence upon using accurate military uniforms instead of togas in the name of “truth,” this painting is highly idealized in terms of the virtue of heroic self-sacrifice. Wolfe is arranged in the composition in a way that echoes the poses that we see Christ in Renaissance and Baroque artworks. This deliberate visual association of Christ, who died innocent, pure and for a worthwhile cause brings Wolfe to be viewed as a British martyr rather than a simple war hero (Zygmont).

The Death of General Wolfe should be noted as a painting that gave way to a reimagining of traditional history paintings to “contemporary” history paintings of relatively recent events.



Watson and the Shark (1778), John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark deviates from the stories of antiquities and war heroism to the narrative of the merchant class and what would be deemed interesting to them. When Copely was working in London, a merchant named Brook Watson commissioned him to paint a scene from his youth.


Watson, while swimming in the Havana harbor, was attacked by a shark and lost part of his leg. He sought to impart the symbolism of his triumph over adversity, as he became a notable politician and later on a baronet after leaving his career as a mere merchant. He also  hoped his commissioned painting would provide a “most usefull Leson to Youth” (Smithsonian). This lesson hung over Christ’s Hospital after Watson bequeathed it to the boys school upon his death (National Gallery of Art).

I feel like this work takes on many different meanings beyond that of what Watson said of his intended lesson. Heroism and good deeds were enshrined as utmost virtues in the Neoclassical era, and the shipmates staging to valiantly rescue Watson certainly show that.


All in all, I am not a huge fan of Neoclassical works. Although I can appreciate their contribution to history, I don’t find much enjoyment in the somber color palettes or the layers of both overt and obscure symbolism. It just feels way too contrived and arranged and analyzed to the point where it becomes boring to me. I much rather prefer the lighter aesthetic styles of Rococo visual art and architecture.


Works Cited
Martin, D. (no date) Khan academy. Available at: (Accessed: 3 February 2017).
Zygmont, B. (no date) Khan academy. Available at: (Accessed: 3 February 2017).
Smithsonian Education Spotlight biography: Artists (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 4 February 2017).
Art, N.G. of and Washington (2008) Copley’s Watson & the shark: STORY1. Available at: (Accessed: 4 February 2017).

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