Enlightenment: Art and Civilization

James Stephanoff: watercolour


Height: 743.000 mm
Width: 622.000 mm

PD 1994-12-10-6

Scholars of the European Renaissance relied heavily on the descriptions of the lost artworks of antiquity by ancient authors. But during the eighteenth century, collectors and connoisseurs began to develop histories of ancient art based on the evidence of objects they themselves owned or had seen on the Grand Tour. By studying artefacts such as sculpture, vases and gems, they developed a new understanding of the historical development of art.

Initially, many studies had categorized art by material or by subject, but by the mid-eighteenth century writers like Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) were promoting a system based on chronology and style. In doing this, they mapped what they saw as the 'progress' of art and civilization from their so-called primitive origins to their culmination in ancient Greece.

As a result, objects from ancient Greece became fashionable and collectors sought to acquire them or copies of them. The idea that ancient Greek art and architecture embodied perfect artistic achievement also lay behind neo-classicism and the classical revival styles of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These drew not only on the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, but also on Renaissance revivals of the classical style.

This is one of a series of tours exploring the themes of the British Museum Enlightenment gallery

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Illustration: James Stephanoff, An Assemblage of Works of Art, from the Earliest Period to the Time of Phydias, watercolour