Grades/Level: High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson
3 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff


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Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment Overview
Timeline: Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment
California and National Standards Charts

Lesson Overview

Students study how artists of the Neoclassical period were influenced by major historical events during the Enlightenment. They will identify and analyze the Neoclassical style.

Learning Objectives

• Students will be able to discuss and identify the major historical influences of Neoclassical art during the Enlightenment.
• Students will be able to analyze and identify specific characteristics the Neoclassical style used in art.


• Transparencies of works of art below
• Information about artworks found in the Image Bank
• Copies of Image Bank pages for students
• Overhead transparency markers
• Two overhead projectors, if available
• Paper and pencils
• Photocopies of The Father's Curse by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Lesson Steps

1. Using the background information provided, introduce and discuss the Enlightenment to the class by presenting the main philosophical ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Discuss the emphasis on man's intellectual and moral sides and the downplay of overt expressions of emotion. Explain the importance of family, nature, and strong virtues in this period. Inform students that this was a time when reason and a passion for discovering order in the world were of highest importance. Explain that many of these ideas came from the interest in the classical world, particularly that of the Greeks and Romans.

2. Show students the images of the Sarcophagus and Panathenaic Prize Amphora. You may consider using two projectors to display both images at the same time. Ask students to describe the images and record their responses. You may also use the overhead markers to circle/highlight the particular areas in the work of art that are being described and discussed. Use the following questions to guide the discussion of the images. You may also use the Questions for Teaching found on the Image Bank pages for each object:

• What do you see in each image?
• What do the figures seem to be doing? How can you tell?
• Where are they? How can you tell?
• Describe the attire and postures of the people.
• How are the images alike?
• How are they different?
• What do you think these objects were used for?
• What lines and shapes stand out?

3. Have students write a brief summary of ancient Greek and Roman ideals that can be seen in these two objects based on the provided Background Information. Give class copies of the Image Bank pages for the works of art after they are done with their writing. Make connections between the students' written responses and the prior discussion.

4. Explain that many artists would have been exposed to objects from antiquity due to the burst of archeological activity in the 18th century, such as the discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Discuss the influence of Rome as the center of art production and its role in the development of Neoclassicism.

5. Show students images of Allegorical Portrait of the van Risamburgh Family, The Invention of Drawing, and Penelope Unraveling Her Web. Have them find and discuss where they see similarities to the classical images they previously analyzed. Students can create a Venn diagram or other graphic organizer to help them with their comparisons. Use the descriptive list made in Step 2 as a guide. Next, ask students to describe how the works are different from the ancient objects. Record student responses. Share background information about the works of art with students at the end of the discussion.

6. Explain to students that Neoclassical artists were influenced by the classical world but that they modified the classical style to make it their own. Have students describe the Neoclassical style based on the two lists that were created in steps 2 and 5. Record student responses.

7. Hand out one copy of The Father's Curse to each student. Students will write an analysis of the image as an example of Neoclassical art. Students will address the following questions in their writing:
• How does this image exemplify Neoclassicism?
• How does this image relate to antiquity? How is it different?
• How does this artwork communicate philosophical ideas of the time?

8. Display the image of The Father's Curse. Ask students to volunteer to share their analysis of the work. Have a discussion with the class based on student responses. Share the background information about the artwork and ask how the story being depicted relates to the interpretation of the work of art and its relationship to society at the time.

Grades 11–12: Have a class discussion to analyze how the moral and ethical ideals from antiquity and contemporary Europe influenced the development of America in the 18th century. Ask students to explain how these ideas were used by our founding fathers to create our government and Constitution.

The Father's Curse / Greuze
The Father's Curse: The Ungrateful Son, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, about 1778


Observation of student discussion for inclusion of the following:
• Identification and description of Neoclassical style.
• How time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.
• The relationship between Neoclassical art and Greek and Roman philosophy.

Students should be able to identify in The Father's Curse:
• Neoclassical characteristics (moralizing theme; application of ancient art form, the frieze, to contemporary life).
• Relationship of work to antiquity, both similarities (frieze-like composition) and differences (medium, contemporary situation, middle-class subject matter).
• Relationship of work to Enlightenment philosophy (nobility of the middle class, needs of the individual trumping those of the state).

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 9–12

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 9–12
Artistic Perception
1.3 Research and analyze the work of an artist and write about the artist's distinctive style and its contribution to the meaning of the work.
1.4 Research two periods of painting, sculpture, film, or other media and discuss their similarities and differences, using the language of the visual arts.

Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 10

10.1 Students relate the moral and ethical principles in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, in Judaism, and in Christianity to the development of Western political thought.

Grade 11
11.1.1. Describe the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas as the context in which the nation was founded.

Grade 12
12.1.1. Analyze the influence of ancient Greek, Roman, English, and leading European political thinkers such as John Locke, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Niccolò Machiavelli, and William Blackstone on the development of American government.

National Standards for Visual Arts

Grades 9–12

Using Knowledge of Structures and Functions
Students demonstrate the ability to form and defend judgments about the characteristics and structures to accomplish commercial, personal, communal, or other purposes of art.
Students evaluate the effectiveness of artworks in terms of organizational structures and functions.

Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
Students reflect on how artworks differ visually, spatially, temporally, and functionally, and describe how these are related to history and culture.

Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures
Students differentiate among a variety of historical and cultural contexts in terms of characteristics and purposes of works of art. Students describe the function and explore the meaning of specific art objects within varied cultures, times, and places.

Reflecting Upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
Students identify intentions of those creating artworks, explore the implications of various purposes, and justify their analyses of purposes in particular works.
Students describe meanings of artworks by analyzing how specific works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural contexts.
Students reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for understanding and evaluating works of visual art.

Making Connections between Visual Arts and Other Disciplines
Students compare the materials, technologies, media, and processes of the visual arts with those of other arts disciplines as they are used in creation and types of analysis.
Students compare characteristics of visual arts within a particular historical period or style with ideas, issues, or themes in the humanities or sciences.

National Standards for Social Sciences

Grades 5–12

U.S. History
Revolution and the New Nation
Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Grades 5–12
World History
Era 7: An Age of Revolutions, 1750–1914
Students should understand the causes and consequences of political revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.