Emergence of the Primitives

A group of young French artists, the Primitives revolted against the neoclassical artistic values of their tutor, Jacques-Louis David, and embraced ancient Greek and fifteenth century Italian art. They produced little work that has survived and had only a negligible influence on later nineteenth century artists, but their unconventional attitudes and lifestyles anticipated those of the bohemians and later movements.

Summary of Event

The French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and painters[painters] of 1789 captured the heart of France’s most prominent and influential neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David. David’s career began as the ornamental artistic style later known as rococo was still in full blossom, so David’s early work—stunning and austere political paintings such as Oath of the Horatii
Oath of the Horatii (David) (1784) and Death of Socrates
Death of Socrates (David) (1787)—reflected the changing moral climate in France. When the revolution began in 1789, David quickly became its supporter. He eventually served in the National Assembly, and his art became a tool for advancing the revolution. His Death of Marat
Death of Marat (David) (1794), a heroic portrayal of his murdered friend Jean-Paul Marat, evokes the pietà, equating Marat’s sacrifice with that of Christ. Primitives
Art;Les Primitives[Primitives]
[kw]Emergence of the Primitives (1801)
[kw]Primitives, Emergence of the (1801)
Art;Les Primitives[Primitives]
[g]France;1801: Emergence of the Primitives[0040]
[c]Art;1801: Emergence of the Primitives[0040]
Quay, Pierre-Maurice
David, Jacques-Louis
Franque, Jean-Pierre
Franque, Joseph-Boniface
Broc, Jean

When the revolution waned and its leader Robespierre was executed, David David, Jacques-Louis was thrown into prison, where he conceived the idea for his painting Intervention of the Sabine Women
Intervention of the Sabine Women (David) (1799). In his efforts to advance his revolutionary political and artistic ideas, David had taught an enormous number of students. However, after his release, he exerted an increased influence over their work, intending either to maintain control of his artistic agenda following the revolution or to supervise the work of his new generation of students more closely. Among his students was a mysterious and only modestly talented young man still in his teens, Pierre-Maurice Quay Quay, Pierre-Maurice .

Along with his friends Jean Broc Broc, Jean and twin brothers Jean-Pierre Franque Franque, Jean-Pierre and Joseph-Boniface Franque, Quay rejected the bourgeois values that the Enlightenment had brought to European science and philosophy and demanded a return to the primitive and ancient Greece, ancient;art world of Homer, Ossian, and the Bible, and to fifteenth century Italian artistic styles. The budding circle of friends associated the elaborate ornamentation of the rocaille style that had been popular during the eighteenth century with bourgeois values, and Quay began calling the art “rococo,” a distortion of rocaille. They advocated going back to the primitive art of the ancient Greeks, characterized as the pure and single circuit lines seen on the vases and urns from antiquity. They believed that all art produced after the time of the Greek sculptor Sculpture;Greek Phidias Phidias (fifth century b.c.e.) should be destroyed. They isolated themselves from others, grew long beards which led them to be called Barbus (the bearded ones), adopted vegetarian diets, and began wearing long, flowing robes like those illustrated on ancient sculptures.

When David David, Jacques-Louis completed Intervention of the Sabine Women, Quay, Broc, the Franque brothers, and several other students severely criticized his work as a representation of the stylistic boldness they so passionately rejected. In response, David expelled them from his studio. The expelled artists then formed a commune in an abandoned convent outside Paris, where they began to turn away from their admiration of ancient Greece and move toward a passion for Middle Eastern mysticism and concepts associated with the Bible.

Quay Quay, Pierre-Maurice liked to be called Agamemnon, after the Greek king in Homer’s epics—an acknowledgment of his admiration of antiquity and a likely reference to his self-concept as a leader. One of the few references to Quay by a near-contemporary, the French author Charles Nodier, suggests that Quay was a man of enormous charisma, far too gifted intellectually and emotionally to engage in the daily pursuits of ordinary human life. When Napoleon I asked Quay, “Why did you adopt a type of clothing which separates you from the world?” Quay answered, “In order to separate myself from the world.” In spite of Quay’s youth, his impact on his peers and their movement is unmistakable. The Primitives maintained a close and unbroken solidarity during his lifetime and disbanded almost immediately after his early death, sometime around the age of twenty-four. Quay’s indifference to the details of life may have led him never actually to complete a painting—none of his work still exists today—yet his reputation in his own time is evidenced by the existence of a portrait of him painted in about 1800 by Henri-François Riesener that hangs in the Louvre Museum Louvre Museum .

Jacques-Louis David.

(Library of Congress)

None of the Primitives left a portfolio of major works, though Broc Broc, Jean and Jean-Pierre Franque Franque, Jean-Pierre were mildly successful as artists. Both had been considered by David David, Jacques-Louis to be very promising students, and Franque, ironically, had been asked by David to assist him in painting Intervention of the Sabine Women. Broc’s most famous surviving work is Death of Hyacinthus
Death of Hyacinthus (Broc) , which he completed in 1801, though the style of the painting offers little insight into the artistic values of the Primitives. A portrayal from Greek mythology, the painting has much in common with David’s early work and is similar to Oath of the Horatii and Intervention of the Sabine Women.

Franque exhibited a painting, Dream of Love Induced by the Power of Harmony, Dream of Love Induced by the Power of Harmony (Franque) at the Salon of 1806. After losing to Antoine-Jean Gros in a competition to paint Napoleon on the battlefield at Eylau, he exhibited a strange allegorical and historical work at the Salon of 1810 depicting a voluptuous personification of a helpless France pleading with Napoleon to come to her aid. Its title, Allegory of the Condition of France Before the Return from Egypt, Allegory of the Condition of France Before the Return from Egypt (Franque) alludes to Napoleon’s years campaigning in Egypt.

In addition to Quay, Broc, and the Franque brothers, the Primitives were known to include Antoine-Hilaire-Henri Périé and Joseph-Boniface Franque’s wife, Lucile Messageot, both painters. Their known supporters and sympathizers included artists Paul Duqueylar and Jacques-Nicolas Paillot de Montabert, sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, and writers Jean-Antoine “Auguste” Gleizes and Charles Nodier.


Although their admiration of ancient and simple artistic values may have influenced a handful of paintings of the time, including Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique
Venus Wounded by Diomedes
Venus Wounded by Diomedes (Ingres) (1803), the Primitives had little lasting influence on nineteenth century art, primarily because they produced few works themselves. Broc’s School of Apelles, School of Apelles (Broc) shown at the Salon of 1800, is one of the few paintings produced during the movement’s life span. Quay left no known works. Over the next hundred and fifty years, painters periodically pursued a similar interest in archaic styles of art—most notably Edward Hicks Hicks, Edward , Henri Rousseau Rousseau, Henri , and Grandma Moses Moses, Grandma —and they too were called “Primitives.” Any connection, however, between the Primitives and these later Primitive artists must be considered distant and indirect.

On the other hand, the unorthodox and insouciant lifestyle of the Primitives is considered a prototype of the alienated and unconventional lives of nineteenth century artists and writers who came to be called bohemians, after the Bohemian Gypsies, whose dress and behavior stood in stark contrast to conventional French society. This tradition would run through the German Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood]
Art;Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] the Arts and Crafts movement Arts and Crafts movement , the Symbolists, Symbolist movement and the hippie movement of the 1960’s. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the lifestyle had become so entrenched in the European mind that literary and artistic works began portraying bohemian communities, as in Henri Murger’s Murger, Henri short-story anthology Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1849) and Giacomo Puccini’s Puccini, Giacomo opera Opera;La Bohème[Boheme, la]
La Bohème
Bohème, La (Puccini) (1896).

Further Reading

  • Boime, Albert. A Social History of Modern Art. Vol. 1 in Art in an Age of Revolution, 1750-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. An analysis of the social and political influences, including popular culture, on art during the period leading to the emergence of the Primitives.
  • Craske, Matthew. Art in Europe, 1700-1830: A History of the Visual Arts in an Era of Unprecedented Urban Economic Growth. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. An examination of the influence of urbanization and rapid political and economic change on artistic production and distribution.
  • Lee, Simon. David A & I: Art and Ideas. London: Phaidon, 2004. A biography of Jacques-Louis David, who taught the young artists of the Primitives and against whom their movement was directed, with an emphasis on David’s political activities and their effect on his art.
  • Levitine, George. The Dawn of Bohemianism: The Barbu Rebellion and Primitivism in Neo-classical France. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978. The most comprehensive work available on the Primitives, with an emphasis on their influence on subsequent bohemian artists.
  • Rosenblum, Robert. Transformation in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. An engaging examination of the visual arts during the transition from neoclassicism to Romanticism. Offers an especially detailed account of the Primitives.

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