French literary movement : Classicism.
Era: 17th century (1600s)
Historical context: The century of Louis XIV (reigned 1661 to 1715) with France’s great military, economic, and cultural influence in Europe.
Major authors: Boileau, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, Corneille, Racine, Molière.
Notable works: « L’art poétique » (1674), « Les Fables » (1668-1694), « Les Caractères » (1688), « Cinna » (1639), « Iphigénie » (1674), « Les femmes savantes » (1672).
Dominant literary genres: Tragic, comic, didactic.
Motto: « to please and instruct ».works:
Classicism is a literary and artistic movement that developed mainly in France during the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century. It was characterized by a strict adherence to rules and inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman authors, as codified by Boileau in his work L’Art poétique (1674). The literary style was centered around the ideals of symmetry, harmony, and the use of elevated language. The most prominent genre was theater, where playwrights such as Corneille, Molière, and Racine were prominent figures. The plays were subject to rules such as the « Three Unities » of time, place, and action, and the language and characters had to adhere to social status and decorum. The genre also included works in other forms, such as La Fontaine’s Les Fables and La Bruyère’s Les Caractères. The term was later used pejoratively by the Romantics in the 19th century to reject the strictures of Classicism.
Indeed, « Classicism » can be defined by its rigorous rules. Set by Boileau in his work L’Art poétique (1674), they draw their sources from Aristotle’s Poetics. The idea is to inspire oneself from Greek literature by updating it. The aesthetic ideal, the vision of form retains similarities: superiority of tragedy, use of a sustained language, choice of meter and king verse (the Alexandrine). Symmetry and harmony are sought after. It is an artistic school of order, as opposed to Baroque (previous artistic movement). Art and artists are of their times. Louis XIV’s France wants order after the troubled periods of religious wars and the revolt of La Fronde, which marked the king during his youth.
The most emblematic genre of Classicism is undoubtedly theater. Three major authors stand out: Corneille (the elder, who had begun his career during the Baroque), Molière and Racine. Authors must respect verisimilitude and propriety. The show must appear true, so that the spectator can identify with the actors. The rule of the three units rhythm the pieces: unity of place (one place), time (the action takes place over one day) and action (one main plot). It is also about avoiding vulgarity or violence, shocking the spectator. The language must remain sustained (in verse most often, like the Ancients) and characters must respect social status in their relationships (the aristocrat and the common man retain their places). The work consists of five acts, with exposition in the first act, peripeteia thereafter, and the resolution finally. Tragedy finds its subjects in Greek-Roman history and mythology often: Iphigénie (Racine), Cinna (Corneille). Comedies, like Molière’s pieces, are done in the Italian style and make many borrowings from the commedia dell’arte with the characters of Sganarelle or Scapin.
However, Classicism in literature is not represented only by theater. Fables (La Fontaine), caricature (La Bruyère), or the novel (Madame de La Fayette, La princesse de Clèves) also express themselves. Works are often moralistic. The form must please, engage the reader or spectator, but the work must also teach. « Pleasing and instructing ». Authors conform to this banner of Classicism. Other arts participate in the brilliance of this movement, particularly architecture (Versailles) with symmetry and order in arrangements, decorative motifs. It remains deeply attached to the radiance of France during Louis XIV’s reign, but the end of the 17th century already announces the Enlightenment and the first critiques of society.
Links Another articles about French literary movements: French literary movement: Humanism. French literary movement: The Baroque. French literary movement : The enlightenment. French literary movement: Romanticism. French literary movement : The Surrealism movement.
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