The Neo-classicical school is often represented as a failure but I believe it’s because modern art historians are rather unfair. Very often, some of the worst examples are given and criticized from a perspective of political agendas, a point Roger Kimball makes in his book The Rape of the Masters. A painting like David’s Venus and the The Graces Disarming Mars is what usually finds in art history books to represent nude figurative work of the period. Even conservatives tend to misjudge the period, H.R. Rookmaaker claimed that Venus died in the 18th Century, although there were a lot of tacky nudes painted after the 18th Century, I believe Venus was alive and well until the early 20th Century.
Since the development of the internet it is possible to discover things which have remained obscure. The brilliant work of the French artist Louis Hersent (1777-1860) is good example of the kind of work modern critics tend to ignore. Hersent was a pupil of David but the mood of his best work is more Romantic than Neo-classical. I think Hersent’s Pandora is more beautiful than anything David painted.
While its true many of the 19th Century nudes were not much more than a Playmate of the month centerfold, it equally true many artists painted sensitive and tender nudes in the period which are unfairly dismissed as kitsch. The expression of love in Hersent’s paintings of Daphnis and Chloë is comparable to Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride.