he Neoclassical period, Neoclassicism or Neo-Classicism, was a revival of Greek and Roman art and architecture in Europe. It occurred around the middle of the 1700s (18th Century) and continued during the 1800s (19th Century). Neoclassicism was not only a result of new discoveries from Greek and Roman art and architecture, but it was also a revolt against the opulence of the Baroque and Rococo art movements that came before.
Table of Content
- 1 An Introduction to Neoclassicism
- 2 Famous Neoclassical Artists
- 3 The Ever Continued Neoclassical
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
An Introduction to Neoclassicism
First, let us look at the term “Neoclassical”, the prefix neo originates from Greek roots (néos), according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online it translates to “young, fresh, new”. The word “classics” also translates from the Latin word classicus, which denotes the highest rank, or highest class.
The term Classical refers to the Classical era when Greek and Roman ideals thrived and informed a way of life and culture. It was in fact a new movement in the arts, spanning not only painting, but architecture, sculpture, and even the decorative arts and interiors like furniture. But, what made Neoclassicism new? Let us explore it further.
Details for Derby House in Grosvenor Square (1777) by Robert and James Adam; See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Renaissance vs. the Age of Enlightenment
Neoclassicism art was a revival of Classical ideals, and it is important to place it contextually to understand it as a movement. Neoclassicism was influenced by significant changes taking place in Europe, specifically two massive shifts within society after the Medieval Ages.
We have the Renaissance, which lasted from the 1300s to the 1600s. During this time in Europe, there were changes and advances in almost every aspect of human understanding and the humanities, for example, technology, science, mathematics, politics, and culture. And then we have the Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason), which started during the 1600s (17th Century) and lasted until the early 1800s (19th Century).
Artists during the Renaissance period sought to emulate the Classical ideals from the Greek and Roman periods. Art was naturalistic and true to reality, along with the philosophical ideals of Humanism, which placed the individual at the center of his creative power. The term Renaissance means “rebirth” and it was undoubtedly a rebirth of new ways of seeing and exploring life.
Portrait of a Bearded man with a Cap and a Fur-Tanned Coat (1530) by a member of the Danube School; Circle of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Age of Enlightenment, also Age of Reason, was founded in philosophical thought. Reason became the identifying factor for many ideals like progress, liberty, fraternity, and tolerance, to name a few. Reason and philosophical thought were regarded as a means of higher understanding of man’s place in the world.
The Age of Enlightenment was influenced by the Scientific Revolution, which developed during the final remnants of the Renaissance period. It informed many of the science-based faculties like mathematics, biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, including human anatomy. It replaced many ideas regarded as scientific, for example, astrology. It also utilized the new scientific method, which approached research with more scientific experimentation based on quantitative facts and observation.
This was also what led to Empiricism, which believed knowledge only derives from the external world of the senses and experience.
Philosophers and scientists from the Enlightenment period were influenced by many of the ideas from the Scientific Revolution and they also had an educational background in science. This period in history saw the dominance of science over religion and how new fact-based concepts replaced the faith-based way of viewing life and nature.
The forerunners of the Enlightenment and their seminal publications were cornerstones to the development of rational thought and set the foundations for the developments of this era. These included, among others, Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727) Principia Mathematica (1686) and John Locke’s (1632-1704) Essay Concerning Human Understanding(1689).
Title Page of Principia (1687) by Isaac Newton; The original uploader was Zhaladshar at English Wikisource., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Influences and Development of Neoclassicism
Although the Enlightenment was a major proponent of the development of Neoclassicism, other major proponents included the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) who wrote his seminal works on Classical art and architecture and the rise of exploration in Europe, specifically the Grand Tour.
With the rise in popularity of the new fields of Archaeology and the digging of ancient sites like Herculaneum (excavated in 1738) and Pompeii (excavated in 1748), there was an increased curiosity to discover antiquity. The Grand Tour made a new way of discovering antiquity possible throughout Europe.
Excavations at Pompeii (1886) by François-Louis Français; François-Louis Français, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It was done as a rite of passage for young, coming of age, upper-class men, as well as artists and scholars seeking higher education. It involved an extended period of travel around the artistic and cultural hubs in Europe, which included Greece and Rome.
Although the Grand Tour was only for the upper class, men brought back many souvenirs from their travels, and their extensive collections disseminated the art and culture from the Classical era informing the Neoclassical movement.
It was also German, Winckelmann, that laid the foundation for art historical texts about Greek and Roman artworks, but also creating the first chronological ordering of Greek art and architecture within a scholarly text. Winckelmann was famously known as the “father” of art history as he wrote two important publications that would become significant contributions in art history.
These two publications were, “Thoughts on the Imitations of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture” (Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1750) and “The History of Art in Antiquity” (Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums) (1764).
A photograph of the Colonnade Parthenon Acropolis in Athens, Greece (2015); Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The first publication had a profound effect on the theoretical frameworks of Neoclassicism as it explored the importance of imitating Greek Art. He is often quoted from his text, “the one way for us to become great, perhaps inimitable, is by imitating the ancients”. However, it is important to note there has been considerable debate among art scholars as to the context in which Winckelmann places his term “imitation”.
It is also important to distinguish between the ideas of “imitating” and “copying” art, which are concepts Winckelmann expounded on in his reflections. He explored the Classical ideals extensively in his texts, although some scholarly sources also indicate that it is important to place his observations within careful context, namely that he never traveled to Greece himself, and he only came into contact with these artworks through Rome. Nonetheless, his contributions impacted the world of art history for centuries to come.
The Key Characteristics of Neoclassical Art
There are many identifiable characteristics of Neoclassicism art, but one of the primary ideas of this art movement was the move away from the overly decorative style of the Baroque and Rococo art movements. We will notice the Neoclassical style in painting, architecture, and sculpture. However, this style was not only within the arts, but it was also dominant in music, theatre, and literature. Below we look at some of the common characteristics that define and shape Neoclassical Art.
Daphnis Bestowing a Garland of Flowers on Chloe (1776) by Antonio Zucchi; Antonio Zucchi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Noble simplicity” is often cited from the forefather of the Neoclassical ideals, Johan Joachim Winckelmann in his publication “Thoughts on the Imitations of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture” (1750), as he writes about Greek sculptures and their inherent “quiet grandeur”. He exemplifies this further with reference to the art of Raphael, who was one of the best-known painters during the High Renaissance.
One of the primary characteristics of Neoclassical art was its return to ideals of “simplicity”, “symmetry”, “proportion”, and “harmony”. This simplicity of form and shape was seen in Neoclassical painting, architecture, and sculpture.
It was a revival of the simplicity of form and shape from the Greek and Roman periods. This simplicity was also expressed through subdued and often tempered colors, which were meant to indicate a formality and a somewhat superiority. This element of superiority was seen in the age of Antiquity and many ideals related to morals and ethics.
Didactic Subject Matter
It was the strong belief in virtues and morals that underpinned the narratives and effects of storytelling through Neoclassical painting. The type of subject matter utilized was of mythological scenes and characters, as well as historical scenes taken from Greek and Roman sources. It was also believed that Neoclassical Art was meant to help whoever viewed it by telling a story that inspired and gave a message based on morals and ethical values.
There was often an element of heroism in the narrative, as well as a distinct seriousness and austerity. In other words, Neoclassical art was didactic, which means its message was meant to convey a lesson.
Famous Neoclassical Artists
Although there were many great artists of the Neoclassical period, below we look at some of the more popular Neoclassical artists and their artworks within the fields of painting, sculpting, and architecture. There are two important artists worth noting when it comes to influences on Neoclassical Art and they are, namely, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (c.1604-1682).
The above-mentioned artists were French, from the Baroque period. However, their style depicted the classical ideals of the orderliness of composition and historical scenes often from the Bible, mythology, or history. Nicolas Poussin was highly regarded for his paintings of the above-mentioned subject matter, including his more rational approach to painting versus expressiveness and ostentatiousness seen in Baroque Art.
Poussin’s art was also influenced by Hellenistic principles and he painted in a way where those who viewed it would receive a deeper meaning from the narrative portrayed. He influenced notable Neoclassical painters like Jacques-Louis David.
Neoclassical painting can be divided into two distinct developmental stages, namely, Early and Late Neoclassicism. It evolved as the opposite in style and composition to that of its precedent, the Rococo, where paintings appeared lighter and more extravagant in style.
Neoclassical painting is characterized by a cleaner manner of brushwork and application, we will see a smoother surface with brushstrokes creating solidity instead of airiness, furthermore, forms are depicted with more solidity and definition. Color is also true to nature and subject matter is portrayed true to history or mythology.
Maria mit dem Kind und zwei Engeln (‘Maria with the child and two angels,’ 1773) by Anton Raphael Mengs; Anton Raphael Mengs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Neoclassical painting style developed in Rome with Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) setting the foundations along with Johann Joachim Winckelmann. The style evolved in Britain with other notable artists like the Swiss Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and Benjamin West (1738-1820). During the Later Neoclassical period, artists like Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) led the style in France and became the epitome of the Neoclassical style.
The distinguishing factor for Neoclassical painting is that artists painted their subject matter from the examples they found from Ancient Greek and Roman architecture and sculpture, as well as from examples of paintings before them, like Baroque and Rococo. Below we look at some of the artworks from the prominent Neoclassical painters of their time.
Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779)
Mengs was a Bohemian painter and considered one of the forerunners of Neoclassical painting, although he still painted within the Baroque style at the time. He believed in the significance and place of the Classical, this was also a shared value and belief with the Winckelmann, with who he worked closely. According to various scholarly sources, Mengs was described by Winckelmann as the “greatest” artist of his time.
Parnassus (1761) by Anton Raphael Mengs; Anton Raphael Mengs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
One of his well-known artworks Parnassus (1761) depicts his move towards the Neoclassical period. It was created as an oil sketch as part of the fresco for the Villa Albani located in Rome. Mengs was inspired by Raphael’s fresco similarly titled The Parnassus (c.1509-1511). It depicts a mythological story about Apollo (the Sun God), which is in the center of the composition surrounded by various muses. In this painting by Mengs, we notice the more subdued coloring on the robes and cleaner lines of the form.
Benjamin West (1738 – 1820)
Benjamin West was an American-born painter, however, through his extensive travels to Rome and then England he became one of the popular British painters, with subject matter centered on historical narratives. West also intended for his paintings to have a deeper moral meaning. He was deeply influenced by the Classical ideals from the Greek and Roman art he experienced during his travels to Rome, which he undertook during the 1760s, as well the ideals and virtues from the Enlightenment.
West also studied under prominent scholars Winckelmann and collaborated with other popular artists of the time, namely Angelica Kaufmann and Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798). West has an extensive historical background, especially his time spent in England. He was a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, of which he became the president, and painted for King George III.
The Death of General Wolfe (1770) by Benjamin West; Benjamin West, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some of West’s notable artworks include The Death of General Wolfe (1770), which was one of his most famous artworks depicting the Battle of Quebec. What made this artwork so revolutionary was how West depicted the characters in their modern-day uniforms, and not in classical dress, however, this is reported to have been done already by another artist, Edward Penny (1714-1791).
Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807)
Angelica Kaufmann was a Swiss-born artist and displayed artistic talent from a young age. She became a famous artist during her time in London, where she moved to after a period of traveling to Europe with her father. She managed to support herself successfully as a female artist and was well respected as such by her community.
Kaufmann had a wide scope as a painter, including portraits, landscape, and decorative painting. She was known as having a style related to Rococo Art, but she also adopted the Neoclassical style of history painting during the 1770s. She drew inspiration from Classical texts by writers like Homer and Alexander Pope. She also worked alongside Benjamin West, as another member of the Royal Academy, and both artists popularized British historical paintings.
Virgil Writing his Epitaph at Brundisi (1785) by Angelica Kauffman; Carnegie Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some of her more famous artworks include Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi, Pointing to Her Children as her Treasures(1785), wherein we notice the differences in how subject matter is portrayed compared to the more light-hearted Rococo style. Evident in this painting is a more serious tone, and figures are depicted in more subdued colors. The subject matter is also of Roman history of the politicians Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.
Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825)
Jacques-Louis David is probably considered the epitome of Neoclassical painters and his artworks truly depict the essence of Neoclassical ideals and style. Born in Paris, David would continue his art career in Rome, where he also produced many of his most famous paintings, for example, The Oath of the Horatii (1784).
It is important to note that David produced his artworks during the same time of the French Revolution, and he was also a part of the French Revolution, specifically part of the Jacobin political club during 1789. His famous piece, The Oath of the Horatii (1784), was also associated with the French Revolution and what it stood for, but it is known that this piece was produced for a patron before the events of the Revolution.
Oath of the Horatii (1786) by Jacques-Louis David; Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
When we look at this famous piece by David, we clearly notice the clean lines, symmetry, and heroic virtues so characteristic of the Neoclassical movement. It depicts the Roman story of the Horatii trio of brothers swearing to protect their country, Rome, against the Albans, of which also three brothers, the Curatii, would be their counterparts in battle.
The composition clearly portrays the subject matter, we see the three brothers to the left and women mourning behind them (one of them in a relationship with one of the Curatii brothers, which emphasizes their distraught emotions).
The central figure is Horatius, holding up three swords for the three brothers. Behind the figures, we notice three distinct arches, each one congruent with the figures in the foreground.
The arches place more emphasis on the figures and what is taking place in the foreground, this, again, is highlighted by the stark lighting making the whole scene clear. We notice David keeps the composition simple and does not distract by adding any other elements or decorations to the painting. The three arches in the background create a seeming backdrop, which “sets the stage”, so to say, for the central figures in the foreground.
Other important artworks by David include the Death of Marat (1793), which depicts the dead body of Jean-Paul Marat, who was murdered by Charlotte Corday. Marat was a French politician and journalist, among other merits. This painting was done during the height of the French Revolution and what was known as the Reign of Terror, which consisted of public executions and numerous massacres.
The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David; Jacques-Louis David, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This painting was done in memory of Marat and we will notice how David idealized the dead figure using Biblical references of Christ’s dead body. This is evident in the Marat’s hanging arm, symbolizing Christ’s arm with reference to the Michelangelo’s marble sculpture titled, Pietà, the turban around his head, which is a symbol for a halo, and the seeming gracefulness of his dead body – there is a sense of martyrdom depicted.
What makes the painting more real is the letter in Marat’s hand, which is clearly readable. It is from Charlotte Corday herself, it is written in French and translated to English, it reads: “July 13, 1793. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday to the citizen Marat – Given that I am unhappy, I have a right to your help”.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867)
Ingres was another prominent French Neoclassical painter who studied under the tutelage of Jacques-Louis David. He was a strong proponent of Poussin’s style of art, which was towards more rational and clear approaches to depicting elements like form and line. However, we will notice there is more expressiveness of form in his paintings, which is reminiscent of the attributes associated with Romanticism.
An example of one of his artworks is the La Grande Odalisque (1814), which depicts a nude woman staring at the onlooker. This artwork has continued into the Modern era in terms of the place of female nudes and the relationship with the male as the onlooker.
La Grande Odalisque (1814) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We also notice how Ingres is still utilizing the subject matter as a female nude, characteristic of the Classical era, he also utilizes the, often termed, “clean lines”, characteristic of Neoclassical art, but he moves beyond the rigidity of Neoclassicism in the manner he depicts the nude – there is more expressiveness and a turn away from the overt realism of human form as we notice her proportions are not exactly true to nature.
Neoclassical sculptures drew considerable inspiration from the archaeological digs in Rome and Greece at the time, especially that of Pompeii. Sculptors were also provided with a wide variety of models to work from, this was quite the opposite for Neoclassical paintings, which had a lesser number of real-life examples to work from to emulate the Classical ideals.
Some common characteristics of Neoclassical sculpture include its size, sculptures would often be made life-sized and focused on symmetrical correctness. Subject matter often had a more serious tone but would range from mythological, to historical, even to real-life personalities like actors, singers, and famous philosophers as is evident in the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), who produced his famous portrait busts.
Bust of Christoph Willibard Gluck (1775) by Jean-Antoine Houdon; Jean-Antoine Houdon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Another common trait among Neoclassical sculptors was a combination of depicting subject matter in idealistic forms or with naturalism and realism referred to as verism, which was also referred to as “warts and all”. This manner of depiction was used in Roman sculpture and believed in including all the traits seen on a body, whether it be warts, wrinkles, or anything else that would be considered “imperfections” – this gave a heightened sense of realism.
Some of the top Neoclassical sculptors included Jean-Antoine Houdon (mentioned above), who was in France as a leading sculptor during the French Enlightenment period, Antonio Canova (1757-1822), and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), who were pioneering sculptors working in Rome.
Each sculptor had a different approach. However, they are also noted to have depicted a sense of idealism in their sculptures.
Thorvaldsen and Canova sculpted mythological subject matter, examples of their sculptures include Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787-1793), housed in the Louvre in Paris. It depicts Cupid and Psyche in the throes of kissing after she was woken up by Psyche himself with a kiss. Canova was born Italian and primarily worked in Rome. He was well-known to have produced work that was more “warm” and light in its portrayal.
Thorvaldsen worked in Rome during his adult years and focused on works that were heroic in nature. He was original of Danish descent, born in Copenhagen. An example of his work includes Jason with the Golden Fleece(1802-1803) and Monument to Copernicus (1822-1830).
Many sources indicate that Thorvaldsen’s work has been described as more “severe” in its style. He depicted his subject matter with a sense of dignity and heroism. We are able to notice this sense of severity in his well-known work Jason and the Golden Fleece (1802-1803), having depicted the mythological character of Jason with a sense of heroic prowess, even though the actual character of Jason in mythology was not hailed exactly as a hero.
Neoclassical architecture became a testament to the ideals and virtues in Neoclassicism. There have been countless buildings of all types constructed within the Neoclassical style. Neoclassical architecture also conveys seriousness and orderliness in its construction and facades, so to say, having imitated Greek and Roman architecture. It started flourishing during the middle of the 18th Century and found all over Europe in countries like Germany, France, Russia, and Britain.
The Neoclassical architectural style was also influenced by two important architects, namely, the Roman Vitruvius, from the 1st Century BC, and the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio was known for simplifying the already existing architectural structures and elements existent from the Renaissance.
He was influenced by Greek and Roman architecture; however, it is also noted that he did not exactly imitate these structures, but included his own elements to innovate new designs. He was also similarly influenced by Vitruvius and how he utilized elements like symmetry and proportion.
Common characteristics of Neoclassical architecture include the focus on planar surfaces versus the more sculptural surfaces seen in the Baroque and Rococo styles of architecture. It also utilized the Classical Orders, which consisted of columns like the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These orders were prevalent in Greek architecture and similarly used in the Neoclassical buildings.
Other features include the emphasis on walls appearing long and, especially, blank in its surface. It is classified as utilizing geometric shapes, clean lines, and “block” shapes. The block shape (rectangular or squared) in Neoclassical architecture is widely visible, it is often coupled with a flat roof and a dome, with a repetition of columns.
Neoclassical architecture also consisted of two phases, or periods, namely, Early, or Palladian, and High Neoclassical architecture.
The Early period was during the 1700s to 1750s and was significantly influenced by Palladio. The forerunners of this period were architects like Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and Colen Campbell (1676-1729). A well-known example of this style is the Chiswick House (1729) by Richard Boyle (1694-1753). As the 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, he was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Yorkshire. He was popular for introducing the Palladian style of architecture in Britain and Ireland, often also referred to as the “Architect Earl”.
When we look at the High Neoclassical architecture, which started during the 1750s, it incorporated more influence from Greek architecture, which was not as prevalent in the earlier period. This style is also just known as Neoclassical architecture. Of the countless examples of buildings in this style, common examples include the Hermitage Museum (1787) in Russia.
Another famous building is the Panthéon (1758-1790) in Paris, initially, it was the Church of St. Geneviève. It was built by Jacques-Germain Soufflot (1713-1780). This building, in all its magnificence, located in the 5th arrondissement, is a true testament to the Classical ideals from Greek and Roman architecture, evident in its numerous columns and geometric proportions.
The Ever Continued Neoclassical
The Neoclassical style ended during the 1850s with the rise of a new movement called Romanticism, which started during the 1780s and lasted until around the 1830s. It coincided with Neoclassicism and was almost the complete opposite in style and values. Where Neoclassicism was about rationality and Classical ideals of virtue and order, Romanticism expressed emotion and the exploration of the senses.
Although this was a complete shift in style, the Neoclassical movement continued and lived on in the Classical ideals that it sought to emulate. We will still notice the Neoclassical style in many types of buildings throughout Europe. It was also revived within the Beaux-Arts Architecture, which was a French and American movement during the 1830s into the 1940s.
Neoclassicism was a return to the Classics – it sought to revive the ideals of the ancients, namely, order, symmetry, and rationality. It almost dutifully depicted what the Classics attained during the Greek and Roman periods and similarly strove to attain in the context of the 18th Century and its complex and often tumultuous development into the Modern era.
The revival of Classical ideals within Neoclassical Art was almost a period of reminding the world again via visual communication of the beauty and structure so perfected by the ancients (whether they knew it or not) – and only we can dream of attaining that in our own Age of Enlightenment.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Neoclassicism?
Neoclassicism was a revival of Classical ideals from the Greek and Roman periods. It was also a reaction towards the exuberant and often described “flamboyant” nature of the preceding movements, Baroque and Rococo.
When Was the Neoclassical Period?
The Neoclassical period started in Europe around the middle of the 1700s (18th Century) and continued during the 1900s (19th Century). It initially had roots in Rome but spread to many other countries, primarily France and Britain, but also Russia and Germany, among others.
What are the Main Characteristics of Neoclassicism?
As an opposing movement to the Baroque and Rococo, Neoclassicism reverted to Classical virtues of symmetry, proportion, clean lines, and subdued colors. The subject matter was of mythological and historical scenes with the ideals of heroism and patriotism. It was also inspired by rational thought and calmness of being.
What Influenced the Neoclassical Movement?
It is believed there were three primary influences on the development of Neoclassicism, namely, the seminal and revolutionary texts of historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), about defining the periods of Greek and Roman art and architecture. Then there were the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which introduced new artifacts and knowledge about Classical Antiquity, and lastly, the Grand Tour, which allowed many noble young men and artists to tour Europe (especially Greece and Rome) and bring back many artifacts and memorabilia, which inspired the development of the revival of Classical culture.