Neoclassicism refers to movements in the arts that draw inspiration from the “classical” art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome.
Identify attributes of Neoclassicism and some of its key figures
- The height of Neoclassicism coincided with the 18th century Enlightenment era, and continued into the early 19th century.
- With the increasing popularity of the Grand Tour, it became fashionable to collect antiquities as souvenirs, which spread the Neoclassical style through Europe and America.
- Neoclassicism spanned all of the arts including painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, theatre, literature, music, and architecture.
- Generally speaking, Neoclassicism is defined stylistically by its use of straight lines, minimal use of color, simplicity of form and, of course, an adherence to classical values and techniques.
- Rococo, with its emphasis on asymmetry, bright colors, and ornamentation is typically considered to be the direct opposite of the Neoclassical style.
- Grand Tour: The traditional tour of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means. The custom flourished from about 1660 until the advent of large-scale rail transit in the 1840s.
- Enlightenment: A concept in spirituality, philosophy, and psychology related to achieving clarity of perception, reason, and knowledge.
- Rococo: A style of baroque architecture and decorative art, from 18th century France, having elaborate ornamentation.
The classical revival, also known as Neoclassicism, refers to movements in the arts that draw inspiration from the “classical” art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. The height of Neoclassicism coincided with the 18th century Enlightenment era, and continued into the early 19th century. The dominant styles during the 18th century were Baroque and Rococo. The latter, with its emphasis on asymmetry, bright colors, and ornamentation is typically considered to be the direct opposite of the Neoclassical style, which is based on order, symmetry, and simplicity. With the increasing popularity of the Grand Tour, it became fashionable to collect antiquities as souvenirs. This tradition of collecting laid the foundations for many great art collections and spread the classical revival throughout Europe and America.
Neoclassicism grew to encompass all of the arts, including painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, theatre, literature, music, and architecture. The style can generally be identified by its use of straight lines, minimal use of color, simplicity of form and, of course, its adherence to classical values and techniques.
In music, the period saw the rise of classical music and in painting, the works of Jaques-Louis David became synonymous with the classical revival. However, Neoclassicism was felt most strongly in architecture, sculpture, and the decorative arts, where classical models in the same medium were fairly numerous and accessible. Sculpture in particular had a great wealth of ancient models from which to learn, however, most were Roman copies of Greek originals.
Neoclassical architecture was modeled after the classical style and, as with other art forms, was in many ways a reaction against the exuberant Rococo style. The architecture of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio became very popular in the mid 18th century. Additionally, archaeological ruins found in Pompeii and Herculaneum informed many of the stylistic values of Neoclassical interior design based on the ancient Roman rediscoveries.
Neoclassical painting, produced by men and women, drew its inspiration from the classical art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome.
Discuss the overarching themes present in Neoclassical painting
- Neoclassical subject matter draws from the history and general culture of ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It is often described as a reaction to the lighthearted and “frivolous” subject matter of the Rococo.
- Neoclassical painting is characterized by the use of straight lines, a smooth paint surface, the depiction of light, a minimal use of color, and the clear, crisp definition of forms.
- The works of Jacques-Louis David are usually hailed as the epitome of Neoclassical painting.
- David attracted over 300 students to his studio, including Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, and Angélique Mongez, the last of whom tried to extend the Neoclassical tradition beyond her teacher’s death.
- Enlightenment: A philosophical movement in 17th and 18th century Europe. Also known as the Age of Reason, this was an era that emphasized rationalism.
Background and Characteristics
Neoclassicism is the term for movements in the arts that draw inspiration from the classical art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. The height of Neoclassicism coincided with the 18th century Enlightenment era and continued into the early 19th century. With the advent of the Grand Tour—a much enjoyed trip around Europe intended to introduce young men to the extended culture and people of their world—it became fashionable to collect antiquities as souvenirs. This tradition laid the foundations of many great collections and ensured the spread of the Neoclassical revival throughout Europe and America. The French Neoclassical style would greatly contribute to the monumentalism of the French Revolution, with the emphasis of both lying in virtue and patriotism.
Neoclassical painting is characterized by the use of straight lines, a smooth paint surface hiding brush work, the depiction of light, a minimal use of color, and the clear, crisp definition of forms. Its subject matter usually relates to either Greco-Roman history or other cultural attributes, such as allegory and virtue. The softness of paint application and light-hearted and “frivolous” subject matter that characterize Rococo painting is recognized as the opposite of the Neoclassical style. The works of Jacques-Louis David are widely considered to be the epitome of Neoclassical painting. Many painters combined aspects of Romanticism with a vaguely Neoclassical style before David’s success, but these works did not strike any chords with audiences. Typically, the subject matter of Neoclassical painting consisted of the depiction of events from history, mythological scenes, and the architecture and ruins of ancient Rome.
The School of David
Neoclassical painting gained new momentum with the great success of David’s Oath of the Horatii at the Paris Salon of 1785. The painting had been commissioned by the royal government and was created in a style that was the perfect combination of idealized structure and dramatic effect. The painting created an uproar, and David was proclaimed to have perfectly defined the Neoclassical taste in his painting style. He thereby became the quintessential painter of the movement. In The Oath of the Horatii, the perspective is perpendicular to the picture plane. It is defined by a dark arcade behind several classical heroic figures. There is an element of theatre, or staging, that evokes the grandeur of opera. David soon became the leading French painter and enjoyed a great deal of government patronage. Over the course of his long career, he attracted over 300 students to his studio.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a Neoclassical painter of history and portraiture, was one of David’s students. Deeply devoted to classical techniques, Ingres is known to have believed himself to be a conservator of the style of the ancient masters, although he later painted subjects in the Romantic style. Examples of his Neoclassical work include the paintings Virgil Reading to Augustus (1812), and Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864). Both David and Ingres made use of the highly organized imagery, straight lines, and clearly defined forms that were typical of Neoclassical painting during the 18th century.
While tradition and the rules governing the Académie Française barred women from studying from the nude model (a necessity for executing an effective Neoclassical painting), David believed that women were capable of producing successful art of the style and welcomed many as his students. Among the most successful were Marie-Guillemine Benoist, who eventually won commissions from the Bonaparte family, and Angélique Mongez, who won patrons from as far away as Russia.
Mongez is best known for being one of the few women to paint monumental subjects that often included the male nude, a feat for which hostile critics often attacked her.
Mongez and Antoine-Jean Gros, another of David’s students, tried to carry on the Neoclassical tradition after David’s death in 1825 but were unsuccessful in face of the growing popularity of Romanticism.
A reaction against the “frivolity” of the Rococo, Neoclassical sculpture depicts serious subjects influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman past.
Explain what motifs are common to Neoclassical sculpture
- Neoclassicism emerged in the second half of the 18th century, following the excavations of the ruins of Pompeii, which sparked renewed interest in the Graeco-Roman world.
- Neoclassical sculpture is defined by its symmetry, life-sized to monumental scale, and its serious subject matter.
- The subjects of Neoclassical sculpture ranged from mythological figures to heroes of the past to major contemporary personages.
- Neoclassical sculpture could capture its subject as either idealized or in a more veristic manner.
- verism: An ancient Roman technique, in which the subject is depicted with “warts and all” realism.
As with painting, Neoclassicism made its way into sculpture in the second half of the 18th century. In addition to the ideals of the Enlightenment, the excavations of the ruins at Pompeii began to spark a renewed interest in classical culture. Whereas Rococo sculpture consisted of small-scale asymmetrical objects focusing on themes of love and gaiety, neoclassical sculpture assumed life-size to monumental scale and focused on themes of heroism, patriotism, and virtue.
In his tomb sculpture, the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire is honored in true Neoclassical form. In a style influenced by ancient Roman verism, he appears as an elderly man to honor his wisdom. He wears a contemporary commoner’s blouse to convey his humbleness, and his robe assumes the appearance of an ancient Roman toga from a distance. Like his ancient predecessors, his facial expression and his body language suggest an air of scholarly seriousness.
Neoclassical sculptors benefited from an abundance of ancient models, albeit Roman copies of Greek bronzes in most cases. The leading Neoclassical sculptors enjoyed much acclaim during their lifetimes. One of them was Jean-Antoine Houdon, whose work was mainly portraits, very often as busts, which do not sacrifice a strong impression of the sitter’s personality to idealism. His style became more classical as his long career continued, and represents a rather smooth progression from Rococo charm to classical dignity. Unlike some Neoclassical sculptors he did not insist on his sitters wearing Roman dress, or being unclothed. He portrayed most of the great figures of the Enlightenment, and traveled to America to produce a statue of George Washington, as well as busts of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other luminaries of the new republic. His portrait bust of Washington depicts the first President of the United States as a stern, yet competent leader, with the influence of Roman verism evident in his wrinkled forehead, receding hairline, and double chin.
The Italian artist Antonio Canova and the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen were both based in Rome, and as well as portraits produced many ambitious life-size figures and groups. Both represented the strongly idealizing tendency in Neoclassical sculpture.
Canova has a lightness and grace, where Thorvaldsen is more severe. The difference is exemplified in Canova’s Hebe (1800–05), whose contrapposto almost mimics lively dance steps as she prepares to pour nectar and ambrosia from a small amphora into a chalice, and Thorvaldsen’s Monument to Copernicus (1822-30), whose subject sits upright with a compass and armillary sphere.
Neoclassical architecture looks to the classical past of the Graeco-Roman era, the Renaissance, and classicized Baroque to convey a new era based on Enlightenment principles.
Identify what sets Neoclassical architecture apart from other
- Neoclassical architecture was produced by the Neoclassical movement in the mid 18th century. It manifested in its details as a reaction against the Rococo style of naturalistic ornament, and in its architectural formulas as an outgrowth of the classicizing features of Late Baroque.
- The first phase of Neoclassicism in France is expressed in the “Louis XVI style” of architects like Ange-Jacques Gabriel (Petit Trianon, 1762–68) while the second phase is expressed in the late 18th-century Directoire style.
- Neoclassical architecture emphasizes its planar qualities, rather than sculptural volumes. Projections and recessions and their effects of light and shade are more flat, while sculptural bas- reliefs are flatter and tend to be enframed in friezes, tablets, or panels.
- Structures such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Panthéon in Paris, and Chiswick House in London have elements that convey the influence of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, as well as some influence from the Renaissance and Late Baroque periods.
Neoclassical architecture, which began in the mid 18th century, looks to the classical past of the Graeco-Roman era, the Renaissance, and classicized Baroque to convey a new era based on Enlightenment principles. This movement manifested in its details as a reaction against the Rococo style of naturalistic ornament, and in its architectural formulas as an outgrowth of some classicizing features of Late Baroque. In its purest form, Neoclassicism is a style principally derived from the architecture of Classical Greece and Rome. In form, Neoclassical architecture emphasizes the wall and maintains separate identities to each of its parts.
The first phase of Neoclassicism in France is expressed in the Louis XVI style of architects like Ange-Jacques Gabriel (Petit Trianon, 1762–68). Ange-Jacques Gabriel was the Premier Architecte at Versailles, and his Neoclassical designs for the royal palace dominated mid 18th century French architecture.
After the French Revolution, the second phase of Neoclassicism was expressed in the late 18th century Directoire style. The Directoire style reflected the Revolutionary belief in the values of republican Rome. This style was a period in the decorative arts, fashion, and especially furniture design, concurrent with the post-Revolution French Directoire (November 2, 1795–November 10, 1799). The style uses Neoclassical architectural forms, minimal carving, planar expanses of highly grained veneers, and applied decorative painting. The Directoire style was primarily established by the architects and designers Charles Percier (1764–1838) and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1762–1853), who collaborated on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is considered emblematic of French neoclassical architecture.
Though Neoclassical architecture employs the same classical vocabulary as Late Baroque architecture, it tends to emphasize its planar qualities rather than its sculptural volumes. Projections, recessions, and their effects on light and shade are more flat. Sculptural bas-reliefs are flatter and tend to be framed in friezes, tablets, or panels. Its clearly articulated individual features are isolated rather than interpenetrating, autonomous, and complete in themselves.
Even sacred architecture was classicized during the Neoclassical period. The Panthéon, located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Geneviève and to house the reliquary châsse containing her relics. However, during the French Revolution, the Panthéon was secularized and became the resting place of Enlightenment icons such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Designer Jacques-Germain Soufflot had the intention of combining the lightness and brightness of the Gothic cathedral with classical principles, but its role as a mausoleum required the great Gothic windows to be blocked. In 1780, Soufflot died and was replaced by his student, Jean-Baptiste Rondelet.
Similar to a Roman temple, the Panthéon is entered through a portico that consists of three rows of columns (in this case, Corinthian) topped by a Classical pediment. In a fashion more closely related to ancient Greece, the pediment is adorned with reliefs throughout the triangular space. Beneath the pediment, the inscription on the entablature translates as: “To the great men, the grateful homeland.” The dome, on the other hand, is more influenced by Renaissance and Baroque predecessors, such as St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London.
Intellectually, Neoclassicism was symptomatic of a desire to return to the perceived “purity” of the arts of Rome. The movement was also inspired by a more vague perception (“ideal”) of Ancient Greek arts and, to a lesser extent, 16th century Renaissance Classicism, which was also a source for academic Late Baroque architecture. There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European architecture of the earlier 18th century. This strain is most vividly represented in the Palladian architecture of Georgian Britain and Ireland.
The trend toward the classical is also recognizable in the classicizing vein of Late Baroque architecture in Paris. It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective now of “the best” Roman models. These models were increasingly available for close study through the medium of architectural engravings of measured drawings of surviving Roman architecture.
French Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in academic art through the 19th century and beyond—a constant antithesis to Romanticism or Gothic revivals.