3.7: Art in the Enlightenment: Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassicism

The Baroque Period

The Baroque is a period of artistic style that started around 1600 in Rome, Italy, and spread throughout the majority of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. In informal usage, the word baroque describes something that is elaborate and highly detailed.

The most important factors during the Baroque era were the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, with the development of the Baroque style considered to be linked closely with the Catholic Church. The popularity of the style was in fact encouraged by the Catholic Church, which had decided at the Council of Trent that the arts should communicate religious themes and direct emotional involvement in response to the Protestant Reformation. Baroque art manifested itself differently in various European countries owing to their unique political and cultural climates.


The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

The use of the chiaroscuro technique is a well known trait of Baroque art. This technique refers to the interplay between light and dark and is often used in paintings of dimly lit scenes to produce a very high-contrast, dramatic atmosphere. The chiaroscuro technique is visible in the painting The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens. Other important Baroque painters include Caravaggio (who is thought to be a precursor to the movement and is known for work characterized by close-up action and strong diagonals) and Rembrandt.


The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens

In the Baroque style of architecture, emphasis was placed on bold spaces, domes, and large masses, as exemplified by the Queluz National Palace in Portugal. In the later part of the period, the Baroque style was termed Rococo, a style characterized by increasingly decorative and elaborate works.

Palace is pictured with an elaborate fountain in the foreground.

Queluz National Palace, Portugal

The Beginnings of Rococo

In the early years of the 1700s, at the end of the reign of Louis XIV (who dies in 1715), there was a shift away from the classicism and “Grand Manner” (based on the art of Poussin) that had governed the art of the preceding 50 years, toward a new style that we call Rococo. Versailles was abandoned by the aristocracy, who once again took up residence in Paris. A shift away from the monarchy, toward the aristocracy characterizes this period.

What kind of lifestyle did the aristocracy lead during this period? Remember that the aristocracy had enormous political power as well as enormous wealth. Many chose leisure as a pursuit and became involved themselves in romantic intrigues. Indeed, they created a culture of luxury and excess that formed a stark contrast to the lives of most people in France. The aristocracy, only a small percentage of the population of France, owned over 90% of its wealth. A small, but growing middle class does not sit still with this for long (remember the French Revolution of 1789).

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, oil on canvas, 1767 (Wallace Collection, London)

Fragonard’s The Swing

As with most Rococo paintings, the subject of Fragonard’s The Swing is not very complicated! Two lovers have conspired to get this older fellow to push the young lady in the swing while her lover hides in the bushes. Their idea is that as she goes up in the swing, she can part her legs, and he can get a perfect view up her skirt.

They are surrounded by a lush, overgrown garden. A sculptured figure to the left puts his fingers to his mouth, as though saying “hush,” while another sculpture in the background has two cupid figures cuddled together. The colors are pastel — pale pinks and greens, and although we have a sense of movement and a prominent diagonal line — the painting lacks all of the seriousness of a baroque painting.

If you look really closely you can see the loose brushstrokes in the pink silk dress, and as she opens her legs, we get a glimpse of her garter belt. It was precisely this kind of painting that the philosophers of the Enlightenment were soon to condemn. They demanded a new style of art, one that showed an example of moral behavior, of human beings at their most noble.

Rococo Architecture

Rococo architecture was a lighter, more graceful, yet also more elaborate version of Baroque architecture, which was ornate and austere. While the styles were similar, there are some notable differences between both Rococo and Baroque architecture, such as symmetry; Rococo emphasized the asymmetry of forms, while Baroque was the opposite. The styles, despite both being richly decorated, also had different themes; the Baroque was more serious, placing an emphasis on religion, and was often characterized by Christian themes (the Baroque began in Rome as a response to the Protestant Reformation); Rococo architecture was an 18th century, more secular, adaptation of the Baroque that was characterized by more light-hearted and jocular themes. Other elements belonging to the architectural style of Rococo include numerous curves and decorations, as well as the use of pale colors.

There are numerous examples of Rococo buildings as well as architects. Among the most famous include the Catherine Palace in Russia, the Queluz National Palace in Portugal, the Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces in Brühl, the Chinese House in Potsdam, the Charlottenburg Palace in Germany, as well as elements of the Château de Versailles in France. Architects who were renowned for their constructions using the style include Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian architect who worked in Russia and who was noted for his lavish and opulent works, Philip de Lange, who worked in both Danish and Dutch Rococo architecture, or Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann, who worked in the late Baroque style and who contributed to the reconstruction of the city of Dresden in Germany.

Rococo architecture also brought significant changes to the building of edifices, placing an emphasis on privacy rather than the grand public majesty of Baroque architecture, as well as improving the structure of buildings in order to create a more healthy environment.

In 1733, Empress Elizabeth commissioned Mikhail Zemtsov and Andrei Kvasov to expand the Catherine Palace. Empress Elizabeth, however, found her mother’s residence outdated and incommodious and in May 1752 asked her court architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to demolish the old structure and replace it with a much grander edifice in a flamboyant Rococo style. Construction lasted for four years, and on July 30, 1756 the architect presented the brand-new 325-meter-long palace to the Empress, her dazed courtiers, and stupefied foreign ambassadors.

Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, Saint Petersburg: The residence originated in 1717, when Catherine I of Russia hired German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein to construct a summer palace for her pleasure.


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. However, 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.

The centaur Chiron and the Greek hero Achilles.

Rinaldo Rinaldi, Chirone Insegna Ad Achille a Suonare La Cetra: Executed in a classical style and adhering to classical themes, this sculpture is a typical example of the Neoclassical style.

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.


Villa Godi Valmarana, Lonedo di Lugo, Veneto, Italy: Villa Godi was one of the first works by Palladio. Its austere facade, arched doorways and minimal symmetry reflect his adherence to classical stylistic values.

Neoclassical Paintings

Neoclassical painting, produced by men and women, drew its inspiration from the classical art and culture of ancient Greece and 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.

Three brothers are shown saluting their father who holds their swords out for them. In the bottom right corner, a woman is crying whilst sitting down.

Jacques-Louis David. The Oath of the Horatii (1784): Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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.

Virgil is standing, reading. A woman has fainted into the lap of Augustus, and another woman tries to help.

Virgil Reading to Augustus by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1812): Oil on canvas. The Walters Art Museum.

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.


Self-Portrait by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1788): In this untraced oil on canvas, Benoist (then Leroulx de la Ville) paints a section from David’s acclaimed Neoclassical painting of Justinian’s blinded general Belisarius begging for alms. Her return of the viewer’s gaze and classical attire show her confidence as an artist and conformity to artistic trends.

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.

Theseus and Pirithous are depicted as nude men saving two women who were abducted by men on horses.

Theseus and Pirithoüs Clearing the Earth of Brigands, Deliver Two Women from the Hands of Their Abductors by Angélique Mongez (1806): Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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.

Neoclassical Sculpture

A reaction against the “frivolity” of the Rococo, Neoclassical sculpture depicts serious subjects influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman past.

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.


Voltaire’s tomb.: Panthéon, Paris.

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.

imageBust of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon (c. 1786), National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

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.


Hebe by Antonio Canova  (1800–05).: Hermitage State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

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.


Monument to Copernicus by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1822–30).: Bronze. Warsaw, Poland.

Neoclassical Architecture

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.


Ange-Jacques Gabriel. Château of the Petit Trianon.: The Petit Trianon in the park at Versailles demonstrates the neoclassical architectural style under Louis XVI.

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.

Photo of the Arc de Triomphe lit up at night. There are two enormous archways leading inside, and it is intricately decorated on the outside.

Arc de Triomphe: The Arc de Triomphe, although finished in the early 19th century, is emblematic of French neoclassical architecture that dominated the Directoire period.

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.


Jacques-Germain Soufflot (original architect) and Jean-Baptiste Rondelet. The Panthéon.: Begun 1758, completed 1790.

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.


Lord Burlington. Chiswick House: The design of Chiswick House in West London was influenced by that of Palladio’s domestic architecture, particularly the Villa Rotunda in Venice. The stepped dome and temple façade were clearly influenced by the Roman Pantheon.

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.