A Brief Introduction to Historicism in Art History 

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa Antonio Canova - Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Public domain image, courtesy of Picclick.

Historicism inspired some of the most iconic works from the relatively recent past. From references to ancient Greco-Roman epic tales to revivals of Renaissance heroines and tragic figures, a stroll through any major art museum will quickly reveal that history has proven a core source of inspiration for art for generations. The same influence can be felt in architecture, where designs over time recalled the formal language of earlier building innovations. 

In this article, we too step back in time to consider the origins and influence of historicism in art and architectural history. In addition to briefly discussing how historicism evolved, we’ll profile some of the myriad movements wherein historicism’s influence can be felt most directly.

Navigating Through Time: A History of Historicism

Historicism refers to looking back to the past as a source of artistic inspiration, a practice that began in the earliest global communities. For example, cultures from ancient Greece to Mesoamerica used their art to depict origin stories, mythological heroes, and gods both out of veneration and a desire to keep these stories alive across generations. 

These ideas continued to play a role in art as the centuries progressed. Renaissance masters from Sandro Botticelli to Michelangelo conjured stories of Classical mythology during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in trend with a cultural revival of interest in the ancient world. At the same time, artists in Eastern Asia like Chinese talents Shen Zhou and Chen Hongshu similarly channeled historic figures into dynamic silk scroll paintings. 

A renewed artistic vigor for historicism emerged in the 18th century and resultantly proved foundational for rising artistic movements of the period. It is from this point, then,  that we can more specifically trace the reach of historicism.

Styles and Movements Influenced by Historicism

Let’s take a closer look at some of these movements touched by historicism via the lens of the work by artists and designers demonstrating this influence.

Neoclassicism (18th–19th century)

One of the first big waves of artistic historicism can be seen in late 18th-century France with the rise of Neoclassicism. So named as its focus was on a “new” Classicism, Neoclassical art emerged both as a reaction against the aristocratic excesses of the earlier Rococo period and in response to the rise of Enlightenment thinking. This latter movement’s renewed emphasis on reason, tied closely to the ideals upheld in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, led Neoclassical artists like Jacques-Louis David and Antonio Canova to focus their works on tales from antiquity rendered with order and precision. The same principles held in Neoclassical architecture as well, where the orders of Greco-Roman design reigned supreme. These aspects can be seen in:

Jacques Louis David’s Death of Socrates (1878)

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Jacques Louis David’s Death of Socrates

Jacques Louis David – The Death of Socrates. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Capturing the penultimate moment before Socrates’ death, Death of Socrates showcases a triumphant Socrates reaching for his fateful cup of poison alluding to his choice to die rather than renounce his beliefs. Though his surrounding colleagues are gripped by emotion, Socrates is steadfast in both his posture and gesture. Given this, David’s Socrates relays the Enlightenment’s cool-headed logic in that he can accept death if it means his ideas will carry on in future. David’s painting was also influenced by the spirit of revolution, as his use of this Classical tale has been described as a veil for his support of contemporary factions seeking  to overthrow the French monarchy (that would result in the French Revolution several years later).

Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1804-1806)

Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa captures the intensity of one of the most dramatic moments in Greek mythological history. Here he depicted the heroic Perseus as he displayed the decapitated head of the ill-fated Gorgon – whose gaze could turn others to stone – as a testament of his bravery. Canova’s gripping sculpture both picks up a Classical story but also modeled this figure after the Apollo Belvedere, an ancient Roman sculpture that was one of the most studied by artists.   

Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Panthéon (1758-1790)

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Jacques-Germain Soufflot - Le Panthéon.

Jacques-Germain Soufflot – Le Panthéon. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Taking its name from the ancient Roman temple dedicated to all the gods, Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s plans for the 18th-century Panthéon in Paris exuded Classical architectural principles. From its pronounced rotunda and façade that recalls the components of a traditional Greek or Roman temple from antiquity, the entire structure so carefully captures antiquity that it is as if it is an artifact from the past itself.

Romanticism (late 18th–mid-19th century)

Absorbing some Neoclassical theatricality but transitioning away from Enlightenment-inspired logic, the artists of Romanticism imbued in their works a renewed emphasis on emotion and imagination. While some, like Caspar David Fredrich chose to create works that primarily elicited emotionally evocative experience, others, like Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix balanced elements of historicism with this expressivity such that their audience could feel a connection either within themselves or with the larger world. Some of the best examples of Romanticism include:

Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819) 

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa

Théodore Géricault – The Raft of the Medusa. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As if recounting a climactic moment in a stage play, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa nevertheless reveals a tragic moment in French History when a wrecked frigate named the Medusa ran aground and left hundreds of survivors stranded at sea. In this colossal painting, Géricault conveys an incredible array of emotions, from the despondent figures facing death at lower left to the hopeful optimism of impending rescue at upper right. Very much designed to pull the viewer into this atrocity, Géricault’s painting also recalls the heroic figure of the Classical world, resulting in a painting that pulls from reality but also celebrates antiquity. 

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830)

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Eugene Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A powerful scene of an uprising, Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People relays the Parisian July Revolution of 1830 that sought the abdication of the French king. Creating an evocative scene where all social strata of Parisian life are banding together in revolution – and, as the corpses remind in the foreground, risked death – Delacroix’s painting centers on a female figure who triumphantly pushes forward. She is the namesake of the composition and serves as a symbolic reminder of the principle of liberty that unified these rebels. Liberty herself proved a controversy – while Delacroix depicts her as an allegory, being barefoot and bearing symbols of the French nation – he also conjured her not as an ideal goddess but rather closer to a real woman. This level of reality was avant-garde for the day but recalls how artfully Delacroix was able to weave a historical reference into his contemporary narrative.

Historicism's Greatest Hits: William Blake - The Ancient of Days.

William Blake – The Ancient of Days. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

William Blake’s The Ancient of Days (printed 1794)

Depicting the Biblical figure of Urizen, William Blake’s The Ancient of Days was originally used as the frontispiece illustration for his book, Europe a Prophecy, originally published in 1794. The central protagonist exudes a study of musculature that recalls both antiquity and the work of Renaissance icon Michelangelo, yet the environment – one enveloping this figure in fierce, almost fiery cloudbanks – creates a visceral emotional response from the viewer. It is through this tumultuous setting that Blake conveyed the visionary nature of the moment shown and introduced readers to his fantastical mythologies in the subsequent pages. 

Historicism in the Late 19th Century

Following the successes of Romanticism in the earlier years of the century, another uptick in historicism occurred in art and architecture later in the century and was spurred in large part in reaction to the Industrial Revolution and its impact on contemporary life. The Industrial Revolution brought new modern conveniences, but it also emphasized the potential of manufacturing and mass production. Denouncing this societal shift, several networks of artists sought to exalt traditional artistic practices and, in tandem, uphold the narratives (and methods from the past). This pursuit was paired as well with rising European nationalism, where individual artistic circles sought to help traditional modes of making alive and well. Movements that exemplify these practices include:

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), London, England

Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), London, England. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Gothic Revival Architecture

The Gothic Revival movement, which surged in popularity in the early 19th century, celebrated the time-honored architectural methods of Gothic era design. In addition to restoring earlier Gothic paragons, like the 13th-century Sainte Chapelle, Gothic Revival architects and designers used the forms of this medieval period in new construction in part as a means to combat what they considered the pernicious impact of the industrial age to instead return to an earlier, and perhaps simpler, era.

Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), London, England (rebuilt 1840-1876)

One of the most iconic facades in all of London, the Palace of Westminster serves as a fantastic illustration of Gothic Revival style. Designed by Charles Barry in collaboration with Augustus Pugin, this building’s Gothic references resonated both inside and out from the use of ornate Gothic spires, crenellations, and tracery to transform the exterior into an almost lacey, ethereal silhouette.

The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, USA (1889-1895)

Historicism's Greatest Hits: The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, USA.

The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina, USA. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Reflecting the reach of Gothic Revival aesthetics beyond the European continent, the Biltmore Estate in the United States was designed for George Washington Vanderbilt II by architect Richard Morris Hunt. Stretching across more than 170,000 square feet, the dwelling features a stone façade and ornate Gothic turrets that recall a French medieval chateau.    

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Historicism's Greatest Hits: John Everett Millais - Ophelia

John Everett Millais – Ophelia. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So-named for their celebration of art from before Renaissance artist Raphael, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood debuted around 1850 art designed to recall the narratives and styles of Early Renaissance painting. Choosing vibrant, saturated palettes and narratives derived from Dante to Shakespeare, this network of painters worked in opposition to the standards of London’s Royal Academy. Thus, the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, including founding members John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriele Rossetti illustrates once again the rebellious quality that historicism can support. Some of the core works associated with this brotherhood include:

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851–1852)

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia is both a celebration of Shakespearean drama and the exactitude inherent in many Pre-Raphaelite works. Here Millais depicts Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” character Ophelia slowly submerging in the waters that would prove her end. She is enveloped by a breathtaking and abundant riverside abloom in flowers and other verdant foliage such that the sheer life of this landscape contrasts with the impending death ahead. Some of this detail is owed to Millais’ dedication to precision: in addition to convincing his model, Elizabeth Siddal, to pose full-clothed in a bathtub so that he could capture the realistic sensation of free-floating fabric, Millais also purportedly spent hours studying from nature along riverbanks nearby his home such that his landscape could be as authentic as possible.

Historicism's Greatest Hits: Dante Gabriele Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix

Dante Gabriele Rossetti – Beata Beatrix. Public domain image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dante Gabriele Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1864-1870)

It is perhaps owed to Rossetti’s aims as a writer that he selected a narrative from Dante Alighieri for Beata Beatrix. Rossetti creates a moving scene centered on Beatrice Portinari, Dante’s lost love that he lamented in his 13th-century La Vita Nuova. Overflowing with symbolism, from the sundial alluding to the passage of time and the poppy blossom connoting impending death, Rossetti also alludes to his model, also Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in the early 1860s from a laudanum overdose.

Historicism’s Greatest Hits 

This brief introduction only scratches the surface of the incredible variety of influences that historicism has held over art and architecture. Nevertheless, even through these few examples one can get a sense of the many ways artists and designers have put history to good use in their work. Whether it’s a theme drawn from the past either ancient or contemporary, historicism can arguably be positioned as the backbone of much of Western European design.