Neoclassical art rose in popularity in mid-18th-century Europe, where the style drew heavily from both the Renaissance and classical Greek and Roman art, architecture, and culture. The roots of the movement were primarily driven by the contemporaneous discoveries of Greek and Roman archaeological sites which offered unprecedented first-hand exposure to antiquity. From buildings complete with columns inspired by Greek temples to the grand compositions of French 18th-century painting, Neoclassicism recalled some of the most iconic features and motifs of classical art, demonstrating a renewed interest in the symmetry, harmony and proportions of classical antiquity.
What is Neoclassicism?
Neoclassicism, a genre that spanned from the late 18th to the early 19th century, yielded art and architecture that drew inspiration from classical forms and motifs. In stark contrast to the dynamism and elaborate compositions of the Rococo and Baroque styles, Neoclassicism demonstrated a yearning for the simplicity, symmetry, and idealism of works from Greek and Roman antiquity.
A focus on idealism—a philosophy which, when applied to the fine arts, emphasized the use of imagination and attempt to realize a mental conception of beauty—defined this era. Artists drew heavily upon classical shapes and materials, but tended to avoid the potentially stuffy and cold features of the past by focusing on harmony, simplicity, and proportion of shapes, materials, and colors.
What is the Difference Between Classicism and Neoclassicism?
Classicism and Neoclassicism both draw an aesthetic sensibility from the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, but their disparate time periods serve as the greatest distinction between the two. While classical art refers to art produced during the height of Greek and Roman antiquity, Neoclassical art—though heavily inspired by classicism—happened later. As a result, the terms are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to note the differences.
There are a few distinctions in terms of theoretical ideas as well. Much of classicism is based on the search for theoretical perfection, before a work is overly manipulated to the point of extravagance. It was thought that such high drama served to diminish the piece’s original purpose or meaning, as felt by the previous Rococo and Baroque periods. Neoclassicism focused more on an appreciation and fascination with antiquity rather than embracing it as a way of modern life.
A Brief History of Neoclassical Art
There were three core contributing factors that led to the rise of Neoclassicism: archaeological digs, The Grand Tour, and the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
By the mid-18th century, archaeology became a popular new field of science, fueled by major discoveries of ruins across Europe including Athens, Pompeii, and Herculaneum. Detailed illustrations and written accounts of dig sites spread widely across the continent, sparking interest in newly uncovered relics of classical antiquity. Neoclassicism drew directly upon this information, broadening the public’s historical perspective and reviving a passion for the past.
The Grand Tour, a 17th- and 18th-century European custom in which young, wealthy travelers would embark on an educational trip across Europe in search of arts and culture, also played a pivotal role in the spread of Neoclassicism. During this time, young members of high society traveling to Italy visited the studios of famous Neoclassical artists such as Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, encountered many ancient artifacts, and collected prized souvenirs to bring back to their libraries. These souvenirs made their way across the continent, into North America, and through Latin America in the 19th century, furthering the expansion.
Another key contribution that helped fuel the rise of Neoclassicism was the work of German philosopher and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768). Winckelmann wrote about the authority of Greek art, praising its idealistic images as superior to nature and rejecting the idea that art should imitate life. This ideology first appeared in the writings of Greek philosopher Plato, but Neoclassicists adopted its core principles and expanded upon them in their work. So influential were Winckelmann’s ideas that they sparked the Greco-Roman controversy in the 1760s, a debate that considered the superiority of Greek and Roman art and architecture.
Characteristics of Neoclassical Art
Historical and Mythological Subject Matter
Greek and Roman history and mythology were sources of inspiration for Neoclassical artists across Europe. From architecture and decor to folklore, Neoclassical art reflected the heroism and fantasy of mythical tales. This was ever-present in works depicting battles, historical scenes, and even modern-day scenes into which fantastical elements were added to achieve the desired antiquated aesthetic.
Artists drawing upon history and mythology became enthralled with the idealism of Greco-Roman art and architecture, which reflected the general belief that our reality is shaped by our own thoughts and ideas. Winckelmann furthered this fascination, expressing that Greek art was the epitome of qualities superior to nature. First-hand exposure to these artworks and archaeological relics influenced students of Neoclassicism. Such shapes and proportions were exemplified in paintings, architecture, and gardens—even nature was manipulated to encompass the new aesthetic.
Counter to the grandiose flair of Rococo and Baroque works, Neoclassicism favored simple elegance. A yearning for the purity of antiquity drew Europeans to the symmetrical compositions of newly discovered art and artifacts. Winckelmann frequently noted the “noble simplicity” of Greek works, and contemporary artists sought to recreate this. Clean lines, even proportions, and more even-hued color palettes were hallmarks of the genre.
Grand, large-scale pieces showcased the attention to detail artists sought to recreate. Ornate domed ceilings, frescoes commanding entire walls, and towering columns appeared all over Europe throughout the 18th century. Some of the most iconic banks and government buildings facades that still exist today emerged during the Neoclassical period.
Examples of Neoclassical Art
Giovanni Paolo Panini, “Ancient Rome”
Giovanni Paolo Panini’s “Ancient Rome” epitomizes core Neoclassical principles: frescoes, paintings, and marble statues depicting scenes from classical antiquity are on view in a grand hall, where students and scholars observe and create copies of their own. Panini’s piece serves to underscore the importance of exposure to classical pieces to the spread of Neoclassical ideals.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Princess Eudocia Ivanovna Galitzine as Flora”
Soft colors, perfectly proportioned facial features, and the inclusion of Greek architecture in the background: This piece by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun demonstrates the understated beauty that defined the Neoclassical era. As a French portrait painter, she was one of the most successful female artists of her time, well-known for her portraits of women. She alone painted twenty portraits of Marie Antoinette, and their friendship helped solidify her influential role in the Neoclassical movement.
Jacques-Louis David, “Portrait du pape Pie VII”
French artist Jacques-Louis David was one of the most influential contributors to the Neoclassical period; his works were recognized as exemplary of the time. David primarily painted historical events and depicted many leaders of the French Revolution after it began in 1789, including Napoléon Bonaparte and Pope Pius VII. Historical and mythical motifs took center stage in his works, channeling the idealism and appreciation of the past prevalent at the time.
Josef Metzger, “Bust of Eugénie de Beauharnais”
Marble statues and busts were mainstays in Greek and Roman architecture and the look was adopted during the Neoclassical era. This time, though, modern figures such as presidents and the elite were represented rather than gods and goddesses. The clean lines and smooth edges of marble exemplified the simplicity patrons desired. Some busts and statues were carved with traditional clothing contemporaneous to the Neoclassical period, while others showcased draped togas more evocative of a bygone era.
Neoclassical art’s praise of the past and opposition to more ostentatious trends made waves in the 18th and 19th centuries. From oil paintings and marble busts to architectural marvels, the movement was wide-reaching. An appreciation of the past married with modernity to bring forth a renewed interest in symmetry, harmony in composition, and focus on proportion.