Neoclassicism is the name given to quite distinct movements in
the decorative and visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture that
draw upon Western classical art and culture (usually that of Ancient Greece or
Ancient Rome). These movements were dominant during the mid 18th to the end of the
In the visual arts the European movement called "neoclassicism" began after A.D.
1765, as a reaction against both the surviving Baroque and Rococo styles, and as a
desire to return to the perceived "purity" of the arts of Rome, the more vague
perception ("ideal") of Ancient Greek arts, and, to a lesser extent, 16th century
Rococo styles, and as a desire to return to the perceived "purity" of the arts of
Contrasting with the Baroque and the Rococo, Neo-classical paintings are devoid
of pastel colors and haziness, instead, they have sharp colors with Chiaroscuro. In
the case of Neo-classicism in France, a prime example is Jacques Louis David whose
paintings often use Roman and Greek elements to extol the French Revolution's
virtues (state before family).
Each "neo"- classicism selects some models among the range of possible classics
that are available to it, and ignores others. The neoclassical writers and talkers,
patrons and collectors, artists and sculptors of 1765-1830 paid homage to an idea
of the generation of Pheidias, but the sculpture examples they actually embraced
were more likely to be Roman copies of Hellenistic sculptures. They ignored both
Archaic Greek art and the works of Late Antiquity. The Rococo art of ancient
Palmyra came as a revelation, through engravings in Wood's The Ruins of Palmyra.
Even Greece was all-but-unvisited, a rough backwater of the Ottoman Empire,
dangerous to explore, so neoclassicists' appreciation of Greek architecture was
mediated through drawings and engravings, which subtly smoothed and regularized,
"corrected' and "restored" the monuments of Greece, not always consciously. As for
painting, Greek painting was utterly lost: neoclassicist painters imaginatively
revived it, partly through bas-relief friezes, mosaics, and pottery painting and
partly through the examples of painting and decoration of the High Renaissance of
Raphael's generation, frescos in Nero's Domus Aurea, Pompeii and Herculaneum and
through renewed admiration of Nicolas Poussin. Much "neoclassical" painting is more
classicizing in subject matter than in anything else.
There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European
architecture of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented in the Palladian
architecture of Georgian Britain and Ireland, but also recognizable in a
classicizing vein of architecture in Berlin. It is a robust architecture of
self-restraint, academically selective now of "the best" Roman models.
Neoclassicism first gained influence in England and France, through a generation
of French art students trained in Rome and influenced by the writings of Johann
Joachim Winckelmann, and it was quickly adopted by progressive circles in Sweden.
At first, classicizing decor was grafted onto familiar European forms, as in the
interiors for Catherine II's lover Count Orlov, designed by an Italian architect
with a team of Italian stuccadori: only the isolated oval medallions like cameos
and the bas-relief overdoors hint of neoclassicism, the furnishings are fully
But a second neoclassic wave, more severe, more studied (through the medium of
engravings) and more consciously archaeological, is associated with the height of
the Napoleonic Empire. In France, the first phase of neoclassicism is expressed in
the "Louis XVI style", the second phase in the styles we call "Directoire" or
Empire. Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes brought the new
archaeological classicism, which was embraced as a political statement by young,
progressive, urban Italians with republican leanings.
The high tide of neoclassicism in painting is exemplified in early paintings by
Jacques Louis David (illustration, left) and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' entire
career. David's Oath of the Horatii was painted in Rome and made a splash at the
Paris Salon of 1785. Its central perspective is perpendicular to the picture plane,
made more emphatic by the dim arcade behind, against which the heroic figures are
disposed as in a frieze, with a hint of the artificial lighting and staging of
opera, and the classical coloring of Nicolas Poussin. In sculpture, the most
familiar representatives are the Italian Antonio Canova, the Englishman John
Flaxman and the Dane Bertel Thorvaldsen. The European neoclassical manner also took
hold in the United States, where its prominence peaked somewhat later and is
exemplified in the sculptures of William Henry Rinehart (1825-1874).
In the decorative arts, neoclassicism is exemplified in Empire furniture made in
Paris, London, New York, Berlin, in Biedermeier furniture made in Austria, in Karl
Friedrich Schinkel's museums in Berlin, Sir John Soane's Bank of England in London
and the newly built "capitol" in Washington, DC, and in Wedgwood's bas reliefs and
"black basaltes" vases. The Scots architect Charles Cameron created palatial
Italianate interiors for the German-born Catherine II the Great in Russian St.
Petersburg: the style was international.
Indoors, neoclassicism made a discovery of the genuine classic interior,
inspired by the rediscoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had started in the
late 1740s, but only achieved a wide audience in the 1760s, with the first
luxurious volumes of tightly controlled distribution of Le Antichita di Ercolano.
The antiquities of Herculaneum showed that even the most classicizing interiors of
the Baroque, or the most "Roman" rooms of William Kent were based on basilica and
temple exterior architecture, turned outside in: pedimented window frames turned
into gilded mirrors, fireplaces topped with temple fronts, now all looking quite
bombastic and absurd. The new interiors sought to recreate an authentically Roman
and genuinely interior vocabulary, employing flatter, lighter motifs, sculpted in
low frieze-like relief or painted in monotones en camaieu ("like cameos"), isolated
medallions or vases or busts or bucrania or other motifs, suspended on swags of
laurel or ribbon, with slender arabesques against backgrounds, perhaps, of
"Pompeiian red" or pale tints, or stone colors. The style in France was initially a
Parisian style, the Gout grec, not a court style. Only when the plump, young king
acceded to the throne in 1774 did his fashion-loving Queen bring the "Louis XVI"
style to court.
From about 1800 a fresh influx of Greek architectural examples, seen through the
medium of etchings and engravings, gave a new impetus to neoclassicism that is
called the Greek Revival.
Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in academic art through the 19th
century and beyond-a constant antithesis to Romanticism or Gothic revivals-
although from the late 19th century on it had often been considered anti-modern, or
even reactionary, in influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several
European cities-notably St Petersburg and Munich-were transformed into veritable
museums of Neoclassical architecture.