Neoclassical art is a particularly orderly, unemotional, and severe form of art that emerged sometime around 1760. There is an emphasis on historically correct costumes and settings, austere lines, and perfect composition. It had its roots in Roman and Greek art and was founded mainly on the writings of the German archeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
The term “Neoclassicism” is used to describe movements in Western decorative and visual arts, including architecture, theatre, and literature, that draw inspiration from the culture and art of ancient Greece and Rome.
Neoclassical art was a revival of the classical style and was founded on the belief, best expressed by the ancient Greeks, that beauty is in the form and in the external. It dismissed individuality in the artist and insisted upon technical skill and exact form and balance.
Neoclassicism was more than just an art movement. French Neoclassicism is connected to political upheaval and the beliefs of the French Revolution. French Neoclassical works embodied the views of the likes of Voltaire and Diderot and emphasized nationalism, morality, basic human rights, moderation, and rationalism.
Neoclassical Art Context and Beginnings
The birth of Neoclassical art was brought on mainly by a series of archaeological discoveries during the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the 18th century. These brought the grandeur and classical art of ancient Greece and Rome into the consciousness of many artists and scholars.
Following the excavations at the buried city of Pompeii, Winckelmann published Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture (1750) and Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums or History of Ancient Art (1764). These books on the history of ancient Greek art were highly influential and triggered a wave of renewed interest in classicism in art, design, and architecture. Winckelmann came to be known as a champion of Greek art and Neoclassicism.
The interest in Neoclassical art began spreading all over Europe with the popularization of the Grand Tour. As a generation of art students returned to their home countries from their trips to Italy, they brought new ideas about Greco-Roman art and culture as well as antiquities that became the seeds of many great Neoclassical collections.
Neoclassicism also rose as a reaction to the Rococo style, which was thought to be as being excessive, overbred, and overly emotional. While Rococo was frivolous and maudlin, Neoclassicism was rigid and harsh.
Some of the early proponents of Neoclassical art emulated the work of French painter Nicolas Poussin and promoted “Poussiniste” painting, believing that drawing was the most important element in painting. They thought that drawing, which was considered clear-headed and rational, was morally superior. These artists thought that art should be intellectual instead of sensual.
The rise of Neoclassical art coincided with the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. It lasted into the 19th century when it competed with Romanticism. Neoclassical architecture continued well into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Neoclassical Art Concepts and Styles
Neoclassical art is known for its somber colors, strong and non-dynamic lines, clear forms, and shallow space. The subject matter, theme, or event depicted is typically classical or classicized contemporary.
In the early years of the Neoclassicism movement, Neoclassical paintings weren’t all that different from those in the French Rococo style and other styles that had come before it. Some of the early adopters, like the Swiss painter Angelica Kauffmann and the French portrait painter Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, produced dreamy, sentimental artworks that was barely distinguishable from Rococo paintings.
Though many of the paintings produced during this early period in Neoclassicism were patterned after what the artists saw in ancient Greek sculptures and vase paintings, they were also heavily influenced by the preceding art styles regarding general composition and the poses and arrangements of the figures.
Neoclassical painters drew and shaded well-delineated shapes. There was a huge emphasis on perfect forms and smooth surfaces. Brushstrokes are not — or should not — be visible in Neoclassical paintings.
There was an emphasis on realism. Neoclassical painters made sure that they depicted the settings, costumes, and other details of the artwork with historical accuracy. It wasn’t an issue when illustrating a literary subject or a scene from a story, but when it came to famous people, there was some confusion as to whether they should be garbed in classical or contemporary costumes.
Compared with other art styles, Neoclassicism was generally sober and exacting. Paintings were done in this style show that linear design and subject accuracy were more important than light, colors, and atmosphere. It was particularly evident in the works of the British sculptor John Flaxman, who drew illustrations for editions of text by Homer and Dante in the 1790s.
Flaxman’s illustrations are remarkable for how the human body was drastically simplified, the austere stage settings, and the denial of pictorial space. His way of depicting the human body would later be adopted by other British artists, including William Blake.
This Neoclassical austerity was also notable in the somber works of the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. He painted numerous portraits that showed muted colors, reduced picture planes, and emphasis on linear design. Even his nudes, which ought to have been more sensual, show brilliance in technical skill but are essentially cold and stiff.
Much of the themes and many of the central figures in Neoclassical paintings come from ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology. Many were taken from plays by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, poems by Virgil, Ovid, and Homer, and historical texts by Plutarch and Pliny. Possibly the most common source of inspiration for these paintings was the legendary Greek author Homer, who wrote the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Like Neoclassical paintings, Neoclassical architecture is heavily dependent on symmetry and emphasizes simplicity, both of which were thought to be virtues of ancient Greece and Rome. The move towards antique simplicity in Neoclassic architecture was a reaction towards the extravagance of the Rococo style.
In Neoclassical architecture, you will typically see Greek or Roman details, negative space, and a lot of columns. It is also notable for its geometric forms and grandiose scales.
Neoclassical architecture flourished in Europe and the United States, with Neoclassical structures popping up in practically every major city. By the year 1800, almost all new British buildings were Neoclassical. In Russia, Catherine III filled St. Petersburg with Neoclassical buildings.
The centers of many European cities, like Munich and St. Petersburg, are still filled with Neoclassical architecture. The Neoclassical style also became widespread in colonial Latin America.
In the United States, Neoclassical architecture thrived throughout the 19th century and beyond. It was a particularly popular style for important government buildings, with architects attempting to pattern the young nation after imperial Rome.
Neoclassicism in the decorative arts was evident in the Biedermeier furniture in Austria, Empire furniture in Paris and London, and the English potter Josiah Wedgwood’s “black basaltes” vases. In Russia, Catherine the Great’s palaces featured Neoclassical Italianate interiors designed by the Scots architect Charles Cameron.
While Neoclassical painters had few ancient Greek models to model their work on, Neoclassical sculptors had no such problem. Examples of Greek sculpture were plentiful, though the most popular works were likely Roman copies.
Neoclassical sculptors imitated Greek and Roman sculpture even more so than the Renaissance sculptors did. They modeled their work on those from the Hellenistic period, which resulted in sculptures that evoked grace, sensuality, and softness.
Neoclassical Art Notable Paintings
Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David
Oath of the Horatii was commissioned with the intention that it would be a symbol of loyalty to the king and the state. It became a huge success at the Paris Salon of 1785 and remains one of the most popular Neoclassical paintings in art history.
The painting is a depiction of a scene from a Roman story about two warring cities. In Oath of the Horatii, three men from the Horatius family of Rome are about to engage in a ritual duel against three members of the Curiatii family of Alba Longa. It is meant to convey the importance of loyalty, solidarity, duty, and patriotic sacrifice.
The oil on canvas painting shows quintessential Neoclassical elements such as subdued colors, heroic figures, a central perspective, and strong lines. The darkness of the background makes the scene in the foreground dramatic and forceful.
Oath of the Horatii increased David’s fame. He rose to become a leader of French art and later joined politics and took on roles that gave him control of government patronage in art.
The Vow of Louis XIII (1824) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The French government also commissioned this Ingres painting. It depicts a vow to the Virgin Mary made by Louis XIII of France in 1638. He had vowed to dedicate his kingdom to the Virgin Mary in Her Assumption.
When Ingres accepted the commission, he was residing and working in Florence. After working on the oil on canvas painting for four years, he brought The Vow of Louis XIII to the Paris Salon in 1824. It became a sensational success and cemented Ingres’s position as a leader in the Paris art world.
Ingres was best known for his exemplary skill in drawing. He firmly believed that line, not color, was the element that conveyed the emotion in a painting.
Parnassus (1761) by Anton Raphael Mengs
This oil on canvas painting was a sketch for the fresco painting at Villa Albani in Rome that was commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Albani. It propelled Mengs to fame and led to his status as a master painter.
In Parnassus, Mengs turned away from Baroque art and began to lean more towards Neoclassical art. Mengs was a close friend of Johann Joachim Winckelmann and shared the art historian’s interest in classical antiquity.
Mengs may have thought of himself as the first Neoclassical artist, even though his works showed some Baroque influence. In Parnassus, he was heavily influenced by the fresco of the same name that Raphael painted at the Vatican Palace in Rome.
The center of Parnassus shows Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, with the symbols traditionally ascribed to him: a laurel wreath and a lyre. To his right, the Muses Erato, Clio, Urania, Euterpe, and Melpomene either sit or stand. In the painting, Clio bears a resemblance to Margarita, Mengs’s wife.
Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, is to Apollo’s left, as are the Muses Calliope, Thalia, Terpsichore, and Polhymnia.
When it was completed in 1761, the Parnassus in the main hall of the Villa Albani was a huge hit. It was instrumental in establishing the popularity of Neoclassical painting in Italy and the rest of Europe.
Neoclassical Art Notable Artists
Antonio Canova was an Italian sculptor best known for his marble sculptures. He is often referred to as the greatest Neoclassical artist. His sculptures were influenced by Baroque art but did not evoke the melodrama of that particular style.
Some of his most popular artworks are Orpheus (1777), Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1787), Perseus Triumphant (1804-1806), and The Three Graces (1814-1817).
Jacques-Louis David was a French painter and active supporter of the French Revolution. He is recognized as one of the best Neoclassical painters in history and one of the greatest painters in France and even all of Western Europe. His trademark intellectual style of painting was a departure from the frivolity of the Rococo style and a move toward the severity of Neoclassicism.
David’s greatest artworks include Oath of the Horatii (1784), The Death of Socrates (1781), The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799), Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801), and Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824).
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was referred to as the leader of the Neoclassical movement in France. He thought of himself as a painter of history much in the same way that Jacques-Louis David and Nicolas Poussin were. He is best known for his portrait paintings and for being a precursor of modern art.
Ingres’s most famous artworks include The Vow of Louis XIII (1824), The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian (1834), The Illness of Antiochus (1840), and Portrait of Baronne de Rothschild (1848).
Artists who created work in the Neoclassical style span various generations and nationalities. They include 17th- and 18th-century French painters Jean-Francois de Troy, Jean Restout, Louis Jean Francois Lagrenee, and Joseph Marie Vien, as well as 19th-century American sculptors Harriet Goodhue Hosmer and Daniel Chester French.
Neoclassical Art References
Artcyclopedia.com (n.d.) Artists by Movement: Neoclassical Art. Retrieved from http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/neoclassicism.html
Britannica.com (n.d.) Neoclassical Architecture. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/Neoclassical-architecture
Gersh-Nesic, B. (n.d.) Neoclassicism, an introduction. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/a/neoclassicism-an-introduction
MetMuseum.org. (n.d.) Neoclassicism. Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/neoc_1/hd_neoc_1.htm