Neoclassicism: An Overview of the Neoclassical Art Movement

Neoclassicism is an artistic movement that emerged in the mid-18th century. It reached its peak during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This movement demonstrates a renewed interest in the classical ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, as artists sought to create works that embodied simplicity and harmony. As part of the larger history of Western art, Neoclassicism represents a reaction against the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo styles, as well as a response to the political and social upheavals of the time.

The Origin, Peak, and Decline of Neoclassicism

The Emergence of Neoclassicism

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Ancient Roman Forum surrounded by arcades, with loggias

The Neoclassical movement was born out of a renewed interest in the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. This fascination was sparked by the excavations at Pompeii and the discovery of Herculaneum. At the same time, the Age of Enlightenment fostered a rationalist approach to art. The artists of the time, aimed to represent these principles of naturalism, rationality and morality. Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment were separate but connected movements; where Neoclassicism was a response to the cultural ideas of the time, partially influenced by the age of reason, that was exhibited in fine art, decorative arts, architecture and literature, the Enlightenment describes the broad shift in philosophical ideas and understanding of the laws of nature, that happened in the Western world.

The Height of Neoclassicism

Jacques-Louis David: Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the St Bernard Pass, 20th May 1800

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Neoclassicism reached its peak, with artists across Europe embracing the movement’s ideals. The French Revolution (1789-1799) played a significant role in shaping the direction of Neoclassical art, as artists sought to create works that expressed the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This period saw the emergence of key artists such as Jacques-Louis David, Antonio Canova, and Angelica Kauffman. These artists would come to define the Neoclassical style.

The Decline of Neoclassicism

By the mid-19th century, the Neoclassical movement began to wane, as artists turned their attention to new styles and themes. The Romantic movement, with its emphasis on emotion and individualism, emerged as a reaction against the rationalism and restraint of Neoclassicism. This shift in artistic focus marked the beginning of the end for the Neoclassical era, as the art world moved towards more personal and expressive forms of creativity.

Neoclassicism: A Reflection of Social, Political, and Artistic Change

Neoclassicism emerged during the mid-18th century as a reaction against the flamboyance and ornamentation of the Baroque and Rococo styles. The findings in the archeological digs beget the study of art history, with a focus on the ancient Roman art that was being discovered in the ruins. Stylistically, art exhibited elements of simplicity, harmony, accurate and ideal proportion, emulating the ancient findings. This mirrors the Renaissance period, where artists were also influenced by the works of the ancients.

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution challenged traditional hierarchies and values. In this context, artists sought to create works that reflected the ideals of reason, order, and democracy, drawing inspiration from the classical world. The social, political, and artistic context of the time played a crucial role in shaping the Neoclassical style, as artists responded to the changing world around them.

The Emergence of Neoclassicism: A Shift from Baroque and Rococo

Jean-Honore Fragonard: The Swing (Rococo)

The Baroque and Rococo periods were characterised by their extravagance, opulence, and highly decorative approach to art and architecture.

William Hamilton: Classical Ruins

By contrast, Neoclassicism represented a return to the principles of clarity, balance, and restraint found in the classical world. This shift was driven by several factors, including excavations in sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, which offered new insights into the aesthetics and values of antiquity.

The Influence of Political and Social Events

Jacques-Louis David: The Tennis Court Oath, 20th June 1789

The French Revolution (1789-1799) and the American Revolution (1775-1783) were significant political events that influenced the themes and subjects portrayed in Neoclassical art. These revolutions challenged traditional hierarchies and advocated for liberty, equality, and democracy. Artists therefore began to create works that reflected these revolutionary ideals. Neoclassical art often depicted scenes from classical history and mythology, drawing parallels between the ancient world and contemporary political struggles.

Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment

Benjamin West: Know Thy Self

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that emphasised reason, science, and progress over tradition and superstition. This intellectual shift had a profound impact on the emergence of Neoclassicism. Artists began to create works that embodied rationality, order, and the timeless principles of beauty. Neoclassicism was seen as a way to elevate art to a higher level. It promoted moral and intellectual values through its adherence to the classical tradition.

Archeological Discoveries

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Another View of the Temple in the city of Paestum, believed dedicated to Juno

During the Neoclassical Art Period, the discoveries at the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum played a crucial role in rekindling interest in the classical world. The ancient cities, which were buried under volcanic ash and pumice during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, were rediscovered in the early 18th century.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Another view of the ruins of the pronaos of the Temple of Concord

The excavations at Pompeii began in 1748, while Herculaneum was first uncovered in 1738. The discoveries made at these sites provided unprecedented access to well-preserved examples of Roman art, architecture, and daily life.

Some of the key findings that influenced Neoclassical art included:

  1. Frescoes: The vivid frescoes adorning the walls of homes and public buildings in Pompeii and Herculaneum offered valuable insights into Roman painting techniques, colour palettes, and subject matter. These well-preserved frescoes featured scenes from mythology, history, and everyday life. This therefore inspired Neoclassical artists to incorporate similar themes and styles in their work.
  2. Sculpture: Numerous sculptures were unearthed during the excavations. This provided valuable information about Roman sculptural techniques and materials, as well as the subjects favoured by ancient artists. These sculptures often depicted gods, goddesses, and mythological figures, which resonated with the Neoclassical interest in classical mythology and allegory.
  3. Architecture: The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum provided a wealth of information about Roman architectural styles. The use of columns, arches, and domes were widely adopted by Neoclassical architects and designers. As a result, architects emulated the proportions, symmetry and features of classical structures.

Key Artists and Their Contributions

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David: Lictors Bearing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons

A leading figure in the Neoclassical movement, Jacques-Louis David was a painter and a supporter of the French Revolution. He is considered a preeminent painter of the era. His works have therefore came to symbolise the principles of the French Revolution and harmonise with the shared perception of the moral climate of the time.

Iconic paintings, such as “The Oath of the Horatii” (1784) and “The Death of Marat” (1793), are characterised by their strong compositions, clear lines, and limited colour palette. David’s art played a crucial role in shaping the visual language of Neoclassicism and promoting its revolutionary ideals.

Antonio Canova

Sculpture: ‘Letizia Ramolino Bonaparte’ by Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova was an Italian sculptor who is considered one of the greatest exponents of Neoclassicism. His sculptures, such as “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” (1787-1793) and “The Three Graces” (1814-1817), are renowned for their elegance, grace, and idealised beauty. Canova’s ability to capture the essence of classical sculpture while infusing it with a sense of contemporary vitality made him a key figure in the development of the Neoclassical style. He extensively used the contrapposto technique, which was developed in Ancient Greece and used during the Renaissance. Contrapposto or ‘counter pose’, is where a figure is portrayed leaning on one engaged leg. This causes the pelvis and shoulders to tilt, making the pose appear more natural.

Benjamin West

Benjamin West: Edward III Crossing the Somme

West was an influential American-born painter, was born on October 10, 1738, in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He studied the works of Renaissance masters and ancient Greek and Roman art during his time in Italy from 1759 to 1763. West later settled in London, where he became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts, cementing his reputation as a skilled painter.

West’s contributions to the Neoclassical movement were characterised by the classical principles of harmony and naturalism. He often depicted historical and mythological subjects, drawing parallels between the ancient world and contemporary political events. His innovative approach to history painting marked a departure from tradition and greatly impacted the development of the Neoclassical style.

One of West’s most famous paintings, “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770), portrays the death of British General James Wolfe during the Battle of Quebec in 1759. West’s decision to depict the figures in contemporary clothing, rather than classical garb, was groundbreaking at the time.

Another notable work, “Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus” (1768), demonstrates West’s ability to combine classical themes with modern relevance. The painting resonated with contemporary audiences who were familiar with the political upheavals of their own time.

Characteristics and Style of Neoclassical Art

Neoclassical art marked a return to the classical ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Artists sought to create works that exuded beauty and order while responding to the current political, and cultural changes.

Clarity and Balance

François Gérard: Belisarius

One of the defining characteristics of Neoclassical art was its focus on clarity and balance. Artists aimed to create visually harmonious compositions, employing clean lines and well-defined forms to convey a sense of order and stability. This focus on clarity was a reaction against the excesses and ornamentation of the Baroque and Rococo styles that preceded it.

Use of Classical Motifs and Themes

Jean-Baptiste Pigalle: Mercury Attaching his Winged Sandals

Neoclassical artists drew inspiration from the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, incorporating classical motifs and themes into their work. Common subjects included scenes from classical history and mythology, as well as allegorical representations of virtues and ideals.

Emphasis on Proportion and Geometry

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Jupiter

Proportion and geometry played a central role in Neoclassical art, as artists aimed to create works that adhered to the principles of the “Golden Ratio” and other mathematical concepts found in ancient Greek and Roman art. This emphasis on proportion and geometry contributed to the overall sense of harmony and balance in Neoclassical compositions.

Restrained Use of Colour

James Barry: The Birth of Pandora

The Neoclassical style favoured a restrained use of colour, with artists often employing a limited palette to create a sense of unity and cohesion within their compositions. This approach to colour was a departure from the vibrant and elaborate palettes of the Baroque and Rococo periods, reflecting the Neoclassical focus on simplicity and restraint.

Moral and Intellectual Purpose

Benjamin West: Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky

Neoclassical art often had a moral or intellectual purpose. Artists conveyed messages about virtue, reason, and the human condition through their work. This focus on moral and intellectual content was influenced by the broader philosophical movements of the time, such as the Enlightenment, which emphasised rationality, progress, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Neoclassical Contributions in Sculpture

Prominent Artists and Key Works

Antonio Canova: Cupid and Psyche

The Neoclassical era witnessed a resurgence of interest in sculpture. Artists like Antonio Canova, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and Bertel Thorvaldsen made significant contributions. Canova’s sculptures, such as “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” (1787-1793) and “The Three Graces” (1814-1817), epitomised the grace, elegance, and idealised beauty associated with Neoclassicism. Houdon’s “Voltaire Seated” (1778) and Thorvaldsen’s “Jason with the Golden Fleece” (1802-1828) are other prominent examples of Neoclassical sculpture.

Characteristics of Neoclassical Sculpture

Neoclassical sculpture was characterised by its adherence to classical principles, emulating the Ancient Greek idea of the idealised form. Artists worked on sculptures with mythological and historical subjects, with a large focus on Greek allegories.

Neoclassical Decorative Arts

Eminent Artists and Notable Works

In the realm of decorative arts, Neoclassicism manifested itself through the works of architects and designers such as Robert Adam, Josiah Wedgwood, and Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat. Adam’s interior designs, exemplified by the Syon House and Osterley Park, celebrated the simplicity and harmony of classical motifs. Wedgwood’s renowned pottery, including his iconic Jasperware, was inspired by ancient Greek vase painting. Dalpayrat’s Neoclassical furniture designs showcased refined lines and restrained ornamentation.

Characteristics of Neoclassical Decorative Arts

The Neoclassical decorative arts were marked by a return to classical motifs and forms. Artists and designers embraced geometric patterns, Greco-Roman themes, and the use of high-quality materials. The decorative arts of this period often featured architectural elements such as columns, friezes, and pediments.

Neoclassicism in Literature

Neoclassical literature was shaped by writers like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire. Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” (1711) and “The Rape of the Lock” (1712) showcased his wit, satirical prowess, and adherence to classical principles. Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) and Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759) exemplified the era’s emphasis on reason, social critique, and moral instruction.

Neoclassical literature was distinguished by its focus on order, rationality, and moral purpose. Writers aimed to uphold classical ideals of clarity, balance, and structure in their work. Themes often included social satire, moral instruction, and the exploration of human nature. Neoclassical literature also saw the rise of genres such as the essay, the novel, and the heroic couplet.

The Legacy of Neoclassicism in Contemporary Art

The Neoclassical movement left a lasting impact on the art world, shaping the development of various contemporary art genres. Its emphasis on order, harmony, and proportion influenced the creation of subsequent artistic styles, such as Romanticism and Realism. Moreover, the fascination with the classical world continues to inspire artists today, as they seek to reinterpret ancient themes and aesthetics in new and innovative ways.