Neoclassical Art Movement

 1760 – 1830

How to identify Neoclassical art?

1. Greek or Roman men armoured with swords and spears, e.g. The Oath of Horatii by Jacques-Louis David

The Oath of Horatii by Jacques-Louis David

2. Classical subject matter: People in static calm poses, draped in flowing Greek robes, Roman togas and sandals, e.g. Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

3. Clear and sharp outlines within a rectilinear composition featuring people looking polished and posing in a statuesque manner, as if they’re marble sculptures e.g. The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David


How Neoclassical art got its name? and where did it originate?

Neoclassicism (meaning New Classicism) was born in the mid-1700s, originally in Rome but its popularity exploded in France, as a generation of French and other European art students finished their training and returned from Rome to their home countries with newly-rediscovered Greco-Roman (Classical) ideals. As a testimony of the significant influence the Greeks and Romans had on Western civilization, interestingly the term itself is a merger of words derived from both ancient languages spoken by them; neos (Greek for “new”), classicus (Latin for “first class”) and ismos (Greek for “doctrine” or “ideology”). Neoclassical art style was widely adopted and popularized by French artists, since France was the centre of culture and art in Europe at that time. The art movement was not limited to painting and sculpture; it was also manifested in literature, architecture and music, embraced by artists all over Europe and America. Born on the eve of the Age of Revolution, it reflected the intellectual, social and political changes of that period. One book (Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 1926) accurately describes it as “the semiofficial voice of the French Revolution.”

What gave rise to Neoclassical art movement?

1. The Age of Enlightenment and the Grand Tour

Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, thirteen centuries earlier, Europeans had been nostalgically fascinated by the grandeur and glory of ancient Rome. It was always in the intellectual background, hence several classical revivals emerged over the centuries, such as the one that materialized in Italian Renaissance art. However, it was powerfully reignited in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, due to the philosophical return to classical thought, and renewed appreciation of Greek and Roman cultures. Being one of the leading advocates of Neoclassicism, German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann summed up the admiration of a new generation of artists behind such resurgence of classical tradition in his book History of Ancient Art (1764). His influential book gave the movement momentum in which he famously proposed that since the ancients had already attained perfection in their art, “the only way for modern artists to achieve greatness was to imitate the Greeks.” [Source: Antoine Watteau: Perspectives on the Artist And the Culture of His Time By Mary D. Sheriff]. In the 1750s, art students in Rome gathered around the historian Winckelmann and his protégé, the painter Anton Raphael Mengs, one of the earliest artists to adopt classical themes in his paintings. By the end of their mid-18th century “pilgrimage” to Rome, a part of what is known as the Grand Tour, expatriate artists had acquired newly-found ideals from the ancient past and a new artistic style.

2. The Ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii

The revival was also inspired by the excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Both were Roman sites, buried under volcanic ash and mud in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Such archaeological discoveries were the biggest news of the day. Ancient lost cities, frozen in time, preserved for centuries and about to give an accurate picture of life in antiquity. The excavated artifacts sparked the interest of people and artists in particular. Several books were published about Graeco-Roman art like Antiquities of Athens of 1762 (by English archaeologists James Stuart and Nicholas Revett) and the European fascination with classical antiquity began to be reflected in paintings, fashion, furniture and even tableware and garden design. Architecturally, the Arc de Triomphe of Paris (built between 1806 and 1836) is one of the best known Neoclassical constructions. Also, the American Founding Fathers were in favor of the Neoclassical style. Many government buildings, universities and museums were built to look like Greek temples, for example the White House (built between 1792-1800) and the US Capitol (built between 1793-1829).

3. The Age of Revolution

The advent of revolutionary movements in France and America, based on classical ideals such as the democracy of ancient Athens and Rome, made Neoclassical art even more appealing. Those ideals were a major force behind the American colonies’ Declaration of Independence from the British Empire (1776) and the overthrow of the French monarchy (1789). As they rejected and revolted against the contemporary unjust governments, they found values and inspiration in the Greco-Roman past. Concepts related to the republic and senate, of the ancient ruling system of Rome, provided the revolutionaries with a vision for the emerging American and French republics. The basic reasons behind the French Revolution were poverty and famine, which provoked the rising of the impoverished society that included peasants, laborers and merchants against both the aristocracy and clergy. Frustration with the monarchy and the Church turned violent and hundreds of priests were killed by mobs throughout the revolution, as happened in the September Massacres of Paris in 1792. Eventually, the French government replaced the quasi-state religion of Christianity with anti-clerical Secularism. With religion marginalized, it’s no surprise that they looked towards an alternative source of morals and values from antiquity. That hostility to religion explains why on the path to the revolution, Neoclassical artists portrayed themes of civic duty and allegiance to the state rather than to church (or family). Paintings showed virtues glorified by the Romans and Greeks, like fighting for one’s country, bravery and loyalty. They promoted ideals such as patriotism, courage and sacrifice. The anti-clerical sentiment is evident in the radical approach of depicting civic virtues that were idealized by pagan Romans and Greeks, instead of biblical virtues and Christian saints. It’s not an art style where you’d find a moral message through a painting of a Christian martyr, but rather a dying pagan philosopher (e.g. The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David). Modern-day fallen patriots and revolutionaries were mythologized and portrayed as heroes bravely meeting their demise in scenes that resemble religious martyrdom (e.g. Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David). One of the best known examples of neoclassical paintings was The Oath of the Horatii painted five years before the outbreak of the revolution. It was painted by French artist Jacques-Louis David whose artwork anticipated the revolution. Three-quarters of the French were illiterate which created an opportunity for art to become a political tool to arouse revolutionary fervor.

Rebels of a New Generation

Neoclassical painters rebelled against Rococo art because it epitomized what was wrong with a formerly great nation. Rococo art represented the aristocratic extravagances of the pre-revolutionary society under Louis XV. Its shallow subject matter showed flirty women and frolicsome men, cherubs and cupids, mythological scenes, and carefree people with a hedonistic attitude. It was almost sinful and certainly lustful. Neoclassical artists rejected the Rococo superficial beauty and aristocratic frivolity. If Rococo art was aimed at the French aristocracy, then Neoclassical art was aimed at the masses on the verge of revolting against the aristocracy. If Rococo style represented a decadent culture, then Neoclassical subject matter was art with a moral character. Unlike the Rococo art movement, the purpose of art was no longer decorative but to inspire values while yearning towards the greatness of Greco-Roman cultures. Art had a political role to play. As a sign that flamboyance had given way to solemnity, clarity and order, the serpentine and curvilinear motifs of the Rococo style were replaced by the Neoclassical symmetrical and rectilinear ones.