Classicism – Definition, Examples, History & More – Art Theory Glossary

What is Classicism?

Classicism is a style of art, literature, and architecture that draws inspiration from the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. It is characterized by a focus on order, symmetry, and simplicity, as well as a reverence for the ideals of beauty, harmony, and proportion.

Classicism emphasizes clarity, rationality, and restraint in artistic expression, seeking to capture the timeless qualities of the classical past. It is often seen as a reaction against the excesses and extravagance of the Baroque and Rococo styles that preceded it.

Origins of Classicism

Classicism emerged in the 18th century as a response to the perceived decadence and frivolity of the Baroque and Rococo styles. It was influenced by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman art and literature, as well as by the ideals of the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, logic, and order.

The archaeological excavations of ancient ruins in Italy and Greece also played a significant role in shaping the aesthetic of Classicism, as artists and architects sought to emulate the grandeur and elegance of classical antiquity.

Some key characteristics of Classicism include a focus on simplicity, symmetry, and proportion in design, as well as a preference for clear, uncluttered compositions. Classicist art and architecture often feature classical motifs such as columns, arches, and pediments, as well as references to classical mythology and history.

Classicism also values realism and naturalism in representation, seeking to capture the idealized beauty of the human form and the natural world. This emphasis on harmony and balance reflects the classical belief in the importance of moderation and self-control.

Key Figures in Classicism

Some of the key figures associated with Classicism include the painter Jacques-Louis David, whose neoclassical works such as “The Death of Socrates” and “The Oath of the Horatii” exemplify the style’s emphasis on moral and political themes.

In architecture, the Italian architect Andrea Palladio is known for his classical designs inspired by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, while the British architect Inigo Jones helped popularize the classical style in England with his Palladian-inspired buildings.

Influence of Classicism on Art History

Classicism has had a lasting impact on art history, influencing movements such as Neoclassicism, which emerged in the late 18th century and sought to revive the classical ideals of beauty, harmony, and order in response to the excesses of the Rococo style.

Classicism also played a significant role in the development of academic art, which emphasized the importance of tradition, technique, and craftsmanship in the creation of art. The classical principles of balance, proportion, and harmony continue to inform artistic practice to this day.

Criticisms of Classicism

Despite its enduring popularity, Classicism has not been without its critics. Some have argued that the style can be overly rigid and formulaic, stifling creativity and individual expression in favor of a strict adherence to classical conventions.

Others have criticized Classicism for its association with elitism and conservatism, arguing that its emphasis on order and tradition can be exclusionary and resistant to change. Additionally, some have questioned the relevance of the classical ideals of beauty and perfection in a modern, diverse society.