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

What is neoclassicism?

Neoclassicism was an artistic movement that emerged in the 18th century as a reaction against the excesses of Baroque and Rococo styles. It sought to revive the principles of classical art and literature from ancient Greece and Rome.

Neoclassicism emphasized simplicity, order, and rationality in art and architecture. It rejected the ornate decoration and emotionalism of the Baroque and Rococo periods in favor of clean lines, symmetry, and clarity.

Characteristics of Neoclassicism

Neoclassical art often featured classical themes and subjects, such as mythology, history, and literature. Artists sought to emulate the style of ancient Greek and Roman art, with its emphasis on idealized forms and balanced compositions.

Neoclassical artists used a restrained color palette, focusing on shades of white, gray, and earth tones. They paid careful attention to detail and accuracy in their depictions of anatomy, drapery, and architecture.

Neoclassical Artists and Works

Some of the most famous Neoclassical artists include Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Antonio Canova. David’s painting “The Death of Socrates” and Ingres’ “The Grande Odalisque” are prime examples of Neoclassical art.

In sculpture, Canova’s “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” is a renowned Neoclassical work that exemplifies the movement’s emphasis on ideal beauty and classical themes.

Neoclassical Architecture

Neoclassical architecture drew inspiration from the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome, with their columns, pediments, and symmetrical facades. Prominent Neoclassical architects include Robert Adam, Thomas Jefferson, and John Nash.

Neoclassical buildings often featured grand entrances, domes, and porticos supported by columns. The White House in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London are notable examples of Neoclassical architecture.

Neoclassicism in Literature

Neoclassical literature sought to emulate the works of ancient Greek and Roman writers, such as Homer, Virgil, and Horace. Writers focused on themes of reason, order, and morality, often using classical forms such as the epic, ode, and satire.

Neoclassical writers valued clarity, precision, and elegance in their language, rejecting the elaborate metaphors and emotionalism of the Baroque and Rococo periods. Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” and Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” are classic examples of Neoclassical literature.

Neoclassicism in Modern Art

Although Neoclassicism reached its peak in the 18th century, its influence can still be seen in modern art and design. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol have drawn inspiration from classical themes and forms in their work.

Neoclassical elements, such as symmetry, balance, and idealized figures, continue to resonate with contemporary artists seeking to create timeless and universal expressions of beauty and truth. The enduring legacy of Neoclassicism reminds us of the enduring power of classical art and literature to inspire and enrich our lives.