Neoclassicism (approx. 1760 – 1830) was one of the most enduring and pervasive styles in the history of art, dominating the world of art for roughly eighty years and penetrating all levels of society far across the world. It was originally a reaction against the Baroque and Rococo
periods, a return to the perceived “purity” of classical antiquity. It was a restoration of a lost simplicity and harmony in art, but it was also much, much more.
Neoclassicism represented a shift in philosophical inquiry, questioning the fundamentals of art that had governed artists since the Renaissance
. These artists believed that the dominant aesthetics frivolously indulged themselves in lifeless reproductions and subjective expression, producing pieces that were devoid of any real meaning or value. The Neoclassicists called for a new austerity, a strict adherence to form and technique, believing that a return to the past could pave a new way to the future.
At the heart of Neoclassical art was a intense consciousness of ancient Roman and Greek art. The technique, style, and overall intent was a direct derivation of this antique aesthetic, particularly with the classical idea that art should be serious and unemotional. Neoclassicists believed in the importance of the objective viewpoint, and in the artist’s duty to approach his or her work in a controlled, uninvolved manner. The use and importance of color was deemed inconsequential, as it only distracted from the purpose of the painting. As such, artists generally used a rather subdued palette, with somber colors to further emphasize the gravity and seriousness of their intent. Linear interpretation was of primary importance to the of subject, and the artists adhered to a compositional restraint that created a uniform simplicity in each painting. Perspective and spatial complexities, which had been explored since the Renaissance, were abandoned in favor of this strict linear style. By stressing the importance of contour and line, artists abided by a markedly two-dimensional portrayal of the world.
Content and subject matter were also heavily influenced by classical antiquity. Many Neoclassical artists incorporated Greek and Roman elements such as mythological figures into their work. Artists also revived the teachings and writings of Dante and Virgil, often depicting moral narratives of self-denial and self-sacrifice that mirrored the ethical values depicted in classical literature. Though as the Neoclassical movement evolved, so too did the subject matter. Artists found that they could embrace a wider range of content, and treat it in the Neoclassical style. In this respect, Neoclassicism became flexible, suiting various tendencies and requirements. It could be used in an academic arena or in decorative arts. It could be used for political purposes or for commercial motivation. Its versatility was perhaps the primary reason for Neoclassicism’s widespread popularity.
Artists such as Jacques-Louis David
, Joseph-Marie Vien, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres helped perpetuate the Neoclassical movement, and their influence was so strong that it can still be felt today. It saturated the art world to such an extent that every succeeding aesthetic has either been a reaction against it or a reinterpretation of its fundamental ideologies. Even Romanticism
, which challenged the very foundation of Neoclassicism, was ultimately defined by its rejection of the Neoclassical approach to art. It’s an art movement that has impacted many of the styles that have come in its wake, and its indelible mark can still be felt today.