Neo Classicism

1600-1700

With European Imperial expansion, wars on the continent, and the subsequent increase in travel and emigration, wealthy Europeans found themselves exposed to and inspired by the antiquities and ancient arts of the Classical period.

This gave them a fervent desire to discover all things antiquated and archeology and anthropology hit new heights, as did the search for ancient texts, lost sculpture, and hidden art. This coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, when more importance was being placed on reason, individuality, and free and shared thought outside of the confines of the previous systems of authority.

These things, the desire and pursuit of classical knowledge, coupled with the Age of Enlighten, laid the groundwork for Neoclassicism art movement to thrive.

Origins and Historical Importance:

Prior to Neoclassicism, Rococo art movement was the height of artistic, decorative, and architectural fashion. It was characterized by excessively ornate detail in luxury finishes, namely gold. This style was a favorite of the French aristocracy and highly influenced even their personal fashion. Neoclassicism was in part a rebuking of the fussiness of Rococo.

Toward the end of Rococo there was a renewed interest in the harmonious intent that had been reestablished during Renaissance, and artists and patrons looked forward to renewing the simplicity of earlier styles. As archeologists returned from distant lands with exquisite sculptures and drawings of great temples, this interest grew.

When the collectors of books, artifacts, and ancient civilizations went in search of their treasures, they sometimes brought artists with them that captured the beauty of these ancient scenes. Their works were printed and copied and reached a wide audience in middle and northern Europe. Artists were inspired by the drawings and adapted their styles around them, and in some cases worked on their art in the presence of the originals hanging in galleries.

These exploratory expeditions and the illustrations derived from them were much talked about in Europe and in England. Some artifacts were displayed in homes, and the wealthy purchased artwork illustrating the discoveries. This led to the formulation of what is known as The Grand Tour.

People from Northern Europe, England, and America descended in great number in the lands of antiquity to see the great wonders and ancient temples. The Italians called these travelers the cognoscenti, which means a person with great knowledge of a particular subject.

Neoclassic painting in its infancy was wildly popular. However, it never quite captured the elegance and sincerity of the actual classical period and now, so many years later, critics sometimes refer to the earliest works as “insipid.” Following as it did on the heels of Rococo, it is sometimes too ambitious and overdone, missing the harmonious mark it strove to hit. Later painters, such as Asmus Jacob Carstens or Jacques-Louis David were able to find success in the period and to reach the goal of “calm grandeur”, establishing their notoriety throughout the ages.

Neoclassic sculpture had more success as the artists had more examples to work from. More sculpture survives from the actual classical period than do frescoes or other paintings. The sculptures they had to work from were mostly Roman copies of the Greek, but it was sufficient to inspire great work. Again, what was wildly popular then is not so much today, with the exception of sculptors that took classic technique and applied to their own day and time, as in the case of Jean-Antoine Houdon who sculpted political and social figures important to his era in their own style and dress or Franz Xaver Messerschmidt who created “character heads” with strange facial expressions that were of great interest to the psychoanalysts of the early 20th century.

Neoclassicism art period was of great importance to architecture, especially in the case of prominent homes of the wealthy, churches, and governmental buildings. Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns made a comeback, as did pediments and adornments like medallions and cameos. Inside these great structures were sometimes painted on embellishments. This branch of Neoclassicism survived longer than the rest and is still prevalent in our time.

Key Highlights:

  • Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a scholarly writer that helped define the difference between Greek art and Roman art set down timelines for periods within those artistic cultures, and to show how these artistic traditions evolved. He was also known as “The Father of Archeology.”
  • Neoclassicism also influenced fashion and can been seen in the empire waists of Austen era England.
  • Classical sculptures inspired men to reject their powdered wigs and adopt Greek and Roman hairstyles characterized by short sides and a flip on the top. Even some women adopted the hair style.

Top Works:

  • Oath of the Horatii – Jacques-Louis David
  • Night and Her Children, Sleep and Death – Asmus Jacob Carstens
  • Hebe – Canova
  • Voltaire – Jean-Antoine Houdon
  • Nydia – Randolph Rogers
  • James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra – Gavin Hamilton

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