Neoclassicism (sometimes rendered as Neo-Classicism or Neo-classicism)
is the name given to quite distinct movements in the visual arts,
literature, theatre, music, and architecture. These movements were
in effect at various times between the 18th and the 20th centuries.
What could these "neoclassicisms" have in common?
What any "neo"-classicism depends on most fundamentally
is a consensus about a body of work that has achieved canonic status
(illustration, right). These are the "classics." Ideally—
and neoclassicism is essentially an art of an ideal— an artist,
well-schooled and comfortably familiar with the canon, does not
repeat it in lifeless reproductions, but synthesizes the tradition
anew in each work. This sets a high standard, clearly; but though
a neoclassical artist who fails to achieve it may create works that
are inane, vacuous or even mediocre, gaffes of taste and failures
of craftsmanship are not commonly neoclassical failings. Novelty,
improvisation, self-expression, and blinding inspiration are not
neoclassical virtues; neoclassicism exhibits perfect control of
an idiom. It does not recreate art forms from the ground up with
each new project, as modernism demanded. "Make it new"
was the modernist credo of the poet Ezra Pound.
Late Baroque classicizing: G. P. Pannini assembles the canon of
Roman ruins and Roman sculpture into one vast imaginary gallery
(1756)Speaking and thinking in English, "neoclassicism"
in each art implies a particular canon of "classic" models.
We recognize them, even if we struggle against their power: Virgil,
Raphael, Nicholas Poussin, Haydn. Other cultures have other canons
of classics, however, and a recurring strain of neoclassicism appears
to be a natural expression of a culture at a certain moment in its
career, a culture that is highly self-aware, that is also confident
of its own high mainstream tradition, but at the same time feels
the need to regain something that has slipped away: Apollonius of
Rhodes is a neoclassic writer; Ming ceramics pay homage to Sung
celadon porcelains; Italian 15th century humanists learn to write
a "Roman" hand we call italic (a.k.a. Carolingian); Neo-Babylonian
culture is a neoclassical revival, and in Persia the "classic"
religion of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism, is revived after centuries,
to "re-Persianize" a culture that had fallen away from
its own classic Achaemenean past.
Neoclassic in architecture and the visual arts
In the visual arts the European movement called "neoclassicism"
began after ca 1765, as a reaction against both the surviving Baroque
and Rococo styles, and as a desire to return to the perceived "purity"
of the arts of Rome, the more vague perception ("ideal")
of Ancient Greek arts (where almost no western artist had actually
been) and, to a lesser extent, 16th century Renaissance Classicism.
Henry Fuseli, "The artist moved to despair at the grandeur
of antique fragments", 1778–79Each "neo"- classicism
selects some models among the range of possible classics that are
available to it, and ignores others. The neoclassical writers and
talkers, patrons and collectors, artists and sculptors of 1765 -
1830 paid homage to an idea of the generation of Pheidias, but the
sculpture examples they actually embraced were more likely to be
Roman copies of Hellenistic sculptures. They ignored both Archaic
Greek art and the works of Late Antiquity. The Rococo art of ancient
Palmyra came as a revelation, through engravings in Wood's The Ruins
of Palmyra. Even in all-but-unvisited Greece, a rough backwater
of the Ottoman Empire, dangerous to explore, neoclassicists' appreciation
of Greek architecture was mediated through drawings and engravings,
which subtly smoothed and regularized, "corrected' and "restored"
the monuments of Greece, not always consciously. As for painting,
Greek painting was utterly lost: neoclassicist painters imaginatively
revived it, partly through bas-relief friezes, mosaics, and pottery
painting and partly through the examples of painting and decoration
of the High Renaissance of Raphael's generation, frescos in Nero's
Domus Aurea, Pompeii and Herculaneum and through renewed admiration
of Nicholas Poussin. Much "neoclassical" painting is more
classicisizing in subject matter than in anything else.
There is an anti-Rococo strain that can be detected in some European
architecture of the earlier 18th century, most vividly represented
in the Palladian architecture of Georgian Britain and Ireland, but
also recognizable in a classicizing vein of architecture in Berlin.
It is a robust architecture of self-restraint, academically selective
now of "the best" Roman models.
A conservative Italian interior translated to Russia: Dressing-Room
at the Gatchina palace by Luigi Vanvitelli's pupil Antonio Rinaldi,
1770sNeoclassicism first gained influence in England and France,
through a generation of French art students trained in Rome and
influenced by the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and it
was quickly adopted by progressive circles in Sweden. At first,
classicizing decor was grafted onto familiar European forms, as
in the interiors for Catherine II's lover Count Orlov, designed
by an Italian architect with a team of Italian stuccadori: only
the isolated oval medallions like cameos and the bas-relief overdoors
hint of neoclassicism; the furnishings are fully Italian Rococo
G.B. Piranes's design for a vase on stand, Rome ca 1780, appealed
more to his English and French patrons. Similar gilt-bronze vases
were made in London and Paris, from ca. 1768 onwards.But a second
neoclassic wave, more severe, more studied (through the medium of
engravings) and more consciously archaeological, is associated with
the height of the Napoleonic Empire. In France, the first phase
of neoclassicism is expressed in the "Louis XVI style",
the second phase in the styles we call "Directoire" or
"Empire." Italy clung to Rococo until the Napoleonic regimes
brought the new archeaological classicism, which was embraced as
a political statement by young, progressive, urban Italians with
David's Oath of the Horatii (1784) is not just neoclassic in subject.The
high tide of neoclassicism in painting is exemplified in early paintings
by Jacques-Louis David (illustration, right) and Jean Auguste Dominique
Ingres' entire career. David's Oath of the Horatii was painted in
Rome and made a splash at the Paris Salon of 1784. Its central perspective
is perpendicular to the picture plane, made more emphatic by the
dim arcade behind, against which the heroic figures are disposed
as in a frieze, with a hint of the artificial lighting and staging
of opera, and the classical coloring of Nicholas Poussin.
Thetis rising from the sea by Thomas Banks (1735 - 1805), 1778
Victoria and Albert Museum: low-relief that is as linear as a pencil
drawingIn sculpture, the most familiar representatives are the Italian
Antonio Canova, the Englishman John Flaxman and the Dane Bertel
In the decorative arts, neoclassicism is exemplified in Empire
furniture made in Paris, London, New York, Berlin; in Biedermeyer
furniture made in Austria; in Karl Friedrich Schinkel's museums
in Berlin, Sir John Soane's Bank of England in London and the newly
built "capitol" in Washington, DC; and in Wedgwood's bas
reliefs and "black basaltes" vases. The Scots architect
Charles Cameron created palatial Italianate interiors for the German-born
Catherine II the Great in Russian St. Petersburg: the style was
"Grotesque" painted decor that hearkened back to Raphael's
stanze decorated Mme de Sérilly's Paris boudoir (Victoria
and Albert Museum, London)Indoors, neoclassicism made a discovery
of the genuine classic interior, inspired by the rediscoveries at
Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had started in the late 1740s, but
only achieved a wide audience in the 1760s, with the first luxurious
volumes of tightly-controlled distribution of Le Antichità
di Ercolano. The antiquities of Herculaneum showed that even the
most classicizing interiors of the Baroque, or the most "Roman"
rooms of William Kent were based on basilica and temple exterior
architecture, turned outside in: pedimented window frames turned
into gilded mirrors, fireplaces topped with temple fronts, now all
looking quite bombastic and absurd. The new interiors sought to
recreate an authentically Roman and genuinely interior vocabulary,
employing flatter, lighter motifs, sculpted in low frieze-like relief
or painted in monotones en camaïeu ("like cameos"),
isolated medallions or vases or busts or bucrania or other motifs,
suspended on swags of laurel or ribbon, with slender arabesques
against backgrounds, perhaps, of "Pompeiian red" or pale
tints, or stone colors. The style in France was initially a Parisian
style, the "goût Grèc" not a court style.
Only when the plump, young king acceded to the throne in 1771 did
his fashion-loving Queen bring the "Louis XVI" style to
At the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, Playfair employs a Greek
Doric octastyle porticoFrom about 1800 a fresh influx of Greek architectural
examples, seen through the medium of etchings and engravings, gave
a new impetus to neoclassicism that is called the Greek Revival.
Neoclassicism continued to be a major force in academic art through
the 19th century and beyond— a constant antithesis to Romanticism
or Gothic revivals— although from the late 19th century on
it had often been considered anti-modern, or even reactionary, in
influential critical circles. By the mid-19th century, several European
cities - notably St Petersburg and Munich - were transformed into
veritable museums of Neoclassical architecture.
In American architecture, neoclassicism was one expression of the
American Renaissance movement, ca 1890-1917; its last manifestation
was in Beaux-Arts architecture, and its very last, large public
projects were the Lincoln Memorial (highly criticised at the time),
the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum
of Natural History's Roosevelt Memorial. These were white elephants
as they were built. In the British Raj, Sir Edwin Lutyens' monumental
city planning for New Delhi marks the glorious sunset of neoclassicism.
Soon World War II destroyed all illusions.
Covert neoclassicism in Moderne styles
Meanwhile, conservative modernist architects like Charles Perret
in France kept the rhythms and spacing of columnar architecture
even in factory buildings. Where a colonnade would have been decried
as "reactionary," a building's pilaster-like fluted panels
under a repeating frieze looked "progressive." Pablo Picasso
experimented with classicizing motifs in the years immediately following
World War I, and the Art Deco style that peaked in the 1925 Paris
Exposition des Arts Décoratifs often drew on neoclassical
motifs without expressing them overtly: severe, blocky commodes
by E. J. Ruhlmann or Sue et Mare; crisp, extremely low-relief friezes
of damsels and gazelles in every medium; fashionable dresses that
were draped or cut on the bias to recreate Grecian lines; the art
dance of Isadora Duncan; the Streamline Moderne styling of US post
offices and county court buildings built as late as 1950; and the
Roosevelt dime. Neoclassic themes can even be detected in the Smith
Provincial Neoclassicism: a monastery near Ostashkov in Russia (photo
from 1910).The arts do not always march in step, and "neoclassicism"
in English literature is associated with the "Augustan"
writers of the early 18th century, all the heirs of John Dryden
and Milton. The giant among their inspiring Latin classics was Virgil.
Major writers of the period have included Daniel Defoe, Jonathan
Swift, Alexander Pope. The ensuing period of "Romantic"
writers had its origins at the height of neoclassicism in the visual
arts, about 1800.
In France, the hallmark of neoclassicism is the theater of Jean
Racine, with his balanced lines of verse, restraint in emotion,
refinement in diction, without excesses, his artistic consistency,
so that the tragic tone was not offset by moments of realism or
humor (as in Shakespeare), and his formal adherence to the "classical
unities" extracted from Aristotle's Poetics.
In 1786, the German literary master Goethe ended his proto-Romantic
Sturm und Drang period with his trip to Italy (recounted in his
1817 work, Italienische Reise). Afterwards, he and colleague Schiller
emulated the themes and sensibility of Greek tragedy in works like
Iphigenia auf Tauris (Iphigenia at Tauris), Römische Elegien
(Roman Elegies), and Faust. Neo-Classical themes also dominated
the work of German poet Hölderlin.
Neoclassicism Part II: Between the Wars
There was an entire 20th century movement in the Arts which was
also called Neo-classicism. It encompassed at least music, philosophy,
and literature. It was between the end of World war I and the end
of World war II. For information on the musical aspects, see 20th
century classical music#Neoclassicism and Neoclassicism (music).
For information on the philosophical aspects, see Great Books
Literary Neoclassicism, 20th-century style
The 20th Century literary movement termed neoclassicism is a movement
that rejected the extreme romanticism of (for example) dada, in
favour of restraint, religion (specifically Christianity) and a
reactionary political programme. Although the foundations for this
movement were laid by T.E. Hulme, the most famous neoclassicists
were T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis.