What is Neoclassicism? Learn more about this 18th century art movement

Throughout history, artistic movements have been created in response to their predecessors. Thus, in the 18th century, when the extravagance of Rococo and Baroque art was still flourishing in Europe, another style was born with very different values. Founded in the mid-1700s, the Neoclassical movement is defined by an interest in classical (i.e. Roman and ancient Greek) aesthetics, principles and subject matter.

The neoclassical style had a major influence on painting, sculpture, architecture and interior decoration. He rekindled an interest in symmetry and simplicity that was applied through the visual arts. Two of the most famous artists who came to embody the ideals of this style were the French painter Jacques-Louis David and the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova.

Scroll down to learn more about Neoclassicism and its characteristics.

What is Neoclassicism?

Intervention of the Sabines by Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David, “Intervention of the Sabines”, 1799 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Neoclassicism is an 18th century artistic movement based on the ideals of the art of Rome and ancient Greece. His interest in simplicity and harmony was inspired in part by a negative reaction to the overly frivolous aesthetic of the decorative Rococo style. The discovery of the Roman archaeological cities Pompeii and Herculaneum (in 1738 and 1748, respectively) helped galvanize the spirit of this movement.

Neoclassical features

Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus by Angelica Kauffmann

Angelica Kauffmann, “Ariane abandoned by Theseus”, 1774 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Neoclassical art shared several characteristics, all based on Roman and Greek views on science, mathematics, philosophy, and art. These characteristics are as follows: minimal use of Color; the accent of symmetry, straight linesand geometric shapes; precise definition shapes and figures; and Classic subject.


Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis David

Jacques-Louis David, “The Oath of the Horatii”, 1784-5 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

The art of the French painter Jacques Louis David – the leader of the neoclassical style – represents the characteristics of neoclassical painting. His work, The Oath of the Horatii embodies these traits.

For example, it includes classic material which is based on a Roman legend about the three Horace brothers. David also uses a minimalist, and even austere color palette, to convey the narrative, dominated by bright reds and a bit of blue. Moreover, it is created with a harmonious composition which resembles the balance and clarity of a scene on stage. Finally, he exposes precise drawing with strong, bold lines and minimal ornamentation.


Sculpture by Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova, “Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss”, 1887 (Photo: Kimberly Vardeman via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Neoclassical sculpture shared many similar values ​​to painting. Artists of this style created sculptures inspired by classical and mythological subjects. They produced idealized figures with smooth outlinesresembling the statues of Athens and Rome, often on a life size scale.


Parisian pantheon

Pantheon in Paris, France (Photo: mix7777/DepositPhotos)

Neoclassical architecture wanted to create imposing, tall buildings without the ornate elements of the Rococo and Baroque style. He used ancient Greek and Roman details, impressive Columns, geometric shapesand domed or flat roofs. The Pantheon in Paris, built between 1758 and 1790, is a hallmark of neoclassical architecture and embodies all of these characteristics.

Famous neoclassical artists

Jacques-Louis David

Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David

Jacques-Louis David, “Death of Marat”, 1793 (Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPublic domain)

Most consider Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) to be the leading neoclassical painter of the time. Originally from Paris, he received a solid and comprehensive training in the fine arts which sharpened his talents and helped him make a splash at the Salon. He produced art that was different from the rococo status quo – with few colors, minimalist but balanced compositions, and depictions of classical subjects. During the French Revolution, he affiliated with Maximilien Robespierre and created art that supported his camp. Later, when Napoleon came to power, David again realigned himself and made art to support the new regime. His art had a huge impact on neoclassical artists across Europe.

Significant works: The Oath of the Horatii (1784-1785), The death of Socrates (1787), Death of Marat (1793), Napoleon crossing the Alps (1801-1805)

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

The Great Bather by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “The Bather of Valpinçon”, 1808 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Born a few decades after David, French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) inherited the neoclassical tradition and created art in a largely academic style. His skills as one of the finest draftsmen helped him create compelling portraits, most of which are his best-known works. Later, when Romanticism emerged as another prominent artistic movement, Ingres and Eugène Delacroix opposed each other as symbols of old and new styles.

Significant works: The Great Odalisque (1814)

Antonio Canova

The Three Graces by Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova, “The Three Graces”, 1815-1817 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Originally from the Republic of Venice, Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) is considered the greatest neoclassical sculptor whose work defined the style. He created many large-scale marble sculptures inspired by classical mythology, with idealized figures in graceful compositions. In particular, his sculptures are known for their polished finish, which Canova would spend weeks or even months polishing with pumice.

Significant works: Psyche revived by Cupid’s kiss (1787)

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