In painting neo-classicism generally took the form of an emphasis on austere linear design in the depiction of classical themes and subject matter, using archaeologically correct settings and costumes. Neoclassicism arose partly as a reaction against the sensuous and frivolously decorative Rococo style that had dominated European art from the 1720s on. Neoclassicism sought to revive the ideals of ancient Greek and Roman art. Neoclassic artists used classical forms to express their ideas about courage, sacrifice, and love of country.
Although the movement spread throughout Western Europe, France and England were the countries that used the style most frequently in their arts and architecture, using the classical elements to express ideas of nationalism, courage, and sacrifice. The movement was inspired by the discovery of ancient Italian artifacts at the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Also influential in the development was the cultural studies of German art historian Johann J. Winckelmann who claimed that the most important elements of classical art were "noble simplicity and calm grandeur."
Neoclassicism emphasized rationality and the resurgence of tradition. Neoclassical artists incorporated classical styles and subjects, including columns, pediments, friezes, and other ornamental schemes in their work. They were inspired by the work of Homer and Plutarch and John Flaxmann’s illustrations for the Illiad and Odyssey.