Art Styles: Neo-Classicism

"Napoleon on his Imperial Throne" neo-classical painting by  Jean Auguste Dominique IngresNeoclassicism was a widespread and influential movement in painting and the other visual arts that began in the 1760s, reached its height in the 1780s and '90s, and lasted until the 1840s and '50s. 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. Other classic models included Virgil, Raphael, and Poussin. Neoclassical painters took extra care to depict the costumes, settings, and details of classical subject matter with as much accuracy as possible. Much of the subject matter was derived from classical history and mythology. The movement emphasized line quality over color, light, and atmosphere. The height of Neoclassicism was displayed in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

"The Oath of the Horatii"  neo-classical painting by Jacques Louis DavidJacques-Louis David was a supporter of the French Revolution and one of the leading figures of Neo-classicism. He was a distant relative of Boucher. His famous painting "The Oath of the Horatii" (shown here)was painted in 1784, before the French Revolution. The painting depicts the Roman salute. It grew to be considered as paradigm of neoclassical art. The painting increased David's fame, and allowed him to rear his own students. As revolution in France loomed, paintings urging loyalty to the state rather than to clan or clergy abounded. Although it was painted nearly five years before the revolution in France, the Oath of the Horatii became one of the defining images of the time.

In the painting, the three brothers express their loyalty and solidarity with Rome before battle, wholly supported by their father. These are men willing to lay down their lives out of patriotic duty. In this patriarchal society, the steely men, with their resolute gaze and taut, outstretched limbs are citadels of republican patriotism. They are symbols of the highest virtues of the Republic, while the tender-hearted women lie weeping and mourning, content to wait.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres was another French Neoclassical painter. Although he considered himself a painter of history in the tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David, by the end of his life it was Ingres' portraits, both painted and drawn, that were recognized as his greatest legacy. His painting "Napoleon on his Imperial Throne" is shown at the top of the page.
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