Neoclassicism Movement Overview

Neoclassicism is a term that refers to Western movements in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theatre, music, and architecture that are inspired by “classical” art and culture from Ancient Greece or Rome. Between the mid-18th and early-19th centuries, one such movement dominated Europe. Neoclassicism is in opposition to Modernism, which values self-expression and improvisation.

Predicated on and deriving from both classical and contemporary French models, the English Neoclassical movement embodied a set of attitudes toward art and human existenceideals of order, logic, restraint, accuracy, “correctness,” “restraint,” decorum, and so on, that enabled practitioners of various arts to imitate or reproduce the structures and themes of Greek or Roman origins. Though it had much earlier origins, Neoclassicism dominated English literature from 1660 to the end of the eighteenth century, when Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) signalled the full emergence of Romanticism.

In each art form, “Neoclassicism” refers to a specific canon of “classic” models, such as Virgil, Raphael, Nicolas Poussin, and Haydn. Other cultures, on the other hand, have their own canons of classics, and a recurring strain of neoclassicism appears to be the natural expression of cultures that are secure in their mainstream traditions but yearn to reclaim something that has slipped away.

Neoclassicism was a widespread and influential artistic movement that began in the 1760s, peaked in the 1780s and ’90s, and lasted until the 1840s and ’50s. In painting, it generally manifested itself as an emphasis on austere linear design in the depiction of classical themes and subjects, with archaeologically accurate settings and costumes.

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Neoclassicism developed partly in response to the sensual and frivolously decorative Rococo style that dominated European art from the 1720s onward. However, a more profound stimulus was the 18th century’s new and more scientific interest in classical antiquity. Neoclassicism received a significant boost from new archaeological discoveries, most notably the exploration and excavation of the buried Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which began in 1738 and 1748, respectively. And, beginning in the second decade of the 18th century, a number of influential publications by Bernard de Montfaucon, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Comte de Caylus, and Robert Wood illustrated Roman monuments and other antiquities, reviving interest in the classical past. The new understanding generated by these discoveries and publications enabled European scholars to discern distinct chronological periods in Greco-Roman art for the first time, and this new appreciation for a diversity of ancient styles supplanted the older, unqualified veneration of Roman art and sparked a new interest in purely Greek antiquities. The writings and sophisticated theorizings of the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann were particularly influential in this regard. Winckelmann saw “a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” in Greek sculpture and urged artists to emulate it. He asserted that by doing so, such artists would obtain idealised depictions of natural forms devoid of all transitory and individualistic characteristics, endowing their images with a universal and archetypal significance.

Neoclassicism as expressed in painting was initially stylistically indistinguishable from French Rococo and other preceding styles. This was partly because, while architecture and sculpture could be modelled on prototypes in these media from classical antiquity, the few classical paintings that survived were minor or purely ornamental works—that is, until the Herculaneum and Pompeii discoveries. Joseph-Marie Vien, Anton Raphael Mengs, Pompeo Batoni, Angelica Kauffmann, and Gavin Hamilton were the earliest neoclassical painters; they worked in the 1750s, ’60s, and ’70s. While each of these painters drew on ancient sculptures and vase paintings for poses and figural arrangements, they were heavily influenced by preceding stylistic trends. Mengs’s “Parnassus” is a significant early Neoclassical work that draws heavily on 17th-century classicism and Raphael for both the poses of its figures and its overall composition. Many of Benjamin West’s early paintings are based on works by Nicolas Poussin, and Kauffmann’s sentimental subjects dressed in antique garb are essentially Rococo in their softened, decorative prettiness. Mengs’s close association with Winckelmann influenced him to embrace the ideal beauty that the latter so zealously preached, but the church and palace ceilings Mengs decorated owe more to existing Italian Baroque traditions than to Greek or Roman influences.

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For the sake of convenience, the Neoclassic period can be divided into three relatively coherent parts: the Restoration Age (1660-1700), in which Milton, Bunyan, and Dryden were the dominant influences; the Augustan Age (1700-1750), in which Pope was the central poetic figure, while Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett were presiding over the sophistication of the novel; and the Age of Johnson(1750-1798), which, while dominated and defined by the mind and personality of the inimitable Dr Samuel Johnson, whose sympathies were with the fading Augustan past. It saw the birth of a new understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s work, the development of the novel of sensibility by Sterne and others, and the emergence of the Gothic school—attitudes that, in the context of the development of a cult of Nature, the influence of German romantic thought, religious tendencies such as the rise of Methodism, and political events such as the American and French revolutions, established the intellectual and emotional foundation of English Romanticism.

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