The term “neoclassical” is often used in reference to fine arts or other objects, but what is Neoclassical art? Neoclassicism reveals itself aesthetically, with harmonious and idealistic compositions, portraying historical and mythological subjects.
The style has brought about some of the most famous artists and works of all time, and it has a fascinating history beyond the visual arts. Read on to learn about the development and characteristics of this rich style, and to view some of its most notable paintings.
When was Neoclassical Art Developed?In art, Neoclassicism refers to a movement within Western art that emerged in the 1760s and thrived until the mid-19th century. There is no one exact cause for this new style, but it can largely be attributed to the wider Age of Enlightenment that spread across Europe. This Age of Reason was partly spurred on by the humanist ideals of the preceding Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. It emphasized the study of philosophy and the sciences, and it greatly impacted the birth and spread of Neoclassicism.
Key Characteristics of Neoclassical Art
Neoclassical art sought to return to the simpler, more straightforward styles of the ancient past, and it drew directly from 16th-century Renaissance Classicism. Artists expressed this return to classicism through strongly delineated form, smooth textures, and highly geometric compositions. Rejecting the painterly style of the Rococo and Baroque, Neoclassical artists attempted to evoke Enlightenment-era rationality in their works. Therefore, many of these compositions featured strong vertical and horizontal lines and symmetrical arrangements of forms. These two Neoclassical paintings are excellent examples of the formal style. Each painting displays immense clarity of forms and emphasis on naturalism.
The subject matter of Neoclassical art is another defining feature. Often, these works featured mythological stories and the glorification of historical subjects. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Jacque-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii, which depicts a legendary scene from Roman history. In this painting, three brothers reach forward toward their father, pledging to give their lives on behalf of Rome. The painting’s composition set new standards for Neoclassical artists, and it is revered as one of the greatest paintings of the time. Similarly, Auguste-Clément Chrétien’s painting of The Education of Achilles glorifies mythological subjects. This stunning oil on canvas features a young warrior, Achilles, taught by the centaur Chiron. The scene is famous in Greek literature, and it truly encapsulates Neoclassical idealism.
The Louvre Museum, Paris
Notable Neoclassical Artists
French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau is perhaps one of the most famous Neoclassical artists. Born in 1825, Bouguereau employed incredible realism in his painting style and was renowned for his recreation of classical subjects. He is also noted for being a skilled painter of the female form. This 1895 painting, titled The Shepherdess, is one of these such paintings. The titular shepherdess is beautifully rendered in a classically-inspired pose, gazing at the viewer with a shy smile. Bouguereau's mastery of the Neoclassical style is seen clearly in this painting.
Benjamin West is another legendary Neoclassical painter. West was a British-American artist whose time on the Grand Tour inspired his art. One of his most famous paintings, Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, perfectly encapsulates the major tenets of Neoclassical art. The painting depicts a group of mournful Roman women in procession, set in front of a stunning background of Roman architecture. The scene is painted with incredible clarity, and it is reflective of the Classical ideals that West picked up from his time abroad.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
John William Godward is another iconic Neoclassical painter. He exhibited in the Royal Academy beginning in 1887, and he is revered today for his meticulous recreations of classical Roman style, dress and architecture. A Pompeiian Lady exhibits these characteristic features of Godward’s work, displaying a Roman woman in profile against a background of classical columns and scenery. This lavish painting also reflects the Neoclassicists’ interests in archaeology. With the discovery of Pompeii in 1738, artists, scholars and writers began imagining what life was like in this ancient Roman city, and it was used as a source of inspiration by many.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is counted among the most impactful Neoclassical and Orientalist painters, inspiring later generations of artists, including Picasso and Matisse. His works often depict mythological or historical scenes, harking back to ancient Rome and Greece, but many of his works portray contemporary events in a classical style. For instance, this portrait of Napoleon I stylizes the emperor as a Roman Emperor. He wears a laurel wreath on his head and sits poised in the style of a Caesar. This military portrait of Napoleon by Joseph Franque portrays the emperor with similar grandeur, although this composition focuses on his role as general. The impact of the image and the majesty of Napoleon’s pose are in true Neoclassical fashion.
Musée de l'Armée, Paris