If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources for Khan Academy.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637-38, oil on canvas, 185 cm × 121 cm (72.8 in × 47.6 in) (Louvre)Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637-38, oil on canvas, 185 cm × 121 cm (72.8 in × 47.6 in) (Louvre)

In opposition to the frivolous sensuality of Rococo painters like Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher, the Neoclassicists looked to Nicolas Poussin for their inspiration. The decision to promote "Poussiniste" painting became an ethical consideration. They believed that strong drawing was rational, therefore morally better. They believed that art should be cerebral, not sensual.  

The Neoclassicists, such as Jacques-Louis David (pronounced Da-VEED), preferred the well-delineated form—clear drawing and modeling (shading). Drawing was considered more important than painting. The Neoclassical surface had to look perfectly smooth—no evidence of brush-strokes should be discernable to the naked eye. 

France was on the brink of its first revolution in 1789, and the Neoclassicists wanted to express rationality and sobriety that was fitting for their times. Artists like David supported the rebels through an art that asked for clear-headed thinking, self-sacrifice to the State (as in Oath of the Horatii) and an austerity reminiscent of Republican Rome.   

Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784 (salon of 1785) oil on canvas,  3.3 x 4.25m  (Louvre)Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784 (salon of 1785) oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25m (Louvre)

Neo-classicism was a child of the Age of Reason (the Enlightenment), when philosophers believed that we would be able to control our destinies by learning from and following the Laws of Nature (the United States was founded on Enlightenment philosophy).  Scientific inquiry attracted more attention. Therefore, Neoclassicism continued the connection to the Classical tradition because it signified moderation and rational thinking but in a new and more politically-charged spirit (“neo” means “new,” or in the case of art, an existing style reiterated with a new twist.)

Neoclassicism is characterized by: clarity of form; sober colors; shallow space; strong horizontal and verticals that render that subject matter timeless, instead of temporal as in the dynamic Baroque works; and, Classical subject matter—or classicizing contemporary subject matter.

Text by Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic