Europe 1300 - 1800
- Neoclassicism, an introduction
- David, Oath of the Horatii
- David, Oath of the Horatii
- David's Oath of the Horatii Quiz
- Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates
- David, The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons
- David, Study for The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of his Sons
- Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat
- David and The Death of Marat
- David, The Intervention of the Sabine Women
- David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps
- Kauffmann, Cornelia Presenting Her Children as Her Treasures
- Girodet, The Sleep of Endymion
- Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait of Madeleine
- Canova, Repentant Magdalene
- Canova, Paolina Borghese as Venus Victorius
- Vignon, Church of La Madeleine
- Soufflot, The Panthéon, Paris
- David, The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries
- J. Schul, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom
By Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic
In opposition to the frivolous sensuality of Rococo painters like Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher, the Neoclassicists looked back to the French painter Nicolas Poussin for their inspiration (Poussin's work exemplifies the interest in in French art of the seventeenth century). 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 discernible to the naked eye.
France was on the brink of its first revolution in 1789, and the Neoclassicists wanted to express a rationality and seriousness that was fitting for their times. Artists like David supported the rebels through 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.
Neoclassicism 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).
Read a chapter that contextualizes the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism in Reframing Art History, our free textbook.
Essay by Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic
Want to join the conversation?
- In the 4th paragraph, it says the U.S. was founded on enlightenment philosophy. Can anyone give me any way it's founding was influenced by the enlightenment?(9 votes)
- The Enlightenment was a watershed period in political thought, a time of very creative philosophical development in Europe and North America which ran from the late 17th century through the whole of the 18th century and into the early 19th century. Drawing on Renaissance humanism and the emerging scientific revolution, Enlightenment thinkers rejected royalism, feudalism, and superstition, urging an egalitarian approach and expanding human rights, applying the reason of science to a society to be marked by a separation of church and state.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
~The Declaration of Independence
Jefferson and Franklin were also Revolutionary America's first two ministers to France. Without the very active help of France, the United States may well have lost the Revolutionary War against Britain. And French thinking in turn helped spur the Enlightenment to begin with.
Throughout it all, Revolutionary America's founding Enlightenment thinkers championed the expansion of knowledge, viewing ignorance as a mortal danger to the Republic.(16 votes)
- In the first paragraph, it says that Neoclassicism was in opposition to "frivolous" Rococo artists. Does this also apply to the Baroque period? Were Neoclassical artists responding in opposition to the extravagant styles of Baroque? Why?(5 votes)
- I don't think it so much 'in opposition' to the Baroque style. Yes, Baroque is opulent, and Neo-Classicism is not. That's just a matter of taste. But the Rococo style emphasized ... 'qualities' that Ne-Classicism very much does not. Such as affairs and ridiculous amounts of money. So Neo-Classicism is morally and ethically the opposite of Rococo.(7 votes)
- Concerning Jaques Louis David, could you perhaps do a section or a unit on this particular artist? Maybe a short video on his life and the history of JL David? I would find it extremely fascinating.(6 votes)
- when did this article come out?(2 votes)
- Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic, "Neoclassicism, an introduction," in Smarthistory, January 7, 2016, accessed November 25, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/neoclassicism-an-introduction/.(3 votes)
- how do I reference these pages ?Thank you(2 votes)
- Do you mean for a works cited page? You would cite it as you would for a website. This website makes that easy: http://www.easybib.com/ Hope that helped!(2 votes)
- when was this article uploaded(2 votes)
- Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic, "Neoclassicism, an introduction," in Smarthistory, January 7, 2016, accessed May 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/neoclassicism-an-introduction/.(1 vote)
- This article states Neo-classical art as being different than the Baroque for its "clarity of form, sober colors, shallow space, strong horizontal and verticals". I'm pretty sure I could find a thousand Baroque artworks that fit this definition, starting with Caravaggio, and going on indefinitely. Calling Baroque art more "dynamic" is a bit fuzzy, since you can find "dynamic" elements in almost any artwork. So, I'm a bit hung up on how to explain what makes this work different from that of the past. I recommend adding a paragraph or two, comparing and contrasting the art of these periods. David studied art in Rome, and Poussin spent most of his life working there. If there's any major difference between their work and that of the past, it needs further explanation.(2 votes)
- What is wrong with the architecture in the English Governor's Mansion with the neoclassical ideas of the New Republic?(1 vote)