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Neoclassicism, an introduction

By Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637–38, oil on canvas, 87 x 120 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris, photo: Alonso de Mendoza)
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1637–38, oil on canvas, 87 x 120 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris, photo: Alonso de Mendoza)
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.
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25 m, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784, oil on canvas, 3.3 x 4.25 m, painted in Rome, exhibited at the salon of 1785 (Musée du Louvre; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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).

Additional resources
Read a chapter that contextualizes the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism in Reframing Art History, our free textbook.

Essay by Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic

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  • male robot donald style avatar for user mtv
    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)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Val Nanos
      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)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Caraline Albro
    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)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Lauren Swalec
      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)
  • blobby green style avatar for user elizabethelena1221
    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)
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  • marcimus purple style avatar for user Loni Peterson
    when did this article come out?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sophiagrin7
    how do I reference these pages ?Thank you
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user king1000768
    when was this article uploaded
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Arthur Smith
    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)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user AraPJ
    America was called the New Rome, as in Classic vs. Neoclassic. Why was America called the New Rome.
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user AraPJ
    How did the Neoclassic Era reflect the founding ideals of the nation?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user AraPJ
    What is wrong with the architecture in the English Governor's Mansion with the neoclassical ideas of the New Republic?
    (1 vote)
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