Browse All Neoclassical Artists Browse All Neoclassical Paintings

Definition and main aesthetical principles of Neoclassicism

In the second half of the 18th cent. under the influence of the Enlightenment movement, interest to the antiquity was revived. First, in France then in other countries rococo was gradually losing its positions. The neoclassicism epoch emerged, making accent on severity and laconism, defined by certain coldness and rationalism.

The philosophical ground of neoclassicism was the notion of reasonable construction of the Universe, of primacy of the Intellect and social duties in human life, of beautiful, improved nature. Neoclassicism was characterized by referring to grand public matters, lofty and heroic moral ideals. Its main subject was the triumph of public basis over private, duty over emotions. Classicism was defined by austere organization of logical, lucid and harmonious compositions, inspired by the art of Ancient Greece and Rome. However, a certain idealization, utopianism and abstractness of the images, especially evident in the crisis period in the middle of the 19th cent., were also an essential part of neoclassicist art. The main aesthetical postulate of this style was expressing objective beauty of nature, embodied in symmetry, proportions, harmony, in perfected artistic form. By the middle of the 19th cent. neoclassicism remained behind changed cultural situation and turned to be lifeless.

Periodization of neoclassicism in France corresponds to major milestones in the history of the country:

  1. neoclassicism of Louis XVI (1765 – 1790)
  2. neoclassicism of the Directory (1795 – 1799)
  3. the Empire style (1800s – 1830s)

Classicism and Neoclassicism

As it was already mentioned, neoclassicism was marked by the rise of attention to the antique legacy it inherited from preceding classicism style. In short, the art of the end of the 18th – first half of the 19th cent. was the completing of the artistic processes that had been started in the 16th-17th cent. That’s why it was called “neoclassicism” – literary new classicism. Nevertheless, it has some differences from the precursor. In particular its distinctive features were elegance, lightness and linearity.


In architecture classicistic strive for “naturalness” made a demand for constructive propriety of order elements on façade compositions and development of flexible planning of a dwelling. In French neoclassicism of the 18th-19th cent. such architectural types were most wide-spread: private residence (“hermitage”, as they often called it), public buildings and open city square. One of the most impressive public structures of the epoch is Pantheon in Paris, designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot according to its famous roman prototype.

The feeling of approaching French revolution (1789 – 1794) begot pursuit for severe simplicity and audacious experiments with monumental geometrism of new, orderless architecture. Unfortunately, most of this innovative ideas of Claude Ledauxe and Étienne-Louis Boullée remained unrealized, so it’s often defined as “visionary architecture”. In Italy the unsurpassed master of etching, who became known for his architectural fantasies, was Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

Neoclassicism provided a series of important urban conceptions. New cities, parks and resorts were been established in the 19th cent. Socialists-utopists suggested new organization of settling, aimed to overcome social inequality. Reduction architecture only to its city mission led to its unification and typologization. Anyway, projects of communes, phalansteries (rarely built) retained special and decorative traits of classicism. It’s indicative that some of the ideas of the 18th cent. have survived till nowadays: for example the Jacques-François Blondel was the first specialist to propose the system of calculation ergonomic relationship of tread to riser dimension.

On a large scale, architecture wasn’t a manifestation of any idea of new social system, religious of political ideals. Its goal was serving the society. And everything – from typology to the decorum of the constructions, was submitted to it. From a building-monument they shifted to a building that embodied a certain social function. That gave projects more rationalism and clarity. Belief in the interconnection between human and nature found its expression in laying out large green zones – parks and gardens.

The Empire style

The Empire style flourished in 1800s – 1830s. It appeared in France during the First French Empire and spread to some other countries of Europe and America. The core themes of the empire style was battle scenes, glorification of the emperor’s triumph. In fact, it was culmination of neoclassicism. It demonstrated the vim and ambitions of the state, created by Napoleon, inspired with achievements of roman governors. In contrast to comparative asceticism of early neoclassicism, the Empire style was pompous and theatrical. Massive porticoes, triumphal arches and military symbols (armors, laurels, eagles etc.) were used to impress people.

Egyptian motifs (ornaments, sphinxes and even reliefs), imported after the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon, were organically matched with roman traditions, without falling into eclecticism. It goes without saying, as roman nobility also liked using oriental stylistic in their own time.

Painting of Neoclassicism

Discovery of original painting during excavations in Pompeii, worshipping of antiquity, started by german art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann and praising of Raphael’s oeuvre among followers of the artist Anton Raphael Mengs – all that inspired the reactualization of classical principles of the 17th cent. art. Characterizing peculiarities of neoclassicistic art, the first thing to be considered is aspiration for solidity, balance that were created with precise geometrical compositions. This stability was upheld with careful and clear outline of figures, which wasn’t interrupted with vividness of color. Color, so disvalued by Winckelmann, was mere a filling of sculpturally shaped forms. Everything was aimed to transmit the feeling of calmness and dignity, so gestures, mimic and poses were theatrical a bit.

Another significant change, brought by new cultural situation is the rise of historicism in the arts. Since numerous excavations were held those days (in Herculaneum, specifically), masters started depicting mythological and scenes from ancient history, with plausible details in interiors, costumes and objects. A prominent representative of neoclassicistic painting, whose canvases demonstrate applying of historicism, was Jacques-Louis David. It’s interesting that his ultimately plain and dramatic equally successfully served both for propagating revolutionisitic ideas and glorification of the First Empire.

In the 19th cent. painting of neoclassicism entered the crisis stage and became a restraining forse for the artistic process not only in France but in other countries as well. At this time neoclassical works were often filled with the spirit of Romantism to overcome traditionalism, however it wasn’t always accepted by critics.


By the end of the 18th cent. Classicism formed a set of canons in artistic manner and subjects. They were promoted by the Academy, called the School of Fine arts (Ecoles des Arts), in Paris. That’s why hardened classicism was called academism. Academic painting emerged in Europe during a period of rapid development of professional artistic education. Its stylistic base at the beginning of the 19th cent. was neoclassicism, in the second half of the century – eclecticism. It was shaped by superficial imitating of classical forms. Followers of academism characterized it as reconsideration of antiquity and Renaissance. Academism was solicitous about traditions and mastering virtuosity. But sometimes its immunity to new trends made it conservative and sluggish. Although this movement was opposed to romanticism and realism, it still absorbed their methods and turned into salon art. But it shouldn’t be judged too strictly, as some painters, like, Ingres, created pieces of the highest quality.

Neoclassical Sculpture

In neoclassicistic sculpture its decorative function was combined with didactic conceptions. Apart from being an eye-pleasing part of interiors, a sample of ideal beauty, their subjects were often of civic character, common for the whole classicism.

Thematic range was mostly concentrated on Greek and Roman mythology. Some sculptures openly replicate creations of antique masters. Art of the Hellenistic period was the one, which most appealed to the taste of the 19th cent. In public monuments, such important for that time virtues as military valour, courage and fidelity to the duty to the patriotic duties, were celebrated. Allegoric sculptures were also popular and that was a common point with art of the Baroque period. It makes no surprise, as this two styles originated from the same classical sources and just interpreted them in different ways.

In many aspects Neoclassical sculpture and painting had lots of similarities. Both of them paid maximum attention to the tectonism of compositions, predominance of linearity, perfecting of human forms and static character (in opposition to baroque dynamism). For this period the art of Roman republic was the orienteer. As ancient prototypes, sculpture of the end of the 18th – first half of the 19th cent. tended towards setting an adjusted, mainly frontal, vantage point.

Among most famous masters of neoclassicism was Italian Antonio Canova. Even during his lifetime he was compared to antique artists for the exility of his works, fluidity of forms and decorativeness.

Late neoclassicism was more orientated on visual effect, even with some notes of sentimentalism. Among creators of this, final, stage, the leadership belonged to Bertel Thorvaldsen from Denmark. He went down in history as one of the most fruitful sculptors, completing commissions from all parts of the Old World.

Random Neoclassical Artists

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres


Jacques Louis David

Jacques-Louis David


Antonio Canova

Antonio Canova


Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Giovanni Battista Piranesi


Random Neoclassical Paintings

Bonaparte Calm on a Fiery Steed Crossing the Alps
Portrait of Philippe-Laurent de Joubert
Princess de Broglie
Portrait of Jacques-Francois Desmaisons
The Combat of Mars and Minerva
Portrait of Marguerite-Charlotte David
View of the Tiber and Castel St Angelo

Latest Articles

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Synthetic Vision

February 15, 2016

There is a type of artists, whose legacy, despite being deeply national, embodies the highest achievements of European fine […]


Auguste Rodin: Embodied Passion

February 14, 2016

We would like to celebrate this special day – St. Valentine’s Day – with a selection of the works by […]


William Blake: Unrecognised Genius

February 12, 2016

Sadly but History of art is full of personalities who were deprived of the appreciation they deserved during […]


The birth of Photography: William Talbot

February 11, 2016

William Henry Fox Talbot, English inventor of photographic processes, was bon on this day in 1800. A man […]