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Neoclassicism: A Return to the Classics

Have you ever heard of Athens, Texas or Sparta, Georgia? Did you know that the city of Nashville, Tennessee boasts a full-size replica of the Greek Parthenon that now houses its art museum? These examples of Greek influences on American architecture are indicative of Neoclassicism, a movement that arose in France in the mid-eighteenth century and spread throughout Europe and the United States until its decline in the mid-20th century. The movement encompassed visual arts, decorative arts, literature, theatre and music as well as architecture.

During the reign of Louis XVI of France in the mid-1700s, the popularity of the light and frivolous Rococo style began to fade in favor of more serious themes. The excavations of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the work of German archaeologist Johann Wincklemann, resulted in an interest in all things of a “classical” nature. Neoclassicism was a return to the purity of the art forms of ancient Rome and Greece and to a lesser extent, Renaissance Classicism. Elements of simplicity, idealism, unity and harmony dominated in the style and mythological subjects, themes and scenes prevailed.

Disillusioned with the excesses of the French aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church, the French Revolution began to take shape and embraced Neoclassicism as a way to inspire the masses. A new morality and political ideology that espoused principles such as courage, sacrifice, equality, liberty, and patriotism were found in the art of ancient Greece and Rome. More severe than its earlier expressions, this revolutionary art exhibited strong contrasts of color, clear tones, and dramatic compositions designed to stimulate noble action.

At the turn of the 19th century, a large influx of ancient architectural evidence gave fuel to what is known as the Greek Revival in architecture. During the next century, European cities experienced a great surge in the construction of Greek-style architecture. Examples of the Greek influence in architecture include the presence of porticos, columns, tympanums, extremely large windows and doors, and the use of white as a color. The association of the fledgling American democratic government with the origins of democracy in Greece gained popularity and gave rise to the American Renaissance movement, during which newly established American towns took on the names of ancient Greek cities such as Athens, Sparta, and Ithaca.

Artists who are best known for their Neoclassic style of art are painters Anton Raphael Mengs, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Jacques-Louis David and sculptors Antonio Canova and John Flaxman. Important Neoclassic architects include Robert Adam and Robert Smirke.

The British Museum is a good example of Neoclassicism in architecture.

The sculptures of Antonio Canova, are outstanding examples of the classical influence in 18th century art. (click on “Works” near top left.)

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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