Classicism in Art
Definition, History, Examples.

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Vitruvian Man (c. 1492)
Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice.
Classicist drawing by Leonardo.

Classicism in Art


What is Classicism? What is Neoclassicism?
Characteristics of the Classical Style
What is the History of Classicism?
- Medieval
- Renaissance
- Baroque
- Neoclassicism
- 19th/20th Century
Famous Examples of Classicist Art

The Three Graces (1813-16)
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Example of neoclassicist sculpture
by Antonio Canova.

What is Classicism? What is Neoclassicism?

In the visual arts, the term "classicism" (adjective: classicist) usually refers to the imitation of the art of classical antiquity (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE), notably the imitation of "Greek art" and "Roman Art", as well as earlier prototypes like "Aegean Art" (c.2500-1100 BCE) and "Etruscan art" (c.700-100 BCE). Thus, for instance, any architecture, painting or sculpture produced during the Middle Ages or later, which was inspired by the art of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome, is an example of classicism (or may be seen as classicist).

Rather confusingly, "classicism" is often used interchangeably with the word "neoclassicism". Thus, for example, the architectural style of the US Capitol Building can be described either as "classicist" or "neoclassicist"; similarly, Michelangelo's Statue of David can be described as either an example of "classicism" or "neoclassicism".

That said, the term "neoclassicism" is most-commonly employed to describe a specific revival of Greek and Roman art, which occurred in Europe and America between about 1750 and 1860. So while the US Capitol Building (built 1793-1829) is properly described as "neoclassicist", Michelangelo's statue is probably best described as an example of "classicism".

NOTE: Greek sculpture and Greek pottery, as well as Greek painting, are all generally acknowledged to be superior to that of the Romans. Greek architecture, too, is the foundation for Roman architecture, although Roman engineers made important advances on Greek materials and methods. However, a high proportion of Greek sculptures and other works are only known to us through Roman-made copies, while Roman buildings have also significantly outlived Greek structures. To know Roman art is therefore to know a good deal about Greek art.

Characteristics of the Classical Style

Although it varies from genre to genre, classical art is renowned for its harmony, balance and sense of proportion. In its painting and sculpture, it employs idealized figures and shapes, and treats its subjects in a non-anecdotal and emotionally neutral manner. Colour is always subordinated to line and composition. It is typically understated - handling is impersonal to the point of anonymity - and it seeks to achieve a harmonious and contemplative effect. Classical architecture is closely regulated by mathematical proportions. Greek designers, for instance, used exact mathematical calculations to fix the height, width and other characteristics of architectural elements. Moreover, these proportions would be altered slightly - certain elements (columns, capitals, base platform), would be tapered for example - to create the optimum visual effect, rather as if the building was a piece of sculpture. The greatest exponents of classicism include the following: (1) Architecture: Donato Bramante and Andrea Palladio; (2) Painting: Raphael, Jacques-Louis David and J.A.D. Ingres; (3) Sculpture: Michelangelo and Antonio Canova.



What is the History of Classicism?

Medieval Classicism (800-1400)

Medieval art witnessed several waves of classicism. The first is referred to as the "Carolingian Renaissance" (c.750-900), which began during the reign of King Charlemagne I (ruled 768–814). The cultural classicism of the Carolingian era gave birth to the architecture of the Palatine Chapel at Aachen (792-805), which was inspired by the octagonal style of the 6th-century church of San Vitale in Ravenna, as well as numerous Latin illuminated manuscripts, including the Lorsch Gospels, the Utrecht Psalter, and the Godescalc Evangelistary. The second revival of classicism - the era of Ottonian art (c.900-1050) - flourished during the Ottonian Empire under Otto the Great, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome in 962. It was influenced in particular by its Carolingian heritage, and a renewed interest in northern Italian art, as well as greater contact with Byzantine art of the Eastern Roman Empire. Up until 1050, most classicist art had been produced inside Christian monasteries. Over the next three hundred years or so, the Christian Church devoted most of its attention to a series of cathedral and church building programs. It began by adopting the style of Romanesque architecture (c.1000-1150), which reused the rounded arches, wall masses and barrel-vaults of the Romans, but many of the architectural elements of classical antiquity were quickly abandoned, a trend which was accelerated during the ensuing era of Gothic architecture (c.1120-1400).

Renaissance Classicism (1400-1600)

Not surprisingly, Italy - heart of the Roman Empire, and host to many Greek colonies with their traditions of Hellenistic art - witnessed the greatest of all classical revivals in Europe, a process which first took hold in Florence during the early quattrocento (15th century). Known as the Italian Renaissance - or perhaps more accurately as the Florentine Renaissance - it was led initially by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the art theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), the sculptor Donatello (1386–1466) and the painter Masaccio (1401–1428). Brunelleschi was particularly interested in the mathematical proportions of ancient Roman buildings, which he revered. Alberti, who thought classicism was synonymous with beauty, was famous for his treatises De Statua and Della Pittura (1435) and De Re Aedificatoria (1452), and sought to make the principles of perspective accessible to a wide circle of artists who wanted to learn this new technique. Donatello used the same principles to imitate Greek statues, while Masaccio included classical elements in the content of his paintings, including his own technique of perspective. Classicism continued to dominate Renaissance art in Rome - known as the High Renaissance - epitomized by the classically proportioned Sistine Madonna (1513-14) by Raphael (1483–1520); and The Vitruvian Man (1492), a study by Leonardo da Vinci of the proportions of the (male) human body as described by the Roman architect Vitruvius (c.78-10 BCE). Renaissance art in Venice was also greatly influenced by classical antiquity, due to the city's close links with Constantinople (Byzantium), the former seat of the Eastern Roman Emperors, and still a centre of ancient Greek culture. Byzantine-style mosaic art was a particular speciality. Venetian Renaissance architecture was also inspired by classical examples - see, in particular, the classicist architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80), whose designs were based on the values of classical architecture, as outlined by Vitruvius and others.

The classical founding principles of the Italian Renaissance spread westwards into France and Spain, and northwards into Germany and the Low Countries. And with the appearance of relatively cheap printed books, the study of classical literature became more widespread until, by the late 16th century it was the norm in most university curricula.

Baroque Classicism (1600-1700)

The harmony and balanced proportions of classicist Renaissance art eventually proved insufficient for the creative impulses of the early 17th century, and it was replaced by Baroque art, a far more complex and dramatic idiom, whose greatest masters included Caravaggio (1573-1610) and Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). But one or two strands of classicism remained. Annibale Carracci and his Bolognese School, for example, was especially influential - please see: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting - as too were Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82). Indeed, it was during the late 17th century that the Classical traditions were made a permanent feature of Western art, through the opening of a series of official "academies", with curricula designed to educate students in the classical principles promoted by the Italian Renaissance.

Neoclassicism (c.1780-1850)

During the early/mid 18th century, Baroque art gave way to the decadent, whimsical Rococo. Later, around 1780, this frivolous style was superceded by the next great revival of classical art, known as Neoclassicism. Championed by the scholar Johann Winckelmann (1717-68), this new style is exemplified by the neoclassical painting of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825); the pictures of his follower J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867); the neoclassical sculpture of Antonio Canova (1757-1822); and the architecture of designers like Jacques Soufflot (1713-80), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and others.

19th/20th Century Classicism

Classicism championed the achievements of ancient Greece and Rome - the classical ideal - as a standard against which contemporary society could be judged. Beginning as an elitist scholarly and monastic movement, it was applied gradually to all aspects of life, including visual art, and architecture. However, from the 18th century onwards, the discoveries of modern science as well as developments in social and political theory, slowly began to reveal just how much the Greeks and Romans had not known. As a result - with the exception of the classical-based style of academic art, as approved by the French Academy; and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-55) - classicism was never as widespread in art and other areas, during the 19th and 20th centuries, as it had been previously.

For the latest classicist impulse, see the Classical Revival in modern art (c.1900-30). This return to classical-style imagery included contributions from Picasso (1881-1973) - see also Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso - as well as artists as diverse as Andre Derain (1880-1954), Matisse (1869-1954), Fernand Leger (1881-1955), Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), to name but a few.

NOTE: All periods of classicism share a certain reverence for the artistic values of antiquity, though they vary considerably in their interpretation of these values, depending on the era as well as the genre (architecture, painting, sculpture). Furthermore, some modern classicists have less admiration for the material forms of the antique, and far more admiration for its essence. Cubism, for example, is seen as a classicist idiom owing to its emphasis on structure and form, its basis in geometry; and its sought-after effect, which is typically harmonious and contemplative.

Famous Examples of Classicist Art


Oath of the Horatii (1784) by Jacques-Louis David.
Louvre, Paris.

Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David.
Louvre, Paris.

The Valpincon Bather (1808) by J.A.D. Ingres.
Louvre, Paris.

La Grande Odalisque (1814) by J.A.D. Ingres.
Louvre, Paris.

The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) by Cezanne.
National Gallery, London; Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) by Cezanne.
J.Paul Getty Museum.

Two Nudes (1906) by Picasso.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913) by De Chirico.
Tate Collection, London.

Song of Love (1914) by De Chirico.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) by De Chirico.
Private Collection.

The Drunken Gentleman (1916) by Carlo Carra.
Private Collection.

Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920)
Musee Picasso, Paris.

Large Bather (1921) by Picasso.
Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris.

Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922) by Picasso.
Musee Picasso, Paris.

The Mechanic (1920) by Fernand Leger.
National Gallery of Canada.

Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921) by Fernand Leger.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Nudes against a Red Background (1923) by Fernand Leger.
Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Two Sisters (1935) by Fernand Leger.
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


Peter the Great "The Bronze Horseman" (1766-78) St Petersburg.
By Etienne-Maurice Falconet

Portrait of Voltaire in a Toga (1778) Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
By Jean-Antoine Houdon

Apollo Crowning Himself (1781) J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Cupid and Psyche (1786-93) Marble, Louvre, Paris.
By Antonio Canova

Jason with the Golden Fleece (1802-3) Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen.
By Bertel Thorvaldsen


Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Italian Renaissance (1420-36)
History and architectural design of the Florentine duomo.

Renaissance Architecture (c.1400-1600)
History, Characteristics, Famous Buildings.

Neoclassical Architecture (1640-1850)
US Capitol Building, Washington DC; The Pantheon, Paris.

Statue of Liberty (1870-86)
Stands on a classical pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt.


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