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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Neo-classicism dominated all the arts from about
1750 to about 1840, in architecture, painting, sculp-
ture, and the decorative arts. The style embraced pal-
aces and pottery, grand tombs and intimate portraits;
it spread through Europe, and to Russia and the United

The word “neo-classical” seems to have been first
applied to art in 1881, but not in the same sense as
it is found nowadays. The term was first used, however,
to describe literature in the time of Dryden and Pope
by William Rushton, in Afternoon Lectures on English
(London [1863], pp. 44, 63, 72). The writer
of a review of Old Master paintings in London's Royal
Academy exhibition says of one work that “the neo-
classic, if not the Italian, mode of design is finely
illustrated.” The passage, however, is not a comment
on an eighteenth-century work but on a Poussin, St.
John on Patmos.
The writer continues by using such
adjectives as “noble,” “solemn,” “austere,” and in de-
scribing the figures in the composition he talks of
“sculpture-like dignity” (Athenaeum, no. 2782 [1881]).
Such epithets have been frequently applied since to
eighteenth-century works which are now labelled
neo-classical. The word appears in its present meaning
by 1893 when it is noted in a newspaper review that
“a man must be a scholar before he can make neo-
classicism even tolerable in art” (The Times [6 May


1881], p. 17). From the 1920's onwards the word has
been in regular use by art historians, and applied to
eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century works of art;
its meaning has been continually broadened in scope
and depth. The result is a wide application of the term
neo-classical about which there can now be no one,
precise definition.

The term “neo-classical” appears easy to define. The
prefix “neo” is used, as it has been commonly used from
about 1860 onwards, with the Greek etymological
meaning of a new form of some already existing—but
possibly long dormant or dead—language, idea, or
belief. In its most rudimentary definition neo-classi-
cism thus denotes the renewed forms of classical art
that were dominant in the second half of the eighteenth
century and the earlier part of the nineteenth. Neo-
classical art and architecture resulted from a serious
archaeological outlook of the artist, architect, or de-
signer, reacting against the excesses of the baroque and
the extravagances of the rococo. Neo-classical artists
used forms, details, and subject matter deriving from
a wide range of classical antiquity, but with adaptations
and alterations that the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians,
and Etruscans would not have recognized. But such
a definition does not specify which of the many varied
aspects of classical art is being revived, how these
aspects were interpreted, and what elements in the
neo-classical style derive from other, nonclassical


The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had
a more limited knowledge of classical antiquity than
is possible today. The great archaeological excavations
in Asia Minor and Greece of such men as Heinrich
Schliemann had not yet taken place. Not only had some
of the now famous original Greek sculptures of the
fifth and fourth centuries B.C. not been found, but also
little was known of Greek art before the fifth century.
Few sixth-century works were available. Nothing was
known of Mycenean and Cycladic art: only a few
examples became known as late as about 1820. The
eighteenth century's firsthand knowledge was therefore
confined to Roman art, and Roman copies of Greek
originals. Such masterpieces as the original fifth-
century friezes from the Parthenon and the Phigaleian
temples appeared late in the development of neo-
classicism. Although the former were known from a
few copies, and from engravings published in the sec-
ond volume of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's
Antiquities of Athens (1787), they did not create an
artistic stir until brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in
1808, from whom they were in due course bought
by the government for the British Museum. The Phi
galeian Marbles were to be bought by the same gov-
ernment in 1814. Until these two sets of marbles were
removed from Greece, all the countless eulogies of
Phidias and his age were based on literary and on
secondhand visual evidence (Figure 1).

This visual and literary evidence was considerable,
forming a large body of material upon which artists
and architects could draw. From the medieval period
until the mid-nineteenth century, classical art and lit-
erature influenced the creativity of the contemporary
European mind, at some times more strongly than at
others. Neo-classicism thus belongs to the broad stream
of classicism, constructing its own, identifiable version.
In addition to the Renaissance, seventeenth-century,
and early eighteenth-century literature available, the
second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a rapid
growth in archaeological publications and classical
influence. The knowledge of classical antiquity had
been most widely disseminated through gems and
cameos, which had often played a more important role
than statues and reliefs. Earlier important publications
had included Pietro Santi Bartoli's Admiranda Roman-
orum antiquitatum
(1685) on sculptural reliefs, Lorenz
Beger's Thesaurus Brandenburgicus selectus (1696-
1701) which had dealt primarily with gems and coins,
and Baron Philip von Stosch's famous Gemmae an-
(1724) which was concerned entirely with gems,
engraved by Bernard Picart. The most ambitious survey
of antique art, with long text and many engravings,
was to be found in the folios of Bernard de Mont-
faucon's L'Antiquité expliquée représentée en figures

But unlike archaeological publications before the
mid-eighteenth century, which were either without
plates or generally inadequately illustrated with inac-
curate engravings, those of the later eighteenth century
were lavishly and usually accurately illustrated. The
wealth of new architectural and archaeological evi-
dence showed more clearly than ever before the diver-
sity of styles in classical art. One of the most important
publications of engravings of archaeological discoveries
(other than architecture) was the series of folios pub-
lished by the Accademia Ercolanese from 1755 on-
wards. The Herculaneum site produced a wealth of
major and minor objects from elaborate illusionistic
frescoes to simple oil lamps, which were illustrated in
these volumes, and which could also be seen in the
museum at Portici (subsequently transferred to the
Museo Nazionale in Naples, where they still are). The
enthusiasm with which artists expressed their feelings
for this museum is summed up by one artist when he
writes: “The moderns, with all their vapouring, have
invented nothing, have improved nothing, not even in
the most trifling articles of convenient household uten-


sils.... Is there anything new in the world?” (James
Barry, Works, London [1809], I, 110). The year follow-
ing the publication of the folio containing the Hercu-
laneum Seller of Cupids, the French painter Joseph-
Marie Vien produced his version of the same subject,
based fairly obviously on the engraving (1763, Musée
National, Fontainebleau). This painting is one of the
best known of the many transpositions of classical
patterns into neo-classical works of art. Other impor-
tant excavations apart from Herculaneum and Pompeii
included Ostia, Tor Colombaro, Monte Cagnolo, Castel
del Guido, and Gabii, as well as the prolific site of
Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. Among the leading excavators
was the British painter and picture-dealer, Gavin
Hamilton. Other leading dealers in antiquities were
also British, namely James Byres and Thomas Jenkins.
Pioneer archaeologists in Greece itself and in the Mid-
dle East were also, very largely, British.

All these excavations contributed a wealth of classi-
cal sculptures, frescoes, and minor objects unknown to
earlier centuries, providing the eighteenth century, and
the neo-classicists in particular, with a quantity of
firsthand visual evidence far in excess of that available
to men of the Renaissance. The Vatican collections,
established in that period, rapidly grew in size to
become the most important in Europe. Other collec-
tions were expanded, and new ones formed. The young
nobleman or gentleman of leisure on his Grand Tour
through the continent and down to Italy, inevitably
spent a long sojourn in Rome. There he bought Old
Masters and classical sculptures and cameos to enrich
or start his collection at home.

The predominance of ancient Roman art in these
archaeological finds and in contemporary collections
led to a more distorted view of classical art than that
current today. As Greek art was seen through the
intermediary of Roman copies, it was believed that all
ancient sculptors generalized their anatomy and
omitted facial features. Sir Joshua Reynolds expressed
this eighteenth-century misconception when he said in
one of his Royal Academy discourses that: “The face
bears so very inconsiderable a proportion to the effect
of the whole figure, that the ancient sculptors neglected
to animate the features, even with the general expres-
sion of the passions” (Reynolds, p. 181). Such a de-
scription of antique sculpture characterizes much
neo-classical art.

Ancient Greece, and to a larger extent Rome, pro-
vided the neo-classicists with the major part of their
stylistic repertoire. Egypt also contributed its share.
The Egyptian Revival in the eighteenth century was
a sporadic one, seen at its best in Giambattista Pira-
nesi's pyramids and sphinxes with which he decorated
the walls of the English Coffee House in Rome (now
lost, but known from Piranesi's engravings). Publica-
tions on Egypt, such as Norden's Egypt (1741), were
few and not very influential. When Anton Raphael
Mengs decorated the Sala dei Papiri in the Vatican
he chose, logically, Egyptian motifs. However, the full
impact of Egypt was not felt until after Napoleon's
Egyptian campaign (1798-99). Although in terms of
military history the venture was a disaster, archaeo-
logically and artistically it was a triumph. The account
and engravings which Baron Denon published, Voyage
dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte
(1802), helped to
spread “Egyptomania” throughout Europe. Together
with Greek and Roman forms and details, chairs be-
came adorned with sphinxes, clock mounts were dec-
orated with hieroglyphics and doorways designed as


if entrances to Egyptian temples. Whereas the mid-
eighteenth-century Egyptian Revival was largely con-
fined to wall decoration, by about 1800 it was mainly
found in architecture, furniture, and other aspects of
the applied arts.

The full extent of neo-classical electicism is to be
seen in the engravings in Thomas Hope's Household
(1807), the most influential design book in
Regency Britain. His Picture Gallery was based on
architectural motifs seen in Athens. In the Drawing
Room hung paintings of Indian Moorish architecture,
under a ceiling based on that of a Turkish palace; the
room devoted to Egyptian antiquities was decorated
in this style. Most of the furniture throughout the house
was Greek, Roman, or Egyptian in inspiration, often
with appropriate iconographical details: the dining
room sideboard was adorned with appropriate em-
blems of Bacchus and Ceres.

The development of neo-classicism witnessed both
the emergence of an increasingly clear distinction be-
tween the characteristics of Greek and Roman art, and
hostility between those who, on the one hand, favored
Roman superiority and those who, on the other hand,
favored Greek. The body of available information was
such that a controversy was feasible in a way that it
would not have been in previous centuries. The eight-
eenth century knew both the austerities of the Greek
Doric order at Paestum as well as the Roman com-
plexities of Diocletian's Palace at Split (this latter in
a work published by Robert Adam in 1764). The neo-
classical architects looked directly at antique patterns,
unlike the classically inspired architects of the first half
of the eighteenth century who looked at antiquity very
largely through the eyes of Andrea Palladio.

The Scottish painter Allan Ramsay (not himself a
neo-classical artist) helped to start the controversy of
Greek versus Roman supremacy with his essay, Dia-
logue on Taste
(1755), in which he argued that the
canons of Greek art would never be overthrown “unless
Europe should become a conquest of the Chinese.”
Another important advocacy of Greek supremacy is
found in Julien David Le Roy's Ruines des plus beaux
monuments de la Grèce
(1758). Against such publica-
tions Piranesi launched his Della magnificenza ed
architettura de' Romani
(1761) and his Parere sull'
(1765), in which he championed the su-
premacy of Roman architecture and other arts, derived
from their predecessors the Etruscans, and debased by
the Greeks. Such archaeological nonsense was sup-
ported by Piranesi's excellent engravings, which in
visual terms were important in promulgating the
ornate rather than the austere aspects of antiquity. The
time of Hadrian was the finest in antiquity for Piranesi,
and works from this period and their elaborate restora-
tions are seen for example in his Diverse maniere
d'adornare i cammini
(1769) and his Vasi, candelabri
... (1778). In actual interiors, Piranesi's taste is com-
parable to Robert Adam's decoration, and to some of
the designs, later, of Charles Percier and Pierre-
François Fontaine.

But the advocates of Greek supremacy had an ever-
growing, important body of visual evidence with which
to defend their case, and slowly the Greek gained
precedence, finally emerging as the Greek Revival: a
style which had widespread influence firstly in Europe
and then, principally in the nineteenth century,
throughout North America. Accurate architectural en-
gravings in Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens
(1762 onwards), together with the growing interest in
Greek temples in Sicily and at Paestum, and their
reproduction in such works as Thomas Major's Ruins
of Paestum
(1768), made an increasingly accurate
knowledge of the ancient Greek world possible. The
isolated examples of Greek Revival architecture and
design in the mid-eighteenth century eventually gained
momentum. The Greek Doric temple by Stuart at
Hagley (1758) and the furniture à la grecque made for
Lalive de Jully, in the same decade, were to become
in due course the rule rather than the exception. The
swing towards a Greek taste was also much aided by
the writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose
scholarly approach made possible an assessment of
Greek art in a way that such a book as George Turn-
bull's Treatise on Ancient Painting (1740) did not.
Turnbull had had the presumption to compare the
paintings of Raphael with those of Apelles, undeterred
by the complete disappearance of the latter's original


Neo-classicism was generally serious; its architec-
ture was not playful, its painting and sculpture not
frivolous. It could be light (e.g., Robert Adam or
Angelica Kauffmann) and occasionally erotic (e.g.,
Vien), but never as hedonistic as rococo or baroque.
Architecture was dominated by the sobriety of antique
forms; painting and sculpture by a classical morality,
often Stoic. In the realm of theory, Shaftesbury had
been an important precursor before Winckelmann in
elucidating the connection between art and morals, a
connection first made by Aristotle. It was argued that
it was more important for a work of art to instruct
than to delight the spectator. Instruction was nobler
than pleasure; the mind ought to be satisfied in prefer-
ence to the eye. Shaftesbury held this belief, as had
Poussin before him. Aristotle in his Poetics had written:


“The reason of the delight in seeing the picture is that
one is at the same time learning—gathering the mean-
ing of things” (4, p. 29). Winckelmann and the neo-
classicists inherited and developed this conviction.
Winckelmann analyzed art and morality in the context
of the antique; his great contemporary Denis Diderot
discussed them more broadly as a general goal to which
all arts should aim, namely the love of virtue and
hatred of vice.

The painter Greuze came closer than any other artist
to Diderot's ideal. Jean Baptiste Greuze interprets his
contemporary scene of The Wicked Boy Punished
(1778, Paris, Louvre) in a similar compositional manner
to his earlier Septimius Severus reproaching Caracalla
(1769, Paris, Louvre): in both a penitent, worthless
son stands beside the bed of his father; Caracalla points
reprimandingly, whereas the contemporary father has
just died. With Greuze, and some of his neo-classical
contemporaries, the work of art serves a didactic pur-
pose, namely to teach a lesson in virtue. These lessons
culminate in Jacques Louis David's canvases just before
and during the French Revolution, starting with his
famous Oath of the Horatii (1784-85, Paris, Louvre).
The three brothers swear allegiance to Rome before
going off to battle. David has invented a probable
incident in classical history, inspired by plays of Cor-
neille and Voltaire, and turned his theme into a great
neo-classical statement of Republican virtue in ancient
Rome. The painting was subsequently interpreted as
foretelling Revolutionary struggles in contemporary
France, and the gestures of allegiance were reenacted
in 1794 at a Republican demonstration organized by
the artist together with Robespierre. A similar idealistic
and moral theme was chosen by David in 1789 in his
Lictors returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons (two
versions: Louvre, Paris, and Wadsworth Athenaeum,
Hartford, Conn.). Here the theme is more austerely
Stoical, as the father has condemned his own sons to
death because of their rebellion against him (Figure
2). This example from Roman history of a father's
feelings giving precedence to the state's welfare had
direct relevance to contemporary French political his-
tory, and was interpreted as such at the time. With
these paintings by David, French neo-classicism dur-
ing the Revolution attains a character unique in
Europe; nowhere else is there such a fusion between
ancient history, contemporary politics and philosophy,
and the forms of classical art.


With the notable exception of a few great, progres-
sive architects of form and space, such as Claude Nic-
olas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Boullée, and John Soane,
the neo-classical style was up to about 1800 essentially
one of surface decoration in architecture and in the
applied arts. This characteristic was paralleled by a
concentration on outline or contour in painting, the
graphic arts, and sculpture. While architects looked
to the elaborate surface ornamentations of late Roman
architecture, including that on the periphery of the
Empire (for example, Robert Adam's interest in Pal-
myra), the painters and sculptors looked at Roman
bas-reliefs and particularly at painted Greek vases.

Only a very few Greek—or as they were then erro-
neously called, Etruscan—vases were known and col-
lected before the eighteenth century. The most impor-
tant collections put together in the eighteenth century
were the two formed by Sir William Hamilton, British
plenipotentiary at the Court of Naples. Both collec-
tions were lavishly illustrated in folios, the first publi-
cation (1766-67) having handsome colored engravings.
Soon afterwards Hamilton had to sell his vases to the
newly established British Museum to recoup the heavy
cost of publication. In the second series of volumes
(1791-95) the illustrations were uncolored. The set
contained a preface by Hamilton in which he eulogized
upon these vases, saying they provided the most im-
portant antique pattern available to the modern artist.
The line drawings influenced the drawing and com-
positional style of many artists; their subject matter
was freely plundered, and the shapes as well as decora-
tions were crucial to such enterprising businessmen as
Josiah Wedgwood, who supplied the fashionable mar-
ket with chinaware in classical taste. The linear quali-
ties of the painted decoration on these vases, chiefly
of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., had considerable
influence on the development of the neo-classical style.
The vases intensified the interest already being shown
in the two-dimensional qualities of Roman sculptural
bas-reliefs. At its most austere, neo-classical art con-
sists only of outline with no modelling or spatial depth;
even in more fully modelled paintings and friezes the
action is contained within a narrow shelf-like space.
Movement is clearly articulated across the surface
plane, diametrically opposed to the spatial complexi-
ties in depth of the baroque.

The basic tenets of neo-classical theory, including
this emphasis on outline, are embodied in the widely
read writings of the German scholar Johann Joachim
Winckelmann. As librarian to Cardinal Albani in
Rome, and also in charge of his antiquities (Albani was
one of the leading eighteenth-century collectors in
Europe), Winckelmann was one of the principal figures
in circles interested in classical antiquity in the city.
His first influential essay was written before he arrived
in Italy: his Gedanken über die Nachahmung der
Griechischen Werke
(1755) had been inspired mainly
by the few pieces of classical sculpture in the royal


collection in Dresden. To this visual evidence, together
with gems, he added his wide knowledge of classical
literature, and pronounced, in an often-quoted sen-

The last and most eminent characteristic of the Greek works
is a noble simplicity and sedate grandeur beneath the strife
and passions in Greek figures

(Winckelmann [1765], p. 30).

The fact that he had not seen an original Greek work
did not for him, or for his contemporaries, undermine
the validity of his argument. To the qualities of sim-
plicity and grandeur, Winckelmann added idealization
and stress on outline: for him they summarized the best
period in art, namely that of Greece during the fifth-
century B.C.

All Winckelmann's subsequent writings are, essen-
tially, an elaboration of his thesis in the 1755 essay.
His outstanding publication was the important Ge-
schichte der Kunst des Alterthums
(1764), in which his
classification and dating of ancient art is a major con-
tribution to the language of modern archaeology. His
history was an important addition to the already exist-
ing large body of literature on the subject, which had
tended not to treat ancient art chronologically, but to
be either very unscientific, or to group material to-
gether according to subject matter and themes. The
thematic treatment had been that favored by Mont-
faucon in his L'Antiquité expliquée, still in use in the
second half of the eighteenth century. Winckelmann's
other publications included a catalogue of the antique
gems owned by Baron Stosch (1760), two essays on
ancient architecture (1759 and 1762), studies of the
excavations at Herculaneum (1762 and 1764), an at-
tempt at an up-to-date, complete iconography in his
Allegorie (1766), and two volumes of Monumenti Anti-
chi Inediti
(1767), his only work to be illustrated in
his own lifetime by many fine engravings.

Winckelmann used his scholarship as a tool in the
construction of a theory. He argued that a modern
artist could become great only by imitating the works
of classical Greece, thus acquiring a more perfect
knowledge of beauty than was possible by studying
nature itself. “The Greeks alone,” wrote Winckelmann
ecstatically, “seem to have thrown forth beauty as a
potter makes his pot” (Winckelmann [1765], p. 264).
By imitating the ancients Winckelmann did not mean
servile copying, a fault for which he has often been
erroneously blamed. Winckelmann meant (as had such
theorists before him as Shaftesbury and Jonathan
Richardson who had influenced him), that only by
imitating the ancients could ideal beauty be discovered,
and when discovered should be conveyed in the spirit
of the original. Properly understood, therefore,
Winckelmann's writings had a very constructive influ-
ence on the eighteenth century's interpretation of the
antique, and in particular the way in which neo-classi-
cal artists looked at their source material.

Winckelmann's theories did, nevertheless, contain


flaws and inconsistencies. His descriptions are some-
times highly charged with subjectivity. He was able
to write of the Apollo Belvedere (in a manner that also
reveals his homosexuality):

An eternal spring... plays with softness and tenderness
about the proud shape of his limbs.... Neither blood-
vessels nor sinews heat and stir his body, but a heavenly
essence, diffusing itself like a gentle stream, seems to fill
the whole contour of the figure

(Winckelmann [1880], II,

Winckelmann's most fundamental flaw was his di-
vorce of energy and vitality from simplicity and gran-
deur. His admiration is reserved essentially for those
works which convey the spirit of the fifth century B.C.,
not the “baroque” works of the second and first cen-
turies B.C.: yet he is able to admire the Laocoön. There
is a dichotomy in his writings between calmness on
the one hand and emotion on the other, and a similar
dichotomy is found in neo-classical art. Although
Winckelmann tried to argue that Laocoön's anguish
was restrained, this great sculptural group does not
conveniently fit into a theory that was primarily con-
ceived in terms of the Apollo Belvedere. Generally in
neo-classical paintings and sculpture, gestures and
emotions are restrained. Bacchanalian scenes are not
exuberant in a Rubensian sense, but are held in check.
If Hector is being mourned, Andromache does not
show her tears. Even in a scene as potentially violent
as that in which the angry Achilles drags the dead body
of Hector around the walls of Troy, in full view of
the Trojans, artists tended to minimize Achilles' arro-
gant and rash gesture, and portray few if any horrified


The neo-classical conception of the creation of a
work of art is fundamentally that of Renaissance and
seventeenth-century idealization, overlaid with an even
greater emphasis on antique models. Perfect beauty
was not to be found in nature: a servile copying of
nature, it was argued, merely led down to the debased
still lifes of seventeenth-century Holland. The upward
path to higher genres of painting, with history-painting
occupying the peak, was attainable only by improving
nature's “imperfections,” “ugliness,” and “dispropor-
tions” (words frequently found in idealist theories). Art
should create a superior beauty by reflecting on nature,
and improve it, just as “bees collect honey from bitter
plants” (a metaphor used by André Félibien, author
of Entretiens sur les vies et les ouvrages des plus excel-
lents peintres anciens et modernes
[1666-88], in his
tenth Entretien, subsequently used by Winckelmann
and others). The idealists were familiar with the exam
ple of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who selected
five women from whose various beauties he could blend
his perfect image of Helen. The particular and acci-
dental were eliminated so that a generalized, idealized
beauty might be attained.

Anton Raphael Mengs's writings are often cited as
an important influence on the development of neo-
classicism, but he did not add to Winckelmann's ideas
and few pages are devoted to antiquity. In Mengs's
best-known work, Gedanken über die Schönheit und
den Geschmack in der Malerei
(1762) he merely elabo-
rates the seventeenth-century concept of “idea,” find-
ing true beauty in God. The neo-Platonic element in
his ideas may have influenced his friend Winckelmann.
Mengs is really more of a neo-classicist in some of
his paintings.

The seventeenth-century French and Italian aca-
demic tenet of “decorum” remained a dominant factor
in the following century, greatly aided by increased
archaeological knowledge. Decorum meant the accu-
rate rendering of historical settings and details from
architecture to costume and furniture. Nicolas Poussin
had expressed concern in a letter for the correct form
of pyramids and landscape which he regarded as essen-
tial in the background of a painting of the flight into
Egypt. The eighteenth-century neo-classicists were to
be just as particular on such points. If Hector is saying
farewell to Andromache, or the victors at Olympia are
being crowned, painters might place Doric temples
prominently in the background. Germanicus on his
death bed or Hannibal taking his oath are surrounded
by correctly draped figures, with helmets, shields,
ewers, and statues all indicating knowledge—often
firsthand—of antique prototypes. Even when the sub-
ject matter was not classical, but medieval, artists
would turn to tomb sculpture, stained glass, and seals
for their accurate source material.

In painting, so strong was the influence of Poussin
on certain neo-classical artists in the 1760's and the
1770's, that an alternative stylistic term has been sug-
gested, namely “Neo-Poussinism.” Some of the earliest
neo-classical painters distilled their view of antiquity
partially through the intermediaries of Raphael and
Poussin. Winckelmann said that Raphael was the ideal
modern artist to imitate, and Poussin is admired in
Winckelmann's letters. Diderot, too, recommended
following Poussin's example as an interpreter of classi-
cal moral themes. A key early neo-classical work such
as Mengs's Parnassus (1761, Villa Albani, now Torlonia,
Rome) owes much of its inspiration to Raphael and
to Poussin. Benjamin West's Judgement of Hercules
(1764, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) derives
directly from Poussin's painting of the same subject.

Neo-classical works have a homogeneity of style that


makes them as recognizably individual as works of any
other style, but underneath this unity lies much dis-
parity. Neo-classicism has often been interpreted, for
instance, as a strong reaction against the rococo, but
there are rococo elements in early neo-classical works.
Neo-classicism has been seen as a counter force to
Romanticism, but it can with more validity be inter-
preted as an early part of the Romantic movement
itself. Neo-classicism has been called an embodiment
of frigidity, but the style is equally imbued with senti-
ment and emotion. These, and other, apparently con-
tradictory strands within the one style, make it more
complex than the name neo-classicism implies.

In the broad context of the history of art a new style
has often been seen as a reaction to the immediately
preceding one, and this assessment has been encour-
aged by the writings of artists themselves. Neo-classi-
cism is no exception. It is easy to interpret its austere
and uncompromising aspects as the very antithesis of
the elegant and frivolous sides of rococo. But detailed
analysis generally reveals the initial reaction to have
been exaggerated. The leading neo-classical sculptor
of Europe, Antonio Canova, started to carve in a style
reminiscent of rococo, gradually emerging as a neo-
classicist. Other prominent sculptors such as John
Flaxman and Étienne-Maurice Falconet show a com-
parable development. In painting, the early works of
artists as varied as Mengs, Pompeo Girolamo Batoni,
Vien, Angelica Kauffmann, Benjamin West, and Gavin
Hamilton, reveal rococo tendencies derived from
François Boucher and his contemporaries. The intricate
surface patterns created by Robert Adam on his ceilings
and walls grow out of his youthful rococo works. His
Etruscan Room at Osterley Park, although ostensibly
recreating motifs from so-called Etruscan vases, em-
ploys a compositional arrangement of scrolls reminis-
cent of rococo interiors.

The word “simplicity” often occurs in neo-classical
artists' writings, signifying an outstanding merit to be
found in certain periods of art of the past. It occurs
as a partial explanation of the neo-classicists' own
aims. Simplicity is never precisely defined. However,
it tends not to be used of the periods from the High
Renaissance onwards, with the exception of its appli-
cation to Poussin and similar seventeenth-century clas-
sicists. The tortuous characteristics of mannerist, ba-
roque, and rococo art were generally, but not
consistently, anathema to the neo-classicists. Simplic-
ity embraced both the idealization of Phidias, thir-
teenth-century tombs in medieval churches, and the
elemental quality of Giotto's frescoes. The neo-classi-
cists sought characteristics of economy and precision
in the art of the past, but it was a very selective search.
Before the Nazarenes and the Pre-Raphaelites, the
neo-classicists, in both their art and their writings,
were the first group really to rediscover the merits of
medieval art, as well as that of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries in Italy. This admiration for what
used to be called the “Primitives” did not extend as
far back as Romanesque art and architecture, or to
Greek vases of the sixth century B.C.: such art would
have been regarded as too crude in an eighteenth-
century canon. The Romanesque Revival only came
in the mid-nineteenth century. Simplicity was therefore
regarded as a reduction to essentials, a purification of
all that was “wicked” in post-Raphael art (to use
Shaftesbury's neat dismissal of Gian Lorenzo Bernini).
The absolute reduction to simplicity in neo-classical
works appears at its clearest in outline drawings and
engravings, and in the designs of such architects as
Friedrich Gilly and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Simplicity,
as a somewhat less evident stylistic characteristic, ap-
pears in such neo-classical traits as a shelf-like space
and the removal of distracting details not essential to
the subject matter portrayed.


Although the eighteenth-century Gothic Revival,
which was largely confined to Britain and Germany,
produced an interest in Gothic architecture and art,
this interest was a limited one. The eighteenth century
inherited the previous century's academic conviction
that Gothic art did not merit serious consideration in
its own right, and was certainly inferior when com-
pared to the classical past of Greece and Rome.
Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy had discussed the inade-
quacy of paintings constantly changed in design
through lack of careful preplanning, by comparing
them to “those old Gothic castles, made at several
times, and which hold together only as it were by rags
and patches” (De arte graphica, trans. John Dryden,
London [1695], p. 113). One of the important neo-
classical contributions to contemporary taste was to
reverse this unjust dismissal of the Middle Ages. At
the same time some of the neo-classical artists and
architects produced a unique fusion of classical with
Gothic forms.

In architecture the blending of Gothic with classical
was at its most superficial when decorative motifs from
the two sources were mixed together in surface deco-
ration. A more fundamental and original understanding
of Gothic structure was shown by such neo-classical
architects as Jacques-Germain Soufflot, Boullée,
Ledoux, and Karl Friedrich Schinkel who combined
principles of form and space from the two vocabularies.
Soufflot in the interior of his Sainte Geneviève (Pan-
théon) in Paris (1757) is completely Roman in his
vaults, entablatures, capitals, and columns, and in all


the decorative details, but the overall spatial concept
of the plan, with its transepts and diagonal vistas be-
tween columns, is that of a Gothic cathedral. Roman
detailing and classical regularity were fused, as the
architect himself wrote, with Gothic architectural

In neo-classical painting and sculpture the fusion
is of a different character, leading to a reassessment
of medieval art, and to stylistic characteristics unique
to neo-classicism. The typical early eighteenth-
century attitude towards Giotto is shown in Jonathan
Richardson's comment: “That degree of vigour that
served to produce a Dante in writing could rise no
higher than a Giotto in painting” (1792, p. 255). The
neo-classicists not only produced some fine inter-
pretations of Dante (e.g., Flaxman), but also admired
Giotto and many of his contemporaries, as well as the
then equally scorned and ignored fifteenth-century
Renaissance works of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Fra Angelico,
and other artists. The neo-classicists' attitude towards
the Middle Ages and early Renaissance was an original
contribution to the development of eighteenth-century
taste and ideas, more individual than their attitude
towards the antique, towards idealization, and towards
other concepts which largely derive from the preced-
ing century. Drawings and sketchbooks by such artists
as Flaxman, Canova, and J. A. D. Ingres show copies
of Gothic and early Renaissance works. In stylistic
terms the classical-gothic synthesis characterizes some
of the linear designs of such artists as J. A. Koch,
Flaxman, and William Blake. Perugino was much ad-
mired by David, who compared the purity of his art
and that of other “primitives” of the fifteenth century
to similar qualities he found in the art of Polygnotus,
a Greek painter of the fifth century B.C.

The neo-classical concern for pre-High Renaissance
art represented a quest for fundamental principles of
art which had become overlaid and obscured by subse-
quent developments. The outlook was essentially ret-
rogressive, in a desire to regenerate contemporary art:
an outlook expressed at its most extreme by the group
of David's pupils self-styled “The Primitives.” They
dismissed all art of the past except Greek vases and
the earliest of antique sculptures, all architecture ex-
cept the Greek Doric temples of Paestum and Sicily,
and all literature except the Bible, Homer, and Ossian.
Other artists were not quite so uncompromisingly ex-


In one of the posthumous assessments of Canova's
work, a contemporary sculptor perceptively noted that
“we sometimes seek in vain for the severe chastity of
Grecian art” (Flaxman). Greek and Roman principles
are indeed difficult to find in some neo-classical works,
especially when imbued with the most eighteenth-
century of characteristics, sensibility. The cult of sensi-
bility is revealed in the whole pose and facial expres-
sion of the classical Muse who leans on the sarcophagus
of Alfieri (Figure 3) in Santa Croce, Florence (by
Canova, 1810), as well as in the face of the charming
figure of the child, Penelope Boothby, reclining on her
sarcophagus in Ashbourne Church in Derbyshire, Eng-
land (by Thomas Banks, 1793). When Canova recreated
the Medici Venus because it had been taken to Paris
as part of the Napoleonic plunder, his marble was
imbued with more grace and sentiment than the pro-
totype (1812, Palazzo Pitti, Florence). In neo-classical
paintings, Cupid and Psyche are liable to show more
sensibility in their relationship than their classical pre-
cursors would have admitted. Tombs, and paintings of
death, show in particular neo-classical sensibility.
Skeletons are banished, anguished baroque death pangs
disappear and are replaced by single, pious scenes in
which death is an equation of sleep: tranquility and
sensibility reign. Such simple neo-classical statements
of death, often devoid of transcendental allusions,


paved the way for the masterpiece, the secular pietà
by David of the Death of Marat (1793, Brussels, Musées
Royaux des Beaux-Arts).

Antique art and its principles, concepts of idea and
decorum, and other seventeenth-century academic at-
titudes, indicate clearly that neo-classical art was gov-
erned by reason. But such rational ideals embraced,
as did the Age of Reason itself, the concept of senti-
ment. The literature and art of the period also included
extremes of emotion, terror, and horror: the period saw
the birth of the “Gothick” novel, for instance. It is
therefore not surprising to find these contradictory
elements within neo-classicism itself. William Blake
is a good instance of this inherent contradiction. In
his early drawings he is a neo-classicist; neo-classical
elements occur, inconsistently, throughout his art, but
he is very ambivalent in his attitude towards classical
antiquity and could describe himself as a “Mental

The rule of Imagination, so apparently contradictory
to that of Reason, is an equally important characteristic
of the eighteenth century. Flaxman's portrayal of the
demented rage in his Fury of Athamas (1790-93,
Ickworth), in which mad Athamas dashes one of his
sons onto the rocks whilst his wife Ino clings pleading,
takes its violent pose and heavy musculature (of
Athamas' body) from the Laocoön and the Torso Belve-
The violence of emotion in such a neo-classical
marble is exactly comparable to that of Canova's large
Heracles and Lycas (1796, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte
Moderna, Rome). Henry Fuseli, whose subject matter
was chosen widely from classical and post-classical
history and literature, showed a marked preference for
fantasy and terror, a characteristic which he shared
with members of William Blake's circle. From classical
antiquity Fuseli extracted from Plutarch such a subject
as Dion seeing a Female Spectre sweep his Hall (etch-
ing). Other elements of the supernatural appear in
neo-classical works, drawn from Dante, Shakespeare,
and Milton. Flaxman's outline engravings of the Divine
(before 1799, possibly 1793) were regarded
at the time as an outstanding series of plates, and were
praised by Goethe for being both “spirited” and
“calm”: the conflict between these adjectives is sympto-
matic of the complexities of the neo-classical style.
For such reasons neo-classicism has even been called
not a style but a “coloration” (Giedion, p. 9).


For general discussions see R. Rosenblum, Trans-
formations in Late Eighteenth Century Art
(Princeton, 1967);
H. Honour, Neoclassicism (Harmondsworth, 1968); C. Justi,
Winckelmann und seine Zeitgenossen, 5th ed. (Cologne,
1956; first ed. 1866-72); and R. Zeitler, Klassizismus und
Utopia (Stockholm, 1954). S. Giedion, Spätbarocker und
romantischer Klassizismus
(Munich, 1922), a pioneer book,
is still to be read with profit. See also M. Praz, Gusto
(Rome, 1940), trans. as On Neoclassicism (Lon-
don, 1969); J. A. Leith, The Idea of Art as Propaganda in
France 1750-99
(Toronto, 1965); D. Irwin, Winckelmann:
Writings on Art
(London and New York, 1972); L. Bertrand,
La Fin du classicisme et le retour à l'antique (Paris, 1897);
and L. Hautecoeur, Rome et la Renaissance de l'antiquité
à la fin du XVIIIe siècle
(Paris, 1912).

Painting and sculpture are covered by the following:
E. L. Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps (Paris,
1855); J. Locquin, La Peinture d'histoire en France de 1747
à 1785
(Paris, 1912); D. Irwin, English Neoclassical Art
(London and Greenwich, Conn., 1966); M. D. Whinney,
Sculpture in Britain 1530-1830 (Harmondsworth, 1964).

Architecture, partially discussed in some of the above
items, is best covered by E. Kaufmann, Architecture in the
Age of Reason
(Cambridge, Mass., 1955); L. Hautecoeur,
Histoire de l'architecture classique en France, 7 vols. in 8
(Paris, 1943-57), Vols. IV and V; J. Summerson, Architecture
in Britain 1530-1830,
4th ed. (Harmondsworth, 1963);
L. V. Meeks. Italian Architecture 1750-1914 (New Haven,
1966); and Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in
(New York, 1944; also reprint).

References have also been made to the following: Aris-
totle, Poetics, trans. Gilbert Murray (Oxford, 1920), 4, p.
29; Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourse X (1780), Discourses, ed.
R. Wark (San Marino, Calif., 1959), p. 181; Jonathan Rich-
ardson, “Science of a Connoisseur” (1719), Works (London,
1792), p. 255; J. J. Winckelmann, “On the Imitation of the
Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks,” Reflections on the
Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks,
trans. Henry Fuseli
(London, 1765), pp. 30, 264; idem, History of Ancient Art,
trans. G. H. Lodge (Boston, 1880), II, 313.


[See also Art and Play; Classicism in Literature; Classifi-
cation of the Arts
; Gothic; Periodization; Renaissance;
Romanticism; Stoicism.]