After the Baroque and Rococo styles led to highly decorated buildings, objects and works of art in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a need for simpler, more symmetrical forms. At the same time, 18th-century archeologists were starting to discover or study ancient Roman and Greek sites that had been lost or overlooked, such as Herculaneum, Pompeii and Paestum.
Second temple of Hera /Poseidon temple, c.450BC, Paestum — Photo by Norbert Nagel
All this led to a renewed interest in classical antiquity, the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, and in the arts and architecture of that period.
So, starting in the 1760s, artists and craftsmen started to create new works inspired from the nobility, simplicity and harmony of Ancient Greek and Roman works. These new productions were called “neoclassical,” “neo-” meaning “new” and “classical” referring to the period of Ancient Greece and Rome.
John Flaxman, Homer Invoking the Muse, Illustration for The Iliad, c.1793 — Source: mccunecollection.org
Of course each country has its own versions of Neoclassicism in architecture and design, and each version is named after the King or the type of government of the period when it was created. For example, it was called “Georgian” then “Regency” in England, “Louis XVI” then “Empire” in France, and “Federal Style” in the US.
Despite differences, all these styles share the characteristics of neoclassical works:
- Balanced proportions
- Forms inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman architecture and interiors
- Columns and fluting inspired by the Classical Orders
- Topics and decorations from Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology
For music, by the way, it’s a different story. “Classical” refers to the music of the 1730-1820 period and “neoclassical” to a type of work produced in the first half of the 20th century.
As always, the best way of becoming familiar with a style is to look at examples. Let’s start with neoclassical paintings, from the late 18th century to the early 19th.
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, c.1785, Louvre Museum, Paris
Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Angelica Kauffman, Venus Convinces Helen to go with Paris, 1790, Hermitage Museum, Saint-Petersburg
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer, 1827, Louvre Museum, Paris
For architecture and the decorative arts, Neoclassicism covers the period that goes from the 1760s to the end of the 19th century, competing with other styles and revivals, in some cases even into the 20th century. It includes many government buildings and monuments, as well as furniture styles that feature decorations such as eagles, leaves and other forms inspired by Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
The United States Capitol, built from 1793 to 1863, Washington, D.C.
Palais Bourbon, façade built from 1806 to 1810, Paris — Photo by David Monniaux
Louis XVI Blue Room, c.1770s, Musée Carnavalet, Paris — Photo by wiki user Thesupermat
Typical fluted leg of Louis XVI furniture, by wiki user Cyril5555
Neoclassical Grand Salon from the Hôtel de Tessé, Paris, c.1768-1792, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Roentgen gaming table, c.1780, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Russian Imperial Settee, 1803, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Now for neoclassical sculptures, often inspired by the forms and characters of Ancient Greek works:
John Flaxman, Cephalus and Aurora, c.1790, Liverpool Museums
Antonio Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, 1793, Louvre Museum, Paris
Bertel Thorvaldsen, Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle, 1817, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen
So, if you’re looking at a building, interior, object or work of art that was created after the 1760s and looks inspired from Ancient Greek and Roman forms like the ones above, it’s probably neoclassical, and that includes a large number of buildings and works throughout the world.