The tumultuous political events at the end of the 18th century found their visual counterpoint in the cool precision of the era’s dominant visual style, neoclassicism.
During the 18th century, many artists turned their attention to modern-day subjects and experimented with new approaches to storytelling. These artists had reveled in fluid, expressive painting, virtuoso brushwork, and a fresh, light palette. But by the middle of the century, many artists, patrons, and critics were calling for a more sober approach.
Neoclassicism was a revival of subjects from the Greek and Roman classics, as well as a return to the traditional approach to composition taught in academies of painting and sculpture. Subjects showing scenes of virtue and patriotism became increasingly popular, and artists incorporated new archaeological knowledge from the recent excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum into their imagery. A generation of young painters revived the taste for smoothly painted surfaces in which all evidence of the artist’s brush has been carefully concealed.
The neoclassical style was already popular before the French Revolution of 1789, but it proved to be an especially powerful visual language for imagining the new republican society that replaced the feudal and monarchical Old Regime. In depicting a new class of heroes and a new set of virtues, artists used the revived classical tradition to underscore the seriousness of their modern subjects.
DMA Label text, 2010.
Introduction to Neoclassicism
Read this summary of the cultural movement on Brooklyn College's English Department website.
Look at additional examples of Neoclassical works and read Cybele Gontar's 2003 essay explaining the ways this style influenced a range of art forms in Europe and the United States during the 18th century. (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Neoclassicism, An Introduction
Check out the articles, artworks, and analysis provided by the Khan Academy. Test your neoclassical knowledge with a quiz at the end!
The English Neoclassical Movement
Find out more about how this movement impacted British culture by reading this article on The Victorian Web.