Neoclassical Design

The influence of neoclassicism — the use of forms and motifs drawn from ancient Greek and Roman sources — has endured in the decorative and design arts. Characterized by balanced proportions, references to ancient architecture and sculpture, and an admiration for the artistic and cultural achievements of the classical world, neoclassical design rapidly began to emerge in the 1750s with the excavation of the Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The Grand Tour, an extended visit to the Continent emphasizing such sites throughout Italy, was a crucial component of the education of well-to-do young gentlemen and fueled greater interest in these sources of art and culture.

Unlike the majestic, showy forms of the baroque or the exuberant rococo, or "shell," style embraced by designers such as London silversmith Paul de Lamerie, neoclassicism encouraged restrained dignity and elegance. The sculptural nature of the style lent itself to media such as silver, with which craftsmen could readily shape figural and ornamental elements.

The ability of clay to suggest the color and form of stonework provided another means to evoke the ancient world. During the 1770s, famed English potter Josiah Wedgwood began to produce ceramic wares in a variety of forms and hues intended to imitate the appearance of ancient Greek and Roman glass, ceramics, and sculpture. At the same time, the French royal porcelain factory of Sèvres began to produce classically inspired wares associated with the reign of Louis XVI and, later, with that of another important patron, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Although the dominance of neoclassical design gradually began to fade in the 1830s, throughout the following decades the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans inspired artists and designers to either embrace the classical motifs that formed the traditional foundation of Western art, or to reject them as obsolete relics inappropriate for the modern age.

Adapted from

DMA unpublished material, Gallery text, European Decorative Arts to 1900.

Web Resources

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