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Neoclassicism

Neoclassicism

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will present an overview of the historical context of Neoclassicism.

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Tutorial

An overview of Neoclassicism and the historical events and people that influenced it.

Video Transcription

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Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about Neoclassicism. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end the lesson today you will be able to identify and define these key terms, describe important historical events during this period of time, and identify examples of Neoclassical artwork.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Neoclassical. Neo meaning "new," a movement or style occurring during the mid-18th century characterized by a revival of classical styles. Age of Enlightenment, a European intellectual and cultural movement in the 17th and 18th centuries whose mission was to reform society by reason and knowledge using scientific methods. Age of Reason, a publication written by Thomas Paine, a British American revolutionary, that challenged institutionalized religion.

Philosophes, a group of 18th century French intellectuals, men and women, united by their belief in human reason and logic. Empiricism, the belief that knowledge comes through sensed experience. Rococo, also called Late Baroque, an artistic movement and style seen across all the arts characterized by playful witty themes, and creamy pastel colors, ornate asymmetrical designs, curves and gold, sensuality, and over-indulgence.

The big idea for today is that Neoclassicism occurred during a time when the emphasis was on logic, reason, and observable information. This is why this time period is known as the Enlightenment and Age of Reason.

There aren't that we're looking at today comes from between 1766 and 1844. But the scientists and philosophers we'll talk about, whose ideas influenced the Neoclassic movement, date from as far back as the 16th century. We'll be traveling to England, France and back to the United States today, the locations which mark the origins of our artists today.

You'll notice as we move forward, or you may have noticed already, that the artistic movements and periods we talk about seem to emerge and pass on in a rhythmic sort of fashion. It isn't a perfect back and forth example, but from what we've seen so far, the artistic styles of the time seem to move from logical and rational at its foundation to emotional and dramatic. I don't want to imply that these movements are completely defined as one or the other. It isn't simply that cut and dry. And there is definitely crossover and inter-categorical influence.

But if you had a place each of these in a particular group, it might look something like this. In the logical and rational category you'd have classical Greek and Roman art, the Renaissance, and Neoclassicism. In the emotional and dramatic category, you'd have the Baroque, Rococo and Romanticism, which we'll take a look at in lessons to come.

Neoclassicism, or "new classicism" was a major movement in Western civilization of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the arts and architecture. And it drew inspiration and influence from the classical works of ancient Greece and Rome. Although it sounds like the Renaissance in this respect, Neoclassicism coincided with major intellectual movements in the sciences and philosophy that looked at scientific reason and logic as opposed to superstition to guide humanity. Which is why this time period is known as the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

The thinking of this time was highly influenced by the empiricist and Philosophes of this time and before. A belief that knowledge comes from sensed experience, rather than divine providence or an innate understanding, is a philosophical branch of thought called Empiricism. The discovery of empirical evidence, or evidence through experiment and observation is the most fundamental idea of science. Noted Empiricists include Rene Descartes, who is shown here. There's also Isaac Newton, who through his simple observation of an apple falling helped create an entire branch of physical science related to gravity and its properties. Now both men were intellectuals who acquired knowledge through the process of observation and experimentation.

The philosophes Jean Rousseau and Voltaire may have had their disagreements, but they were both incredibly important influences behind social reform and government change. Rousseau's book called The Social Contract is often cited as an important catalyst which led to the French Revolution. And Voltaire's beliefs in the separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion were important Enlightenment ideas that made their way directly or indirectly into the United States Constitution.

Now in a way, science became the religion of the time. It could be seen as the inspiration behind works of art in much the same way as Christian religion had been in the themes of Baroque art. Now at first glance this recalls the work of Caravaggisti artists like Georges de La Tour, who use a single light source to illuminate his paintings and identify the focus of the artwork. The influence of Caravaggio and his use of strong contrast is apparent, but notice how the figures have virtually none of the emotion and drama we see in Baroque works of art. Rather their poses appear frozen, which is much more indicative of Classical or Renaissance works of art.

Now what is drawing their attention? Well it's a scientific instrument known as an orrery, a physical model which is used to describe the relative orbits and positions of celestial objects like the planets and moons of our solar system. Now once again, it recalls religious imagery like this nativity scene of Georges de La Tour, but science is now the object of reverence.

If the ideas of classical Greece and Rome would influence the thinking of the time, the stylistic characteristics of classical Greece and Rome would influence the aesthetic of the time. Artistically Neoclassicism was a response to the Rococo and the excesses of the aristocracy. But the influence of Classicists and art historians like Johann Winckelmann can't be overlooked. Winckelmann believed that the work of classical Greece and Rome served as the gold standard by which all other work was compared.

Now just like in Classical works of art, political and social virtues were often personified in the themes of the artwork of the time. The artist Jacques-Louis David, his work is considered to be quintessentially Neoclassical in its execution. The tight and rational composition coupled with the classically modeled forms here recall the work of Raphael. In this scene, the Greek philosopher Socrates is heroically portrayed and contrasted against his mourning and grieving entourage, including the elderly figure of Plato seated at the end of the bed. He looks like an old man sleeping.

Having been unjustly convicted and sentenced to die, he sits erect and confidently reaches for his cup of poison while gesturing with his other hand. Now notice how all the figures, including the elderly Socrates, are idealized versions of men. I've never seen the figure of an old man quite like Socrates. He's quite fit.

While the influence of Classical ideals is fundamental to Neoclassicism, there's also the influence of the natural, as influenced by the work Rousseau and his idea of a natural man as uncorrupted by society. This was an idea that was not appreciated by his contemporary and rival at times, Voltaire. Nevertheless, it influenced the Neoclassical design aesthetic, which was essentially Classical. And can be seen articulated in this portrait bust of George Washington by the American sculptor Hiram Powers.

It recalls the Roman veristic portraits that prized the realistic depiction of individuals as indicative of age and experience, and not just because of his clothing. His confident posture and realistic appearance suggest wisdom and leadership more than youth and athleticism. The kind of admirable qualities that come from a lifetime of dedication and service to the people.

Now the artwork and architecture of America during this time was highly influenced by the ideas of democracy that developed during the Enlightenment. Events like the American and French Revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution to come all had an effect on the artwork of this time. A time which saw the proliferation of ideas that spread on a global scale. The ties between Neoclassical ideas in architecture and democracy is so strong that it became the most widely accepted style of architecture used after the American and French Revolutions. And without question, the style of architecture most closely associated with government and politics in America today.

So that's the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define takes key terms? Can you describe important historical events during this period of time? Can you identify examples of Neoclassical artwork?

And once again, the big idea for today is that Neoclassicism occurred during a time when the emphasis was on logic, reason, and observable information. This is why this time period is known as the Enlightenment and Age of Reason.

And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Neoclassicism"

Key Terms

Neoclassical

'Neo' meaning new, a movement or style occurring during the mid 18th century characterized by a revival of classical styles.

Age of Enlightenment

A European intellectual and cultural movement in the 17th and 18th centuries whose mission was to reform society by reason and knowledge, using scientific methods.

Age of Reason

A publication written by Thomas Paine, a British/American revolutionary, that challenged institutionalized religion.

Philosophes

A group of 18th century French intellectuals (men and women) united by their belief in human reason and logic.

Empiricism

A belief that knowledge comes through sensed experience.

Rococo

Also called 'late Baroque', an artistic movement and style seen across all the arts; characterized by playful witty themes and creamy-pastel colors, ornate asymmetrical designs, curves and gold, sensuality, and overindulgence.

Citations

George Washington; Public Domain: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hiram_Powers_-_Marble_bust_of_George_Washington,_c._1844,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum.jpg Death of Socrates; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates.jpg A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrey; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery.jpg; Image of Descartes Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_Ren%C3%A9_Descartes.jpg; Image of Newton Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689.jpg; Image of Rousseau Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait).jpg; Image of Voltaire Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Voltaire_by_Jean-Antoine_Houdon_(1778).jpg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Rococo

    Also called 'late Baroque', an artistic movement and style seen across all the arts; characterized by playful witty themes and creamy-pastel colors, ornate asymmetrical designs, curves and gold, sensuality, and overindulgence.

  • Empiricism

    A belief that knowledge comes through sensed experience.

  • Philosophes

    A group of 18th century French intellectuals (men and women) united by their belief in human reason and logic.

  • Age of Reason

    A publication written by Thomas Paine, a British/American revolutionary, that challenged institutionalized religion.

  • Age of Enlightenment

    A European intellectual and cultural movement in the 17th and 18th centuries whose mission was to reform society by reason and knowledge, using scientific methods.

  • Neoclassical

    'Neo' meaning new, a movement or style occurring during the mid 18th century characterized by a revival of classical styles.