Neoclassical Art: Abandoning Opulence

Last week we talked about the beginnings of the movement away from the showiness of the ostentatious Baroque and decorative Rococo periods and the move away from exclusively religious art that began in the Lowlands of Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. This trend began to spread across Europe and into the Americas from the mid-eighteenth and lasted until the early nineteenth centuries and is known as the Neoclassical period. One of the main reasons was the general public´s reaction to the opulence championed by Royalty on the Continent during the mass movements toward democratic societies. Another reason was the rediscovery of ruins at Herculaneum and Pompeii in the mid 1700´s and the publication of Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of Art by art historian Johann Winckelmann. These factors led to a powerful revival of Classical Antiquity that lasted nearly two centuries.

The earlier, but previously unrecognized art of such men as Nicolas Poussin, who specialized in classical history paintings and Claude Lorrain´s famous landscapes, became the inspiration for a new wave in realism for artists long after these artists deaths. The movement actually began as an architectural movement because of the plethora of Classical Roman buildings in Rome. This fact placed the real beginnings of the movement back into the heart of Italy, the home of the original Renaissance. There is really no particular year or event that can be clearly seen as the defining beginning of the Romantic and Neoclassical periods.

The movement developed a much more serious and unemotional flavor than had ever been seen in the art world. Reflecting the heroic styles from the Greeks and Republican Romans, using plain and somber colors instead of bright pastel colors, with only a few highlights was the general theme of this artistic style. The art tried to promote the ethical “superiority” of antique art, which celebrated moral narratives like self-sacrifice and self-denial. Both sculpture and paintings dropped the theatrical and whimsical earlier styles and was a great deal more organized, emphasizing theme and linear design rather than the effects of light, which by this time were much better understood, color and atmosphere. Simply comparing the art of Masters like sculptor John Flaxman, Henry Fuseli and William Blake with the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Dante Alighieri and others will demonstrate the huge influence artists from the Classical Period had on this period.