What Is Neoclassical Art?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
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Neoclassical art is a period in artistic expression believed to have reached dominance between 1770 AD and 1830 AD. It replaced the earlier art movements of Rococo and Baroque styles, where Rococo art was seen as excessively elaborate and shallow, and Baroque art was seen as emotionally grandiose. The expression of neoclassicism was carried out through paintings, literature, architecture, and performance art such as theater and music, and was considered of a primarily bland or unemotional form as compared to earlier periods. The movement in neoclassical art was an attempt to recapture the spirit of classical Greek and Roman lifestyles in architecture, culture, and thought.

Expressions of neoclassicism in history took place at the end of the Renaissance period in Europe, which lasted from the 14th to 17th centuries. This period of innovation and widespread creativity in the arts eventually caused neoclassicism to be subsumed by a new art movement known as Romanticism. Romanticism did not replace neoclassical art, but rather complimented it in areas where it appeared lacking. The ideas of order presented in the invention of many of the first mechanical machines of the Renaissance period, along with the simplicity approach to artistic beauty in neoclassicism, complimented Romanticism in the same way that Greek and Roman civilizations were built both upon practical affairs of state as well as appreciation for the beauty of the natural world.


Art movements are always affected by the times in which they arise, and the neoclassical art period is no exception. While it was dominant in Europe, the stage of development in civilization known as the Age of Enlightenment was also taking place. The Age of Enlightenment focused on reason and scientific discovery, and is generally believed to have flourished from 1648 to the time of the French Revolution in 1789. This form of reason and logical deduction was seen as carrying over into all human affairs including artistic expression. Anything tied to human emotional states or mystical experiences, such as attempts to express beauty through paintings, theater, or song, were seen as subject to authoritarian reason that reflected new discoveries in science and physics about how the natural world really worked.

The Age of Enlightenment saw all human activity that couldn't be traced to rationally defended arguments as no longer sacrosanct, and this included indefinable forms of artistic work and even religion. It is not known if the neoclassical art movement was a bow to external pressures by society, or a willing participant in a new dominance by secular humanism and atheism in prominent circles of culture. The changes such artistic expression encouraged, however, gave a level of legitimacy to intellectual thought over decrees by the church that had dominated western culture in centuries past.

Historians believe that the rise of the neoclassical arts led to the promotion of new political ideas such as democracy. This fueled both the American and French revolutions of the time period. It also gave birth to more extreme political movements such as those of fascism and nationalism, which would come to dominate human affairs in a tragic manner, through widespread European colonization, and a century later two world wars.


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I love Neoclassical art for its beauty, and the way it inspired many people of the time to change the world. We often don't think of art as an influence for political change, but it is a way of self expression that inspires many aspects of life.

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