By the mid-1700s, Europe was over the flowery, over the top Rococo style. It was the Enlightenment now. Serious men concerned with reason and the nature of the universe didn’t paint girls on swing sets anymore.
The new focus on science and humanism, called for a correspondingly new form of art. To represent the new ideas and discoveries of the age, the artists of Europe eagerly turned to — really old stuff.
In the 1700s archeologists began excavating the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. As dirt was brushed off frescos and mosaics, Europe caught classical fever. Renewed interest in all things Roman, Greek or otherwise covered with sand surged throughout literati circles and cosmopolitans salons.
A the height of the classical craze, the son of a german cobbler, Johann Winckelmann, wrote a little book called The History of Art and Antiquity. It is generally considered the first book on art history. The way Winckelmann ordered and divided classical art into periods is the blueprint for the two hundred dollar tomes art history students buy today.
The “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of greek art described by Winckelmann became the ideal for anyone with a paintbrush and canvas. In particular, a fellow named Jacques Louis David, developed a real knack for adapting the style of Greece or Rome for contemporary audiences. His masterpiece, the Oath of the Horatii, will forever be the go-to for exam questions regarding neoclassical art.
The calling card of Neoclassicism became reason, balance, with a splash of moralizing undertones. Unlike the Rococo style that came before it, Neoclassicism screamed licked-surface, invisible brushstrokes and orderly composition. Artists created large scale representations of gods, myths and figures from early Greece and Rome. Its focus on virtues and ideals, made it favored style of dying monarchies and the upstart revolutions alike.
Neoclassicism had its heyday from the mid-1700s to the early-1800s. But, like all artistic movements, its love of reason and people in togas would not dominate art forever.
cover image: The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques Louis David (1784). Creative Commons.