Effect of Social & Political Events on Neoclassical Art Video

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  • 0:01 Neoclassical Arts
  • 0:58 Background
  • 3:11 Neoclassicism & Politics
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Where did Neoclassical art come from? Explore the social and political events that helped to create and maintain this artistic style, then test your understanding with a brief quiz in this lesson.

Neoclassical Art

Watch what happens when I poke this ball. It rolls. What, were you expecting it to blow up or something? Of course the ball moves; this is obvious to us because we understand cause and effect. An action causes a reaction - I poke the ball, and the ball rolls. Now, I know what you're thinking, 'Why are we spending so much time talking about a ball?' Okay, ready for this? The ball is a metaphor for art.

Art is often a reaction caused by other social and political factors. This is true now, and it was true back in the late 18th century, when various factors lead to the rise of the Neoclassical movement in art. Neoclassicism is a revival of Ancient Greek and Roman styles in a modern setting, and it became very popular in the late 18th century. So, why did people in the 1700s suddenly start emulating the Ancient Greeks and Romans? Well, let's check out some of the major factors that got the ball rolling.


The main factors that prodded the movement of Neoclassical art date back to the earlier parts of the 18th century. For a while, society was getting pretty excessive, with the rich holding lavish parties while the poor starved. This was especially prominent in France and led intellectuals to start looking for new, moral views of society. The philosophy of the Enlightenment came from this, defined by individual ration and logic, moral society through individual rights, and good government that respected the people.

So, intellectuals and artists were becoming more interested in ideas of logic, rational order, and moral society. If you can remember all the way back to those lessons on Ancient Rome, these ideas should sound familiar. So, enlightened intellectuals began looking back to the Classical civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome for wisdom, knowledge, and inspiration.

At this same time, intellectuals devoted more time to traveling as a major part of their intellectual growth. So, where do you think they went? Italy became a major travel destination in the 18th century as artists and intellectuals tried to reconnect to that Roman spirit. It was so popular that an accepted travel itinerary and route of the major Italian sites was established called the Grand Tour. Those who took the Grand Tour visited Venice, Paestum, Sicily, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Siena, Pisa, Bologna, Parma, Naples, and, of course, Rome, as well as other places where they could study art, philosophy, theater, literature, and politics.

The final blade that tipped the scale into Neoclassicism was the archeological discovery of the Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum. For the first time, the world could get a glimpse into the daily lives of Ancient Romans, and fascination with the Romans skyrocketed as souvenirs from these buried cities flooded into France and England, and 18th-century Europeans began insisting that rooms of their homes were modeled after Roman villas.

Neoclassicism & Politics

After the Enlightenment got the ball rolling on an interest in Classical civilization, Neoclassicism really took off in the late 18th century as artists consciously emulated Classical techniques and subjects. But, the popularity of Neoclassical art was maintained because of new political factors that emerged. Notably, revolution. In 1776, 13 British colonies in North America signed a declaration of independence, sparking the Revolutionary War. In 1789, the people of Paris broke into rebellion against the king, starting the French Revolution.

Both of these conflicts were based upon a belief in the rights of the individual citizen, an idea largely sponsored by the Enlightenment. Both of these movements also tightly latched onto Neoclassicism, using themes mostly from the Roman Republic, which was heralded as the highest level of government in Western history because it was a representative government. Neoclassical painters depicted scenes of Roman patriotism and sacrifice in defense of liberty and freedom, sculptors depicted national heroes as Romans or Greeks, and architects built new government structures that communicated the Roman respect for individual rights.

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