Neoclassical Art: Characteristics, Materials & Famous Works

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  • 00:00 Neoclassical Art
  • 1:00 Painting & Sculpture
  • 3:13 Architecture
  • 5:02 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.

Neoclassical art was a major trend that demonstrated how old styles could be re-imagined for modern audiences. Explore this artistic movement, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Neoclassical Art

As anybody in the world of fashion knows, anything old can be made new again. Fashions come back around, which is why today everyone is dressing like we're still in the 1980s. People do this in fashion, and they do it in art, as well. For example, back in the late 18th century, the artistic styles of ancient Greece and Rome became very popular once again.

But, just like with fashion, artists don't simply copy previous styles, they reimagine them and make them relevant for their societies. We call the revitalization of ancient Greek and Roman style the Neoclassical movement in art. Ancient Greece and Rome are considered the Classical civilizations, and 'neo-' comes from the Latin for 'new,' so this is literally the 'new ancient style.' And since we've already had a lesson on classical art, I guess this is the neo-lesson. Well, sit back and let's take a neo-look at some Neoclassical art.

Painting & Sculpture

It looks like the first Neoclassical art we've got coming down the runway is painting. This first image is Mother of the Gracchi, painted by Angelica Kauffman in 1785.

Neoclassical Art

The second is Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David.

Neoclassical Art

These were two of the most influential Neoclassical paintings at the beginning of the movement. So, what makes these Neoclassical?

In the case of painting, the subject. Ancient Romans, after all, didn't paint with oil paints on canvas like Kauffman and David. In fact, little Roman painting survives at all. But Kauffman and David both chose actual historical subjects from ancient Rome, which are used for a patriotic function. Kauffman chose a moment in which the mother of the two future leaders of the Roman Republic shows off her children as her treasures. David opted to depict a story of the Horatii brothers who fought against three soldiers from a rival city to end a war between that city and Rome. In both of these, patriotism is the key, stemming either from responsible and wise leadership or brave and valiant sacrifice.

And as the painters make their way off the catwalk, we've got sculpture coming in, and what great examples! First we've got Pauline Borghese as Venus, completed by Antonio Canova in 1808.

Neoclassical Art

This is a portrait of Napoleon's sister depicted as a Roman goddess, partly because of Napoleon's fascination with ancient Rome. While the Romans did not leave behind many paintings, they did leave behind lots of sculptures, so this is a pretty accurate representation of Classical art, with the idealized figure carved from marble and posed as if on a Roman sarcophagus.

On the other side of the catwalk, we've got this guy.

Neoclassical Art

Some of you Americans may recognize him. This is George Washington, carved by Horatio Greenough. Again, we see the use of a realistic portrait for the head but an idealized body, just like the Romans used to do. Washington here is also represented in the traditional pose used by ancient artists to depict Zeus, leader of the Greek gods.


Now we've come to the architecture section of today's show. Looks like the first building being brought in is the Panthéon, created by Jacques-Gérmain Soufflot. This building is so inspired by Classical architecture that it's even named after one of the most famous Roman temples, the Pantheon. From the front, especially, we can see the resemblance, with the rows of columns and decorated pediment at the top.

Neoclassical Art

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