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Neoclassicism: Definition & Characteristics

Neoclassicism: Definition & Characteristics
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  • 0:03 What Is Neoclassicism?
  • 1:10 Architecture & Art
  • 2:44 Literature & Theatre
  • 4:02 Neoclassicism in Music
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, art, and architecture have inspired people for centuries. In this lesson, learn the definition and characteristics of neoclassicism, including examples from art, architecture, literature, and music.

What Is Neoclassicism?

Neoclassicism is a term related to artistic and creative movements that reflect qualities of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, culture, and art. Although the classical Greeks and Romans lived thousands of years ago, they championed ideas like order, balance, and restraint that had lasting influence. You can find examples of neoclassicism in disciplines like literature and theater, art and architecture, and music.

The idea of neoclassicism developed in the mid-18th century, sparked by renewed interest in the classical past due to archaeological discoveries in places like Rome and Pompeii. Inspired by these finds, scholars wrote about Greek art, sculpture, and culture, and they advocated for a similar clean, restrained style as a way to reflect a mature and ideal society. Over time, artists, architects, writers, and composers adopted specific elements to express neoclassical goals. Whatever the discipline, neoclassicism tends to come about in reaction to a style that precedes it. But what defines a neoclassical work, whether a painting, a building, a novel, or a musical composition?

Architecture & Art

Neoclassicism in art and architecture is related but each is a bit different, so let's look at architecture first. Buildings done in the neoclassical style echo ancient Greek and Roman structures. They have columns and facades that follow the Greek orders of architecture, systems of structural elements in ancient Greek architecture that go together for cohesive design. Neoclassical architecture stresses order and harmony. Building elements are symmetrical with a clean geometric emphasis, and all the parts fit into a balanced whole. Neoclassical structures have restrained decoration and minimal ornamentation.

Neoclassicism in art focuses on the ideal human form as opposed to the less than perfect shapes of real people. Subjects of paintings echo ancient classical history and dress. In portraiture, even if the subject was living in 18th-century France, they're depicted in the clothing of ancient Greece. Figures are idealized, with every muscle and feature rendered perfect. Compositions are emphasized by clean, crisp lines and careful precise drawing. Figures betray little or no emotion, regardless of what's going on in the scene portrayed. There's a sense of cool calm in neoclassical art.

A great example is The Greek Slave by Hiram Powers. It is one of the most famous works of neoclassical sculpture in early American art. It depicts a young girl in chains and naked, captured during a conflict between the Greeks and the Turks. Her form is idealized and she looks like a classical Greek statue. Despite the trauma of the subject, the girl is calm with her gaze toward the ground.

Literature & Theater

In written works, neoclassicism developed as a response to the unrestrained ideas and wild theories promoted during the Renaissance period. It was especially influential in England, where it was an important style of literature and theater from around 1660 through the late 1700s. In general, neoclassical literature focused on logic and common sense, and during this time period, the study of grammar was also very important. Neoclassical writings were intellectual rather than emotional, and they often contained lessons or educated the reader in some way, even if the reader wasn't aware of it. You can find examples of novels, diaries, moral fables, and essays that reflect this restrained style, and it's in the works of authors like Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver's Travels in 1726.

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