Neoclassicism was a style of painting that was established after the Rococo movement. It came to fruition with the help of the French Royal Academy of the Arts in 1669. Its primary focus was historical painting, which included subjects from the Bible, classical mythology and events from history. Following this in terms of importance was portraiture, genre painting, landscapes, and still-lifes. This hierarchy was used to evaluate works submitted for the Salon or for prizes. Artists like Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain were revered as the ideal examples of history painting and both artists were primary influences on the Neoclassical art movement.
While both of those artists were French Baroque painters originally, it was their distinctive styles and their classical approach that interested the Neoclassical artists. Lorrain painted landscapes, well-observed, and with a focus on naturalistic detail and observation of light and its effects that was unparalleled. They often featured figures from mythological or Biblical scenes. An effect of orderly harmony was conveyed in many of his works, which appealed to the Neoclassical belief that art should express the ideal virtues of man. What these virtues are, is important to consider. In many ways, Rococo encouraged frivolity and opulence. Neoclassical art can be said to encourage the opposite and with a return to darker, richer tones, it pushes for a more stoic and dramatic outlook on life. Both Baroque art and Rococo art-infused society with a culture of vanity that was based on personal conceits and whimsy. Neoclassicism mirrored what was going on in the political and social arenas of the time, which incidentally showed the journey to the French Revolution. Its primary belief and aim were that art should not just express the virtues of life but also impart a moralizing message. It had the power to civilise, reform and transform society just as society itself was being transformed by the rising forces of the Industrial Revolution, governmental change, scientific discovery, and invention.
The same virtues that we see in Greek and Roman art were even replicated in Neoclassical architecture. Simplicity, symmetry, and mathematics were seen as important values to uphold in the creation of a structure. Much of these developments in art and architecture were, in large part, due to the popularity of the ‘Grand Tour’. This was a point in history where art students and the general aristocracy were given access to recently unearthed ruins in Italy. As a result, many became enamored with the aesthetics and philosophies of ancient art. This was seen as a traditional and educational right of passage and many people traveled there in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilisation.
Another cornerstone for Neoclassical art was easily its link with the Enlightenment. This was a political and philosophical movement that primarily valued science, reason, and exploration. It was also called “The Age of Reason”. Now, for nearly the first time in recent history, the absolutes of the monarchy and religious dogma were questioned, and the ideals of individual liberty, religious tolerance, and constitutional governments were advanced. A catalog of sorts was even compiled, titled The French Encyclopedia (1751 – 1772), that represented a compendium of Enlightenment thoughts. It was the most significant publication of the century and had an international influence. Denis Diderot, who is also known as the founder of the discipline of art history, said the purpose of the book was to change the way people think. Historian Clorinda Donato wrote that it “successfully argued for the potential of reason and unified knowledge, to empower human will and shape society.”
The Neoclassicists took this view and ran with it, developing it into a visual tool for change that saw history unfold before its feet. It had its influence on painting, sculpture, architecture and interior design. We see in all of this a welcoming of classical styles as well as ideals. The betterment of man was key and if this meant questioning what was once thought to be unquestionable, then so be it. Neoclassicism helped bring Enlightenment to the general public and began a movement forward into a more liberal, more questioning artistic sphere.