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What Is the Difference between Classicism and Neoclassicism?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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The biggest difference between classicism and neoclassicism is timing. Both are art movements that have roots in Greek and Roman antiquity, but by and large classicism happened during the height of these eras and during a brief revival during the European Renaissance, whereas neoclassicism happened later, but was inspired directly by and in many ways sought to imitate the more traditional classic style. There are also a few differences when it comes to theoretical bases; much of classicism, for instance, is based on theory and the search for perfection, while neoclassicism is often more focused on an appreciation for the ancient and a fascination with antiquity rather than embracing it as an actual way of modern life.

Timing

It can be difficult to pinpoint the precise cutoff between classicism and neoclassicism, since the transition is often more about a slow shift in ideals and perspectives rather than the turning of a calendar page. Classical art and the classicism movement are widely identified with the height of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, and was revived shortly after the Renaissance in Europe, a period which spanned the 14th to 17th centuries. According to some scholars, it was this deep interest in ancient cultures that helped start the Renaissance movement in the first place. Later interest in classical art, usually dated in the 18th century or after, is usually thought of as neoclassical. This movement focused not as much on revival of ideals as of interest and overarching appreciation. Neoclassical buildings, for instance, often mimic the classical style for aesthetic purposes rather than for idealistic reasons.

Broad Importance of the European Renaissance

The Renaissance encompassed a great many ideas and changes, and many modern thinkers see it as something of a “bridge” bringing European societies out of the Middle Ages and into modern times. Artwork, philosophy, and social science ideals were certainly a big part of the transition. Man’s place in the world and the role of art in human expression were concepts that were reevaluated during the Renaissance. In particular, Greek architecture and sculpture were both imitated and used as a platform for creating new kinds of art during this period.

Greek and Roman art and architecture have inspired Western art for centuries, and aesthetics, or ideas about artistic beauty, embraced by these works have had lasting impacts on scholars and students all over the world. The Greek and Roman aesthetic principles in sculpture and architecture that came to be so foundational during the Renaissance formed the backbone of classicism as it is seen today, and later revivals and reflections gave rise to neoclassicism.

Main Characteristics of Classicism

There are a lot of elements that can define classicism, but in general the movement is dominated by the search for perfection, a sense of harmony even between disparate elements, and restraint, meaning that things were ornate or beautiful for a specific purpose — not just for the sake of themselves. There were also elements of universality that played in, with artists and masters looking to involve a broad range of ideals and thoughts into their work.

Classicism continued to influence Western art after the Renaissance and the classic influence in both the visual arts and architecture is still evident. An understanding of human anatomy and realistic portrayal of the human form dominated Greek and Roman art. After the Renaissance, realistic depiction of the human form continued to have its place in the visual arts. Classic architectural elements are still visible today and are often seen in government buildings around the world.

Understanding the Neoclassical Movement

Neoclassicism is a specific art movement that started in the 18th century and was based on the belief that there are timeless ideals in art that transcend changing styles. It lasted until the end of the 19th century. During this period western architecture in Europe reflected a renewed interest in the antiquities and in Roman and Greek ruins. Roman history became the subject matter of many paintings, and interest in antiquities was also reflected in the book Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture, which was published in 1755 by Johan Winckelmann.

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Discussion Comments

By Buster29 — On Feb 13, 2014

That may be so, Ruggercat, but artistic movements in general tend to cycle through three distinct phases. The first is a simple, straightforward period where realism is appreciated, but perfection is not a goal. Creative work coming from this period tends to be unremarkable, but at least has respect for the history of the craft.

The second phase is the classical period discussed in the article. Artists strive for perfection in every aspect of their work, and for a while they come very close to achieving it. We consider Mozart to be a classical composer because his music is technically flawless. A visual artist working during a classical period creates ideal images and balanced compositions. But it is nearly impossible to maintain perfection for more than a few years.

That's where the third phase comes in. Artists are allowed to indulge in their passions and not worry so much about perfection. This is where romance and experimentation take over. Neoclassicism is sometimes seen as an attempt to re-establish classical values during an otherwise romantic or baroque period.

By Ruggercat68 — On Feb 13, 2014

One thing to keep in mind when discussing artistic periods is that many of the artists or composers or writers weren't aware they were working during a specific period or movement. They were often moving away from a previous philosophy or experimenting with a new one. There was no supreme artistic council that decided all artists would now seek perfection in their work or copy the Greeks or Romans. It simply became the popular thing to do, as with any other trend.

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