Neoclassicism

 
 

pbw01801
Tales of Troy and Greece
(Longmans, Green, and Company, 1907)

Europe has a long history of a fascination with ancient Greek and Roman culture. The most well known revival was the Renaissance, a flowering of interest in classical philosophy and culture that inspired artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci in their pursuit of an idealized realism. Another period of Neoclassicism happened as a part of the historical revivalism of the 18th and 19th centuries (also called Greek Revival). Artists, architects and designers looked back to Greece, Rome and the Renaissance era and used these styles to meet current goals and needs. Though Renaissance Revival and Neoclassicism are separate styles (with more specific divisions within them as well), for the sake of simplicity, they are joined together under the heading "Neoclassical" within this database because of their similar classical roots.

Neoclassical style began with a renewed exposure to and interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture. The archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum opened in the 1830s and 40s, reviving an interest in classical antiques and artifacts. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, an influential German historian wrote on Greek art and theory in such works as Reflections on the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (1755). The Society of Dilettanti formed in 1732, and this group of connoisseurs supported the Neoclassical movement by sponsoring archaeological expeditions to Greece and publishing the resulting finds.

pba01910
Monument to the Memory of Henry Clay W. A. Clarke (1858)

Behind this exploration of Greek art and culture were certain moral undertones. There was a long tradition of admiration for ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and Greek art and architecture were held up as ideals for their refinement and realism. Revivalists felt that the exploration of this era and its work would in turn help the moral and intellectual fiber of the nation who examined it. In the words of English artist Henry Moses, "the study of the unrivalled works of the ancients is essential to the establishment of good taste and correct judgment," (quoted in Classical Taste, 9). During the 19th century, the advocates for classical style sometimes entered into debate with the supporters of Gothic Revival, another movement that had moral justifications for its existence.

Often leaders used classical style to make a specific political statement. Napoleon was instrumental in the classical revival in the early 19th century because he designed his court in this style. He did this in order to give foundation and credence to his power by aligning himself with the ancients. America began its search for a national identity and culture during the time when Neoclassical style was particularly popular. They appreciated it because of its associations with ideal beauty and patriotism and because its roots were not as strongly tied to European aristocracy or ecclesia. As a result, they adopted classical architectural and decorative styles for many buildings, particularly public ones in the national and state capitals. It was also popular to depict national leaders and heroes in classical garb and poses.

 
  pba02329
The Token and Atlantic Souvenir :An Offering for Christmas and the New Year
(S. G. Goodrich, 1833)

The Renaissance Revival had similar roots to many revival styles of the 19th century. It first began in France in the early 1800s with the publication of architectural manuals of historical styles, which inspired copies in architecture and the decorative arts. In the beginning it focused mainly on the architecture of the Italian Renaissance but later spread to include Northern Renaissance designs as well. It was primarily a secular style, popular for clubs, offices, town halls and hotels and not used much on ecclesiastical buildings. Designers appreciated Renaissance Revival style because of the many ornamental options it gave them, though they usually did not apply them in a particularly accurate manner.

Book covers during this period sometimes employed the ornaments of these two styles. Neoclassical style was more restrained and austere, without a lot of superfluous ornamentation. The Empire style under Napoleon used covers with simple laurel leaf borders in gold stamping. Classical forms like vases, lyres and mythological figures sometimes appeared on publishers' bindings, as well as various types of classical ornaments; Greek keying was particularly popular. Examples of these ornaments could be found in handbooks of design like Owen Jones's The Grammar of Ornament (1856). The inclusion of bust style or medallion portraits was also reminiscent of the classical era. In the early 20th century, designers began to include more architectural forms; classical style columns, friezes and pediments found a place on book covers, particularly of works that the publisher wanted to give a "classic" feel, like literature or drama.

Detail from pba00395 (festoon)
A Son of the Old Dominion
(Lamson, Wolffe, 1897)
Detail from pbw00008 (Greek Keying)
Little Women
(Roberts Brothers, 1868)

Renaissance ornamentation contained motifs similar to those of Neoclassicism, but they were used more generously, as can be seen in the increased use of acanthus leaf arabesques and scrolls. A form of garland called a festoon (also known as swag) is found in both styles and originated from Roman carvings. Masks were also a popular ornament in Renaissance Revival art. Binders also sometimes imitated strapwork patterns found on original Renaissance bindings and documented in works like Henry Shaw's Encyclopedia of Ornament (1842).

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Watkin, David. "Greek Revival." Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. New York: Grove, 1996. (online version is available at some colleges and universities)

                       
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