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        What is neoclassicism?

      • Neoclassicism is the name given to the movement which originated in Rome in the middle of the 18th century and spread rapidly over the whole of Europe. It arose partly in reaction against the 'excesses' of Baroque and Rococo - the former of which was also largely a Roman movement - and partly from a genuine desire to recreate the art of Greece and Rome, a desire much stimulated by the chief prophet of the movement, Winckelmann. From 1748 the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii gave impetus to the movement - it has been argued that they created it - but, even more important, they provided some evidence of what ancient art actually looked like. This knowledge was disseminated by publications like Le Antichita di Ercolano (1757 and later), plates from which were much used as models by Mengs and many others. Even Winckelmann knew practically nothing of Greek originals; and one main reason for the tendency of the Neoclassic movement in the 18th century to equate the Antique with Roman art, where the 19th century equated it with the purer style of the Greeks (as they would have expressed it), lies in the great discoveries of the archaeologists in the late 18th and early 19th century.

        Neoclassicism differs from all the earlier Classic revivals in that for the first time, artists consciously imitated antique art and knew what they were imitating, both in style and in subject matter. This is particularly true of antique sculpture, which survives in much greater quantity and in better preservation than either painting or architecture. This is one reason for the adaptation of bas-reliefs as pictures, in sharp reaction against the composition in depth of Baroque artists. The imitation of ancient subject-matter was carried very far - as by David, whose Horatii drew an ancient moral for modern circumstances - and is a different matter from the earlier type of history painting, where a subject such as the Death of Caesar was an excuse for dramatic grouping, not an incitement to tyrannicide.

        Some of the principal exponents of various forms of Neoclassicism were Barry, Canova, Flaxman, Mengs, Piranesi, Thorwaldsen, Vien and West.

      • Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

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