Classicism, in the arts, refers generally to a high regard for a
classical period, classical antiquity in the Western tradition, as
setting standards for taste which the classicists seek to emulate. The
art of classicism typically seeks to be formal and restrained: of the
Sir Kenneth Clark
Sir Kenneth Clark observed, "if we object to his restraint
and compression we are simply objecting to the classicism of classic
art. A violent emphasis or a sudden acceleration of rhythmic movement
would have destroyed those qualities of balance and completeness
through which it retained until the present century its position of
authority in the restricted repertoire of visual images."
Classicism, as Clark noted, implies a canon of widely accepted ideal
forms, whether in the
Western canon that he was examining in The Nude
(1956), or the literary
Chinese classics or Chinese art, where the
revival of classic styles is also a recurring feature.
Classicism is a force which is often present in post-medieval European
and European influenced traditions; however, some periods felt
themselves more connected to the classical ideals than others,
particularly the Age of Enlightenment, when
Neoclassicism was an
important movement in the visual arts.
1 General term
2 In the theatre
3 In architecture
4 In the fine arts
5 Political philosophy
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Fountain of the Four Rivers, Bernini, 1651.
Classicist door in Olomouc, The Czech Republic.
Classicism is a specific genre of philosophy, expressing itself in
literature, architecture, art, and music, which has
Ancient Greek and
Roman sources and an emphasis on society. It was particularly
expressed in the Neoclassicism of the Age of Enlightenment.
Classicism is a recurrent tendency in the
Late Antique period, and had
a major revival in Carolingian and Ottonian art. There was another,
more durable revival in the
Italian renaissance when the fall of
Byzantium and rising trade with the Islamic cultures brought a flood
of knowledge about, and from, the antiquity of Europe. Until that
time, the identification with antiquity had been seen as a continuous
Christendom from the conversion of Roman Emperor
Renaissance classicism introduced a host of elements
into European culture, including the application of mathematics and
empiricism into art, humanism, literary and depictive realism, and
formalism. Importantly it also introduced Polytheism, or "paganism",
and the juxtaposition of ancient and modern.
The classicism of the
Renaissance led to, and gave way to, a different
sense of what was "classical" in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this
period, classicism took on more overtly structural overtones of
orderliness, predictability, the use of geometry and grids, the
importance of rigorous discipline and pedagogy, as well as the
formation of schools of art and music. The court of Louis XIV was seen
as the center of this form of classicism, with its references to the
gods of Olympus as a symbolic prop for absolutism, its adherence to
axiomatic and deductive reasoning, and its love of order and
This period sought the revival of classical art forms, including Greek
drama and music. Opera, in its modern European form, had its roots in
attempts to recreate the combination of singing and dancing with
theatre thought to be the Greek norm. Examples of this appeal to
classicism included Dante, Petrarch, and
Shakespeare in poetry and
theatre. Tudor drama, in particular, modeled itself after classical
ideals and divided works into
Tragedy and Comedy. Studying Ancient
Greek became regarded as essential for a well-rounded education in the
Renaissance also explicitly returned to architectural models and
techniques associated with Greek and Roman antiquity, including the
golden rectangle as a key proportion for buildings, the classical
orders of columns, as well as a host of ornament and detail associated
with Greek and Roman architecture. They also began reviving plastic
arts such as bronze casting for sculpture, and used the classical
naturalism as the foundation of drawing, painting and sculpture.
Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment identified itself with a vision of antiquity
which, while continuous with the classicism of the previous century,
was shaken by the physics of Sir Isaac Newton, the improvements in
machinery and measurement, and a sense of liberation which they saw as
being present in the Greek civilization, particularly in its struggles
against the Persian Empire. The ornate, organic, and complexly
integrated forms of the baroque were to give way to a series of
movements that regarded themselves expressly as "classical" or
"neo-classical", or would rapidly be labelled as such. For example,
the painting of
Jacques-Louis David was seen as an attempt to return
to formal balance, clarity, manliness, and vigor in art.
The 19th century saw the classical age as being the precursor of
academicism, including such movements as uniformitarianism in the
sciences, and the creation of rigorous categories in artistic fields.
Various movements of the romantic period saw themselves as classical
revolts against a prevailing trend of emotionalism and irregularity,
for example the Pre-Raphaelites. By this point, classicism was old
enough that previous classical movements received revivals; for
Renaissance was seen as a means to combine the organic
medieval with the orderly classical. The 19th century continued or
extended many classical programs in the sciences, most notably the
Newtonian program to account for the movement of energy between bodies
by means of exchange of mechanical and thermal energy.
The 20th century saw a number of changes in the arts and sciences.
Classicism was used both by those who rejected, or saw as temporary,
transfigurations in the political, scientific, and social world and by
those who embraced the changes as a means to overthrow the perceived
weight of the 19th century. Thus, both pre-20th century disciplines
were labelled "classical" and modern movements in art which saw
themselves as aligned with light, space, sparseness of texture, and
In the present day philosophy classicism is used as a term
particularly in relation to
Dionysian impulses in
society and art; that is a preference for rationality, or at least
rationally guided catharsis, over emotionalism.
In the theatre
Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard, 1658.
Classicism in the theatre was developed by 17th century French
playwrights from what they judged to be the rules of Greek classical
theatre, including the "Classical unities" of time, place and action,
found in the Poetics of Aristotle.
Unity of time referred to the need for the entire action of the play
to take place in a fictional 24-hour period
Unity of place meant that the action should unfold in a single
Unity of action meant that the play should be constructed around a
single 'plot-line', such as a tragic love affair or a conflict between
honour and duty.
Examples of classicist playwrights are Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine
and Molière. In the period of Romanticism, Shakespeare, who conformed
to none of the classical rules, became the focus of French argument
over them, in which the Romantics eventually triumphed; Victor Hugo
was among the first French playwrights to break these conventions.
The influence of these French rules on playwrights in other nations is
debatable. In the English theatre, Restoration playwrights such as
William Wycherly and
William Congreve would have been familiar with
Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not follow this
Classicist philosophy, in particular since they were not French and
also because they wrote several decades prior to their establishment.
Those of Shakespeare's plays that seem to display the unities, such as
The Tempest, probably indicate a familiarity with actual models
from classical antiquity.
Classical architecture and Outline of classical
Villa Rotonda, Palladio, 1591
Classicism in architecture developed during the Italian Renaissance,
notably in the writings and designs of
Leon Battista Alberti
Leon Battista Alberti and the
work of Filippo Brunelleschi. It places emphasis on symmetry,
proportion, geometry and the regularity of parts as they are
demonstrated in the architecture of
Classical antiquity and in
particular, the architecture of Ancient Rome, of which many examples
Orderly arrangements of columns, pilasters and lintels, as well as the
use of semicircular arches, hemispherical domes, niches and aedicules
replaced the more complex proportional systems and irregular profiles
of medieval buildings. This style quickly spread to other Italian
cities and then to France, Germany, England, Russia and elsewhere.
In the 16th century,
Sebastiano Serlio helped codify the classical
orders and Palladio's legacy evolved into the long tradition of
Palladian architecture. Building off of these influences, the
Inigo Jones and
Christopher Wren firmly
established classicism in England.
For the development of classicism from the mid-18th-century onwards,
see Neoclassical architecture.
In the fine arts
For Greek art of the 5th century B.C.E., see Classical art in ancient
Greece and the Severe style
Renaissance painting and sculpture are marked by their
renewal of classical forms, motifs and subjects. In the 15th century
Leon Battista Alberti
Leon Battista Alberti was important in theorizing many of the ideas
for painting that came to a fully realised product with Raphael's
School of Athens during the High Renaissance. The themes continued
largely unbroken into the 17th century, when artists such as Nicolas
Charles Le Brun
Charles Le Brun represented of the more rigid classicism.
Like Italian classicizing ideas in the 15th and 16th centuries, it
Europe in the mid to late 17th century.
Later classicism in painting and sculpture from the mid-18th and 19th
centuries is generally referred to as Neoclassicism.
See also: Classical republicanism
Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns
^ Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form 1956:242
^ Walters, Kerry (September 2011). "JOURNAL ARTICLE Review". Church
History. 80: 691–693 – via JSTOR.
^ Johnson, James William (1969). "What Was Neo-Classicism?". Journal
of British Studies. 9: 49–70 – via JSTOR.
^ Bakogianni, Anastasia (2012). "
Theatre of the Condemned. Classical
Tragedy on Greek Prison Islands by G. VAN STEEN". The Journal of
Hellenic Studies. 132: 294–296 – via JSTOR.
^ "JOURNAL ARTICLE The Pre-Raphaelites". Bulletin of the Fogg Art
Museum. 10: 62–63. November 1943 – via JSTOR.
^ Pierce, Robert B. (Spring 1999). "Understanding "The Tempest"". New
Literary History. 30: 373–388 – via JSTOR.
^ Larsen, Michael (March 1978). "Italian
Painting by John
Hale". Journal of the Royal
Society of Arts. 126: 243–244 – via
Kallendorf, Craig (2007). A Companion to the Classical Tradition.
Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved 2012-05-06. Essays by various
authors on topics related to historical periods, places, and themes.
Limited preview online.
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