Classicism as a term refers to the style of the ancient Greek and Roman artists. It connotes art that is elegant and refined, marked by order and symmetry. Classical art is dignified and simple. It adheres to artistic principles and rules. It is a restrained style that does not encourage self-expression and individuality.
Artists have, over the centuries, turned to the masters of yore, and tried to imitate the perfect balance and poise they imparted to their paintings. Two distinct phases of revival of interest in classicism stand out in the history of art: the first of these took place during the cultural height of the Renaissance, and the second during the 18th and 19th centuries. A third is a revival in the 20th century.
Classicism and Renaissance
Renaissance or ‘rebirth’ was a period of revival in the cultural history of Europe. It was marked by developments in art, architecture, music, literature, science, philosophy and religion. In the sphere of art, there emerged a group of artists who devoted themselves to imitating the style of the ancients. This group of artists included Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Mantegna. In their hands, the art of painting was revitalized. They mastered the use of light, shadow and perspective, and produced some of the greatest works of all time.
Andrea Mantegna: Mantegna is remembered for his sculptural approach to painting. This can perhaps be attributed to his apprenticeship with Francesco Squarcione, who instructed him to study the classical ancients, especially Roman sculpture. His work is defined by precise outlines, and figures that are apparently bony and muscular. His draperies are closely folded and tight. Some of Mantegna’s major works are Agony in the Garden, The Madonna and the Cherubim, and Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
Classicism and the 18th Century
In the 18th century, classicism was revived as Neoclassicism, and propagated by École des Beaux Arts in France. The typical traits of classicism, such as adherence to precision of form and order, can be seen in the works of Mengs, Jacques-Louis David and Ingres (link to Ingres).
Anton Raphael Mengs: Mengs was a German representative of Neoclassical painting. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Johann Joachim Winkelmann, a German art historian who founded the ‘Greek revival’ art movement. He had also spent a long time in Rome studying the great Renaissance classical painters. Some of his important works are Ascension, St. Joseph and portraits of Charles III.
Classicism and the 20th Century
In the 20th century, classical elements, it is believed, may be found in the paintings of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, though in an abstract form.