What Is the Difference between Classicism and Neoclassicism?

The most significant distinction between classicism and neoclassicism is one of timing. Both are art movements with roots in Greek and Roman antiquity, but classicism took place during the height of these eras, with a brief revival during the European Renaissance, whereas neoclassicism took place later, but was directly inspired and attempted to imitate the more traditional classic style in many ways. There are also some differences in terms of theoretical foundations; for example, much of classicism is based on theory and the pursuit of perfection, whereas neoclassicism is often more concerned with an appreciation for the ancient and a fascination with antiquity than with adopting it as a way of life in modern times.

Timing is everything.

Because the transition is often more about a slow shift in ideals and perspectives than the turning of a calendar page, it can be difficult to pinpoint the precise cutoff between classicism and neoclassicism. Classical art and the classicism movement are widely associated with the heights of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, and were revived in Europe shortly after the Renaissance, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Some scholars believe that it was this deep interest in ancient cultures that sparked the Renaissance in the first place. Neoclassical art refers to later interest in classical art, usually dating from the 18th century or later. This movement was more concerned with fostering interest and appreciation than with reviving ideals. Neoclassical structures, for example, frequently imitate the classical style for aesthetic rather than idealistic reasons.

The Renaissance in Europe: Its Importance

Many modern thinkers see the Renaissance as a “bridge” that brought European societies out of the Middle Ages and into the modern era, as it encompassed a wide range of ideas and changes. Art, philosophy, and social science ideals all played an important role in the transition. During the Renaissance, concepts such as man’s place in the world and the role of art in human expression were reevaluated. During this time, Greek architecture and sculpture were both imitated and used as a platform for the creation of new types of art.

For centuries, Greek and Roman art and architecture have influenced Western art, and the aesthetics embraced these works have had a lasting impact on scholars and students all over the world. The backbone of classicism as we know it today is formed the Greek and Roman aesthetic principles in sculpture and architecture that became so foundational during the Renaissance, and later revivals and reflections gave rise to neoclassicism.

Classicism’s Most Important Characteristics

There are many elements that define classicism, but the search for perfection, a sense of harmony even among disparate elements, and restraint, which means that things were ornate or beautiful for a specific purpose — not just for the sake of being ornate or beautiful. Universality also played a role, with artists and masters attempting to incorporate a diverse range of ideals and thoughts into their work.

After the Renaissance, classicism continued to influence Western art, and the classic influence can still be seen in the visual arts and architecture. Greek and Roman art were dominated an understanding of human anatomy and realistic depictions of the human form. Realistic depictions of the human form remained popular in the visual arts after the Renaissance. Classic architectural elements can still be seen today in government buildings all over the world.

The Neoclassical Movement in Context

Neoclassicism is an art movement that began in the 18th century and was founded on the belief that art contains timeless ideals that transcend changing styles. It lasted until the nineteenth century’s end. Western architecture in Europe during this time reflected a renewed interest in antiquities and Roman and Greek ruins. Many paintings depicted Roman history, and interest in antiquities was reflected in Johan Winckelmann’s book Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Art in Painting and Sculpture, which was published in 1755.