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How Neoclassical Response to Antiquity Differs from Renaissance Artists


Joachim Winckelmann (2006) – one of the greatest researchers of the art of Antiquity, has aptly noted when describing this artistic movement, “All beauty is enhanced by unity and simplicity, as is everything we say and do: for what is great in itself is enhanced when realized and presented with simplicity”. Indeed, the aforementioned aspects have been found the leading distinguishing traits in the art of Antique times, with the most remarkable manifestations in Greece and later Rome. These two ancient states have developed a set of unique features that have inspired the artists of further generations for creation of their own, Antiquity-centered approaches to perceiving and making beauty.

This epoch can be characterized by dedication to deities, notwithstanding this feature has been differently interpreted by Greek and Roman artists. Specifically, the former tended to depict divine creatures within the shapes of the perfect human bodies, while the latter believed that no deity was human-like.The greatest art perfection was achieved by sculpture and paintings (with time), whereas architecture attained its idealistic forms later; hence, a variety of genres evolved in a different pace. It should be underlined that painting initially was rather imitation of sculpture, which guided this area as the younger sister. Nonetheless, it gradually progressed into a separate and self-sufficient genre, based on the laws and rules of proportion and the play of light and shadow. What is more, even after Ancient Rome and Greece became the part of far-away history, artists of new historical frameworks drew their inspiration from this immense source of freedom and reason. For instance, the history of art knows at least two magnificent artistic movements that found their conceptualization on the ground of Antiquity – such as Renaissance and Neoclassicism.

Therefore, in the scope of this paper, implications of Antique art are traced within Neoclassical and Renaissance painting and the differences of their Antiquity-following are discussed.

Renaissance Paintings and Their Parallels with Antique Art

Renaissance (French literary re-birth) is an artistic movement that was dominant in Europe from the 1400s through 1600s. This art trend was enhanced with a direct reference to Antiquity, especially in terms of the principles appropriate for the Greek sculpture and painting. Of course, Renaissance was not just blind imitation, but Antique art has become the foundation for its conceptualization and progress.

As artists of this era believed, “the essence of the Greek spirit, its liberty and love of the good, the beautiful and the true were the centerpieces of a universal noble art they aimed to create. Although historical conditions they lived in were controversial, there were substantial opportunities to develop the human-focused art. On the one hand, Europe hardly survived the Black Death and other horrifying events, such as catastrophic harvests and Anglo-French war among others. On the other, Italy – the epicenter of Renaissance flourishing – was the place of accumulation of wealth and prosperity. In this way, these artists borrowed the best of Antiquity traditions and modified them into the guiding principle of Humanism, with a great accent on dignity and worthiness of an individual.

Whereas Antique painters only initially incorporated light and shadow elements into their creations, their colleagues of the Renaissance epoch demonstrated painting techniques of the skillful level for that time. In particular, facial features of a person of Antiquity were proved to be perfect in case those had been depicted with as pure white as possible since this color was equalized to divinity. Conversely, an individual painted on a Renaissance art piece was supposed to be maximally realistic, with the tiniest details, and visualizing the righteous movements.

Another approach, which related the two trends analyzed, has been as follows: “beauty is experienced by the senses, but it is recognized by reason. To put it in other words, Renaissance promoted recognition and thorough perception of what was painted rather ordinary comprehension of the beauty, based on the beliefs of Antique thinkers.

To illustrate, the famous painting by Raphael – The School of Athens – may be considered (see Figure 1). At first glance, it is evident that the art work is seemingly alive since all individuals depicted by the creator are dynamic. Their visualized moves are appropriate to their purpose and do not look artificially, which is above-indicated feature of Renaissance itself. However, the classical scene, Antiquity-related ornaments and proportional forms of the building of probably Roman architecture as well as statues of Apollo and Minerva among other issues embody some implications of the essence of Antique philosophy. Furthermore, this painting is not simply a depiction of some plot interpreted by the artist. On The School of Athens, Raphael depicted a philosophy, which also incorporates the previously pointed out aspect of recognition of the beauty through the reason. To be more precise, the protagonists Plato and Aristotle hold their works as manifestations of their positions in reasoning about human and society, which are opposing, despite of them both are the greatest classical philosophers. Apart from that, the setting of the painting unites Christianity (contemporary for the artist) and paganism (dominant for Antiquity) as a sign of relation between two artistic movements and sources of wisdom through the ages.

In this way, Renaissance has been created through the prism of Antiquity art, though this trend obtained its specific characteristics, which made it possible to differentiate it as a unique foundation for philosophical Humanism.    

Whereas Renaissance artists were inspired by ideology of Antiquity, Neoclassical painters of the late 1750s through the 1850s attempted to revive this classical perspective through their pieces. The push factor for occurrence of this artistic movement were archeological discoveries of Roman Empire ruins at Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as a theoretical inquiry by Winckelmann, who had thoroughly researched this field. Moreover, this artistic trend appeared as an opposition to overemphasizing the wealth Baroque and drawn in decorations Rococo. Therefore, “the desire to know and to match the excellence of the ancients grew into engendered passionate endeavor”, which was implemented by neoclassical artists. Owing to that there practically were no drawing patterns of Antique paintings, neoclassics created their first works following the forms and shapes of sculptures and architecture of Antiquity found during archeological expeditions.   

On the contrary to Renaissance promoting prosperity and triumph of individual, Neoclassic painting embodied seriousness of a protagonist depicted, alongside with one’s unemotional and stern heroism. What is more, the artists chose historical plots, settings, and heroes of Ancient Greece and Rome the dominant themes in their art works. This distinctive feature of this movement has been one of its controversies since many critics found it strange that all individuals painted in contemporary to them pieces had to wear Roman togas or tunics among other. Additionally, neoclassical painters supported simple and plain linear technique in representation of historical truth of Antiquity, and their interpretation of classical events evolved from ideal forms to narrative painting. 

In order to illustrate the neoclassical phenomenon in painting, a work by Jacques-Louis Davis is taken under consideration. The Oath of the Horatii (refer to Figure 2) looks like a composition of perfectly settled Greek sculptures on canvas, brining certain rhetoric by their posture and gestures. The painting is not overloaded with excess decorations or elements, and there are no diagonals between representations of the subjects. Conversely, everything here is plain, within one linear dimension, appropriate to the neoclassical austerity. In this case, “figures are only half-heartedly linked by the slightest presence of action.”

Consequently, irregardless of that neoclassics borrowed many ideas from Antiquity, this art vector is also determined by its unrepeatable characteristics, which were created and enhanced only by its followers. 


Undoubtedly, Antiquity is an extremely notable epoch in the history of art, which has become a substantial influential factor with respect to such artistic movements as Renaissance and Neoclassicism. Nonetheless, each of these trends has adopted its significant features on its own manner. Specifically, the Renaissance artists have chosen Humanism as implication of Antiquity to follow, whereas “freedom [of individual] was the chief reason for their art’s superiority.” On the other hand, the neoclassical paradigm became revival of Antiquity to some extent, as an austere contradiction to pompous Baroque and Rococo. In any case, both movements embodied the best Antique traditions appropriate for their timeframes and manifested distinct self-sufficiency.

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