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classicism, a term that, when applied generally, means clearness, elegance, symmetry, and repose produced by attention to traditional forms. It is sometimes synonymous with excellence or artistic quality of high distinction. More precisely, the term refers to the admiration and imitation of Greek and Roman literature, art, and architecture. Because the principles of classicism were derived from the rules and practices of the ancients, the term came to mean the adherence to specific academic canons.

The Renaissance and Thereafter

The first major revival of classicism occurred during the Renaissance (c.1400–1600). As a result of the intensified interest in Greek and Roman culture, especially the works of Plato and Cicero, classical standards were reinstated as the ideal norm in literature. In Florence, the early center of Renaissance learning, Cosimo de' Medici gathered a circle of humanists (see humanism) who collected, studied, expounded, and imitated the classics. Outside Italy writers affected by the revival of classical conventions included Francis Bacon and Ben Jonson in England and Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine in France.

Renaissance painters and sculptors whose works reflect the classical influence include Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The Greek and Roman orders of architecture were also revived during the Renaissance and applied to ecclesiastical designs. Leone Battista Alberti wrote the first of several Renaissance treatises on architecture (1485), based on his reading of Vitruvius. The writers and artists of the baroque and rococo periods (c.1600–1750) that followed the Renaissance elaborated on many of the same classical themes, although their work is often characterized by a new exuberance of form and complexity of subject matter.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Following the archaeological rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 18th cent. there was a renewed interest in the culture of ancient Rome and, subsequently, ancient Greece. This period is generally designated as neoclassicism, and it is considered to be the first phase in the larger romantic movement. The revival of antiquity in the 18th cent. was closely tied to such political events as the American and French revolutions, in which parallels were drawn between ancient and modern forms of government.

In German literature the classical stream was deflected in the last quarter of the 18th cent. by the romantic period of Sturm und Drang, but it was revived later in the century when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller wrote classical drama. Classicism is also applied to the music of this period, especially the works of Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. In art and architecture classicism remained fashionable throughout the 19th cent. and into the early 20th cent. largely through the influence of the École des Beaux-Arts in France, whose curriculum was imitated in many countries.

The Twentieth Century

In early 20th-century Europe and the United States there was a renewed interest in Greek literature, and classical models were somewhat revived, as in the work of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Abstracted classical elements can be found in the paintings of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, and in the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. A more overt classicism has found renewed acceptance among many postmodern architects in recent years. Spearheading the 20th-century neoclassical revival in music were Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók.


See T. S. Eliot, What Is a Classic? (1946); G. Highet, The Classical Tradition (1949, repr. 1957); P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought (1961); W. J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic (1961); G. Murray, The Classical Tradition in Poetry (1927, repr. 1968); C. Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (1971); R. R. Bolgar, ed., Classical Influences on E. Culture (1971); J. Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (1980).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a term used in Soviet art criticism and, to some extent, literary criticism to designate various artistic phenomena of the late 19th and the 20th century. These phenomena differ in social orientation and ideological content, but they are all characterized by application of ancient Greek and Roman, Renaissance, and classicist traditions (in music, baroque elements as well).

The term “neoclassicism” is widely used, primarily in art criticism abroad, to designate classicism in the architecture and representational arts roughly from 1750 to 1830, as distinguished from the classicism of the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Neoclassicism arose as a systematic return to the art of the past. There was a desire to contrast certain “eternal” aesthetic values with a turbulent and contradictory reality: to juxtapose strict, stately forms and ideal images (extratemporal and “purified” of everything concretely historical) with the intellectual and formal patterns of artistic movements that were obsessed with the search for a direct correspondence with reality. In this sense, neoclassicism displays quite a few similarities with neoromanticism, although at times it is also the antithesis of the latter.

The further development and creative understanding of classical traditions seem to reveal the historical continuity of the artistic process. However, the mechanical application of classical formal devices and the tendentious, affected interpolation of classical motifs (often officially encouraged in 20th-century art) have led to the production of schematic, lifeless, or pseudo-sublime pompous works.

In architecture, neoclassical currents, associated mainly with the traditions of classicism, achieved their greatest popularity in three distinct periods. The first began circa 1910 and, in a number of countries, continued until the mid-1920’s; the second embraced primarily the 1930’s; and the third began in the late 1950’s.

In the first period, the organizational logic and laconicism of classical form were championed as a counterbalance to the caprices of form and excesses of decoration found in the architecture of eclecticism and in art nouveau. In a number of countries, the neoclassicism of this period used elements of art nouveau yet maintained definite rationalistic tendencies (for example, the work of such architects as A. Perret and T. Garnier in France, P. Behrens in Germany, O. Wagner and A. Loos in Austria, and E. G. Apslund in Sweden).

In Russian architecture of the second decade of the 20th century, neoclassicism acquired a more retrospective quality and was dominated by a desire to affirm the basic principles of classical architecture (for example, works by I. A. Fomin, I. V. Zholtovskii, and V. A. Shchuko). During the same years, the representatives of Russian art nouveau also turned to the stylization of classical motifs (F. O. Shekhtel’, F. I. Lidval’).

In the United States and Great Britain from 1910 to 1930, neoclassicism developed primarily in official architecture. The structures were imposing and emphatically monumental (for example, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., 1914–22, designed by H. Bacon).

In the 1930’s, elements of neoclassicism were widely applied in Italian and German architecture to create exaggeratedly monumental structures, which were overwhelming to man and served to propagate fascist ideology (for example, the University Campus in Rome, 1930–35, designed by M. Piacentini; the House of Art in Munich, 1933–37, designed by P. L. Troost: and the Reichs Chancellery in Berlin, 1938, designed by A. Speer, destroyed 1945). In these structures, neoclassicism was reduced to strictly symmetrical, sterile, oversimplified forms.

Beginning in the late 1950’s, neoclassicism developed in a new direction, primarily in the architecture of the United States (“1960’s neoclassicism”). The movement was encouraged by an official building program under which about 50 structures housing American diplomats were constructed in various countries according to specific stylistic guidelines. Various classical compositional devices were combined with forms dictated by modern methods of construction. Inexpensive materials were used to imitate more costly ones, and elements associated with local architectural traditions were frequently incorporated into structures built outside the United States. Examples include the US embassies in New Delhi (1958, designed by E. Stone), London (1960, designed by E. Saarinen), and Athens (1957–61, designed by W. Gropius). The most significant neoclassical project in the official and commercial architecture of the United States is Lincoln Center in New York City (1960’s, designed by P. Johnson, W. Harrison, M. Abramovitz, and E. Saarinen). Its buildings form a symmetrical border around a rectangular square.

The principles of neoclassicism were reflected to some degree in Soviet architecture of the late 1930’s through the early 1950’s.

In the representational arts, the term “neoclassicism” is much broader than in architecture and is applied to more heterogeneous artistic currents. In this area, there is fuller expression of the desire to juxtapose the internal harmony of classical images with the tragic disharmony of modern life and with the intellectual and stylistic ferment in art.

Some anticipations of neoclassicism were evident in the work of the pre-Raphaelites (mid-19th century onward). However, it first became possible to speak of neoclassicism as a relatively integral phenomenon in connection with neo-idealism, which took final shape in Germany toward the end of the 1870’s. Polemicizing against academic eclecticism, naturalism, and realism and espousing “eternal” ideals of beauty, such neo-idealists as the painters A. Feuerbach and H. von Marées and the sculptor A. von Hildebrand strove to revive the monumentality and palpable plasticity of classical art (although this was often realized only in abstract form). In aesthetics, this striving was justified in the works of K. Fiedler, who saw the task of art as the overcoming of the “chaos” of reality and regarded form-creation as the expression of the artist’s particular “form of vision.”

Neoclassicism became widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction against impressionism. It combined (1) certain late academic currents; (2) a certain adherence to the principles of ancient Greek and Roman art (not so much of the classical as of the archaic period) and, to a lesser degree, of Renaissance art (more elements from the Early Renaissance than from the High Renaissance) and 17th- and 18th-century classicism; and (3) some stylistic tendencies of art nouveau.

The term “neoclassicism” is applicable in varying degrees to the work or to certain aspects of the work of a number of sculptors and painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sculptors included A. Maillol and E. A. Bourdelle in France; A. G. Vigelan in Norway; C. Milles in Sweden; K. Nielsen in Denmark; I. Mestrović in Yugoslavia; F. Messina in Italy; and S. T. Konenkov, A. T. Matveev, and S. D. Merkurov in Russia. Among the painters were F. Hodler in Switzerland; P. Puvis de Chavannes and M. Denis in France; and L. S. Bakst, V. A. Serov, A. E. Iakovlev, V. I. Shukhaev, and K. S. Petrov-Vodkin in Russia.

A number of artistic movements exhibiting a kinship to neoclassicism arose in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a reaction against expressionism, futurism, and cubism. Neue Sachlichkeit, a movement in German art that was a reaction against expressionism and whose members included A. Kanoldt, influenced regional art in the United States during the 1930’s (G. Wood and others). Another such movement was Italian metaphysical painting, which underwent further development in the 1920’s (represented by G. de Chirico, F. Casorati, and others). In France, P. Picasso’s “neo-Ingresism” was distinguished from other movements by its humanistic and idyllic tone and its strong influence on neoclassicism in other European schools of art.

Just as in architecture, the official art of fascist regimes used the arsenal of artistic resources of neoclassicism to create pseudomonumental, lifelessly cold or pompous images embodying the cult of state power and the “superman hero” (the painters A. Funi and M. Sironi in Italy; the sculptor A. Breker in Germany).

In literature, the term “neoclassicism” is strictly applied in Soviet scholarship to designate trends relatively limited in scope (from the early 1890’s to 1905) that were aesthetically similar to neoclassical representational art around the turn of the 20th century (the “Roman” school in France, headed by C. Maurras and J. Moréas; the work of P. Ernst, W. Scholz, and S. Lublinski in Germany). Neoclassical writers differing in sociopolitical aims are united by similar principles of aesthetics and poetics: a negative reaction to naturalism (with its democratic, earthbound hero, determined by environment and nature) and to French symbolism and German neoromanticism (with their pessimism, enfeeblement, subjectivism, emotional agony, fantasizing, and formal subtleties); an orientation toward ancient tragedy and classicism (with their affirmation of suprapersonal, objective, absolute moral values, heroic stoicism of literary characters, clarity and “nobility” of style, strictness and “inevitability” in plot construction); a reliance on the “unshakable” traditions of classical European culture as a counterbalance to decadence and prosaic reality; and a break with the traditions of critical realism. The new humanism movement in the literature of the United States in the 1930’s constituted a special form of neoclassicism.

In the broad sense, the term “neoclassicism” denotes an intellectual-stylistic principle that often arose in the 19th and 20th centuries after a period of classicism. Based on the use of ancient Greek and Roman images, motifs, plots, and conflicts, neoclassicism was generally marked by traditional plastic perfection and clarity of poetic language. It acquired various intellectual and artistic meanings in different countries and different eras. Examples include the Anacreontic poetry of K. N. Batiushkov and A. S. Pushkin; the verse of A. N. Maikov and N. F. Shcherbina written in the style of classical Greek lyric poetry; the symbolist verse, dramas, and historical-cultural essays of V. I. Ivanov; the “antique” dramas of I. F. Annenskii; the romantic Hellenism of A. Chénier; the works of many of the Parnassian poets; and the existentialist drama of J. P. Sartre and J. Anouilh.

Neoclassicism in music, which is based on the same premises as in the other arts, has not been a systematic movement. One may speak only of isolated manifestations of neoclassicism in the works of various composers. M. Reger approached neoclassicism directly in his last compositions. P. Hindemith headed the neoclassical tendency in German music.

In the 1920’s, I. F. Stravinsky used a number of neoclassical elements in the operatic oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927); in the ballets Pulcinella (based on themes by Pergolesi, (1919), Apollo musagétes (based on themes by Lully, 1927), and Baiser de la fée (based on themes by Tchaikovsky, 1928); in A Symphony of Psalms (1930); and in an octet (1923). In the same period neoclassical tendencies clearly emerged in some works by the French Six, whose members included D. Milhaud, A. Honegger, and F. Poulenc. The same tendencies are also seen in individual works by O. Respighi and other composers.

Neoclassical musical works are very close to stylization. At the same time, their imitation of the music of the past is combined with modernization of the musical language and application of modern means of musical expression along with archaic ones. Overall, neoclassical tendencies in music are self-contradictory. The attempt to revive the clarity, organization, and logic of old musical styles frequently results in cold, formal imitation and the artificial use of obsolete techniques.


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A. V. IKONNIKOV (for neoclassicism in architecture)

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Neoclassicism of the 19th cent.
A reinterpretation of the principles of Classical architecture in the late 18th and the early 19th century, and beyond. This term often includes the Federal style, Classical Revival style, and Greek Revival style and is generally characterized by: monumentality, colossal porticos, and columns; strict use of the Greek and Roman orders; sparing application of ornamentation, an unadorned roof line, and an avoidance of moldings. The term Neoclassical style is occasionally used as a synonym.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. a late 18th- and early 19th-century style in architecture, decorative art, and fine art, based on the imitation of surviving classical models and types
2. Music a movement of the 1920s, involving Hindemith, Stravinsky, etc., that sought to avoid the emotionalism of late romantic music by reviving the use of counterpoint, forms such as the classical suite, and small instrumental ensembles
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005