A Very Short History of Art: Neoclassicism and Romanticism

1 Jacques Louis David The Oath of the Horatii 1784to5
Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1784-85 – one of the earliest Neoclassical paintings.

Both Neoclassicism and Romanticism began as expressions of rejection. Neoclassicism, which emerged in the 1740s, with its clean lines and commitment to an idealised reality, was a rejection of Rococo extravagance and embellishment, which by the 1780s had succeeded in supplanting it. Romanticism, with its love of drama, emotion, and the natural world, was a rejection of the perceived coldness and intellectualism of Neoclassicism, and emerged just as the Rococo was disappearing.

This was also a period of continuing divergence along national lines, with distinct national schools emerging particularly in Britain, Spain, and France, and it is only in the latter that a strict division between the Neoclassical and the Romantic seems to have existed, although interestingly this division seems to have been quite separate from the political division of the French Revolution, with artists from both schools painting for both the Revolutionary and Royalist factions.


4 Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun Countess Golovine c1797
Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Countess Golovine, c.1797

One painter who merged Neoclassical principles with the bright beauty of the Baroque was an early female artist, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. A Royalist, she enjoyed the patronage of Marie Antoinette, who (in spite of her undeniable flaws) was a patron of both women and the arts in general, and women artists in particular. Vigee-Lebrun escaped the Revolution by going into exile, returning to Paris in 1805.

As Velazquez had dominated Spanish art during the Baroque, so Francisco Goya (1746-1828) dominated the art of Spain – and, arguably, all of Europe – during this period. He was famed in particular for his portraits, which captured, for good or ill, not only the exterior appearance but also the essential character of his subjects. This can be seen in his 1800 portrait of the Spanish royal family: no matter how elegant their clothing it is easy to believe that these are small-minded people of limited intelligence, the King dominated by his hard-faced Queen.

5 Goya The Family of King Charles IV 1800
Goya, The Family of King Charles IV, 1800

But Goya was deeply affected by the war with France, which began in 1808 as Napoleon sought to invade his southern neighbour. ‘The Third of May 1808’ focuses on the brutal aftermath of an attempted Spanish uprising, with the Christ-like patriot in white facing the anonymous French forces intent on continuing their executions, and ‘The Colossus’ (1810-12) shows refugees fleeing like ants beneath the shadow of a giant, naked warrior.


9 Wedgwood vases c1800
Wedgwood vases, c1800.


English Neoclassicism is most famously seen in the pottery of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95). The grandfather of Charles Darwin, Wedgwood was a committed abolitionist and some of the profits from the sale of his pottery went to support the abolitionist cause. Although the company he founded has since been absorbed by other businesses, Wedgwood pottery remains in production today.



The skating Minister, by Henry Raeburn
Henry Raeburn, The Rev. Robert Walker Skating, mid-1790s


While much of the Continent was embroiled in war and political turmoil, Britain was enjoying a period of relative peace and stability at home, fighting her battles at a comfortable distance in other parts of the Empire. This sense of stability is visible in her art, where subjects sit calmly for their portraits, and even the ‘Skating Minister’ holds himself with appropriate, if almost comic, dignity.

But another kind of revolution was transforming Britain, and especially England – the Industrial Revolution – and the resultant environmental and social changes brought to the fore in British art the deep love of place celebrated in the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Blake and (later) Kipling. Britain’s most famous artist during the Neoclassical and Romantic periods, therefore, earned their reputation for their landscape paintings: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), his successor John Constable (1776-1837), and the radical Cockney outsider Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), whose passion for capturing the play of light and movement anticipated the Impressionism of the late 1800s.


3 thoughts on “A Very Short History of Art: Neoclassicism and Romanticism

  1. This is a wonderful post. I had no idea that Marie Antoinette was a patron of women artists nor that Josiah Wedgwood was the grandfather of Charles Darwin! I have seen up close and in person the Goya, The Third of May 1808, the Turner Rain, Steam and Speed, the skating reverend: each very different in size and finish in reality and all of which have influenced other artists.


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