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Neoclassical Art and Architecture, and the Age of Enlightenment


Baroque excesses were countered by the Revolution, the Enlightenment, and a stern, no-frills art that celebrated a new age of science and reason. Neoclassical art and architecture (called Georgian in Britain) spread from France to Denmark, Finland, and beyond.

Complete Video Script

[106, Pantheon, 1790, Paris] Rococo art was a symptom of an excessive decadence among Europe's increasingly out-of-touch elites. But the world was changing. There was a growing belief that science and reason could lead to progress. This led to a new and ultimately revolutionary age, the Age of Enlightenment.

[107] Science was booming as new frontiers — from gravity and electricity to the solar system — were explored. New technology was practically an art form in itself, with jeweled microscopes, intricate time pieces, and finely crafted telescopes. People were fascinated by the wonders of the natural world. And philosophers even floated the radical idea that ordinary people could rule themselves — planting the seeds of modern democracy.

[108, Madame de Pompadour, 1756, Boucher, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] By the mid-1700s, the aristocracy was going one way, but the rest of society was headed another.

[109] This reaction to the excess of the age led to an enlightened style of art which stripped out the Baroque drama and Rococo frills. As in the Renaissance, it looked back to classical times for inspiration — to ancient Greece and Rome. And because it was a new version, it was called "Neo-classical."

[110, Pantheon, Paris] Architects revived the style of classical temples. Using columns, triangular pediments, and soaring domes, these buildings — with their clean, straight lines — looked ancient but were actually modern, built in the 17 and 1800s. They were Neoclassical.

[111, The Death of Socrates, 1787, David, Louvre Museum, Paris; Oath of the Horatii, 1784, David] Painters celebrated ancient scenes with clear-eyed realism and sharply drawn lines. Greek, Roman, sober and intellectual themes — it's pure Neoclassicism.

[112, Madame Récamier, David, 1800, Louvre Museum, Paris] They painted portraits of contemporary Europeans in classic colors and ancient garb. This young Parisian socialite — reclining on a Roman couch, with a Greek tunic and a Pompeii hairdo — perfectly in vogue.

[113, Pauline Bonaparte as Venus, 1808, Canova, Borghese Gallery, Rome] In sculpture, subjects — like Napoleon's sister for example — were featured pure and calm as Greek gods, with smooth clean lines carved from the same white marble as the ancients.

[114, Cupid and Psyche, 1793, Canova, Louvre, Paris] Greek myths now came without all the Baroque drama. This Cupid flutters down to awaken his lover with a kiss. As their arms intertwine, they form a perfect circle — a circle of love — focusing all the attention on the center of the composition: the charged atmosphere between their anxious lips.

[115C] Soon, this classical style could be found all over Europe — with Greek and Roman inspired façades, stately columns, and logical, grid-planned streets.

[116] Much of London was remade in this style — from palaces to churches to museums. While on the Continent, the art of this period was called Neoclassical, England named the style after its king: "Georgian."

[119, The Circus and the Royal Crescent, Bath, England] The Neoclassical, or Georgian, style spread across Britain. Towns like Bath enjoyed a Neoclassical make-over. This circular square feels like an ancient coliseum turned inside out, complete with classical columns — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Nearby, its Royal Crescent, the first Georgian "condos," came with a broad promenade perfect for strutting your high society stuff. With its elegant symmetry and classical ornamentation, progressive residents of Georgian England got to stroll as if the vanguard of an enlightened new age.

[120, Senate Square, Helsinki] And, the Neoclassical style spread to Europe's far north. In Helsinki, in the early 1800s, an entire ensemble of buildings — political, religious, and commercial — was designed in this new artistic style.

[121, Lutheran Cathedral, Helsinki] The cathedral, with its stately dome and statues of twelve apostles, overlooks the city. With that striking centerpiece, this is perhaps the finest and most cohesive Neoclassical square in Europe.

[122, Copenhagen Cathedral, statues by Thorvaldsen, 1834] In Copenhagen, the façade of its cathedral mimics a Greek temple. And John the Baptist stands where you'd expect to see some pagan god. He welcomes worshippers into a world of Neoclassical serenity. With statues of the apostles leading to the altar, the art complements the relative simplicity of Protestant worship.

[123] With its clean, cool lines and focus on reason, Neoclassicism was more than a period of art — it represented a whole new way of thinking. It stood for Enlightenment, science, progress, and…the future.