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Characteristics of Neoclassical Paintings

Neoclassic painters looked to the design characteristics of Ancient Greece and Rome.
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The Neoclassic movement in painting began in the mid-1700s as a reaction to the decorative style of the Rococo movement. Unlike the garish excess of Rococo, neoclassic paintings featured clean lines and depicted heroic figures of Ancient Greece and Rome. Governed by the ideals of the Age of Reason, Neoclassic art was intellectual and restrained.

Themes and Subject Matter

French painters of the Neoclassic movement felt a kinship with Ancient Roman heroes since the artists saw parallels between the ideals of the stoic Romans and the ideals for which France was fighting in a revolution at the time. For this reason, Roman and Greek history and mythology were often subjects for their paintings. Homer was a frequent subject and inspiration for their work, as was Virgil, Sophocles and Plutarch. Themes of the paintings emphasized stoicism and heroism.


German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann described the paintings of this era as having a “noble simplicity.” They were characterized by symmetry, clean lines and the emphasis on the subjects faces to help tell the story. Emotion is depicted in these paintings, but it is used with more restraint and control than in the Rococo era. Artists sought to faithfully reproduce the architecture and clothing of ancient times, showing reverence for the traditional artistic ideals.


Neoclassic paintings feature colors that are sharper than those found in the Baroque or Rococo art that preceded it. Art of the neoclassic era made use of chiaroscuro, a technique that played with the vivid contrast between light and dark colors, which provided a sense of drama to the painting and also helped bring to life the multidimensionality of objects.

Famous Paintings

A painting frequently cited by art scholars as representative of the neoclassic style is "Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Apotheosis of Homer." The painting, on view at the Louvre at the time of this publication, depicts a virtual pageant of artists and philosophers, including Shakespeare, Mozart, Plato, Socrates and Molière. Homer is at the center of these historical figures receiving a crown of laurel leaves from the Roman Goddess Nike. Jacques-Louis David’s "Oath of the Haratii" is another masterwork of the Neoclassic era. The painting deals with military themes, showing a scene between three brothers showing their loyalty to Rome.

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