The Classical Period

We can't talk about the Classical Period without first asking an important question:  what is Classicism?

The short answer is that it is a style that takes Antique Greek and Roman art for its reference, and which developed in the 17th century as an alternative to Baroque art.

Aeneas Presenting His Arms to Venus, Nicolas Poussin

The long answer is a little more complex.

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“Classicism” comes from the Latin “classicus”, which means “first class” or “first-ranking”.  The term was first used in the Renaissance to talk about art.  Today the term “classicism” can be used any time art looks back to 5 BC Greek art and its successive imitators – whether academic paintings of the 19th century, neoclassical works of the late 18th century, and even art produced under 20th century dictatorships such as the Fascist or Nazi regimes.

Throughout the history of art there has indeed been a continual pendulum swing between exploration and the return to the Greek reference.  The first major revival of classicism with a small “c” was in Carolingian and Ottonian art.  The next and greater one was with the Renaissance; increasing trade with Islamic countries meant greater exposure to Antique knowledge, especially mathematics, art, and humanism.  This is when the Golden Mean was again used to mathematically define ideal ratios in architecture and art.

The next pendulum swing was in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the Classical Period with a capital “C” came into being.  It first developed in Italy in the early 17th century in the work of Annibale Carracci, but came into full flower in the art of the French Nicolas Poussin who conducted his career for the most part in Rome.  It was under Louis XIV, especially in the work of painter Charles Le Brun, that the Classical Period took centre stage.

How to recognize a Classical Period painting?

For starters, the themes are still often religious,  but there are a lot more that are historical or allegorical; Greek or Roman mythology was important.  Under Louis XIV, painters at the Louvre and Versailles also sought to glorify the Sun King.  Head-to-foot portraits developed with the pomp of the French court.

Landscapes, often imaginary, are most appreciated, with tiny human figures to embellish them.  The Italian style is influential, with an especially beautiful light and a composition consisting often of vegetation in the foreground, followed by buildings in perspective, and concluding with mountains in the background under blue skies.  Bits of ruined architecture scatter the scene to make it “nobler”, with pretty nymphs or noble  on them.

There is a great sense of order, linearity, symmetry, control.  The colors are not violet, gestures are controlled and grand, poses are stable and movement is slow.  Painters drape their figures in the garments of Antiquity, and there is a good less nudity than in the Baroque.  These figures are idealized, looking like Greek or Roman statues brought to life.

Unlike Baroque paintings, there are no special effects of light or color; all is restrained and sober.

Greatest Artists of Classicism

47. Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) hearkened back to Raffaelo’s Antique inspiration, and was important in the start of Classicism.

48.  Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) was the major inspiration for later Classicists such as David, Ingres and Cézanne, and First Painter to the French King Louis XIII

49.  Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was a dominant figure in French 17th century art, serving as First Painter to Louis XIV.

50.  Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682) was celebrated for his landscape paintings with their especially beautiful light.

51.  Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655) is sometimes called the French Raphael.

Click here to view Classical Period paintings on the Wiki Commons website.

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