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Neo-Classical Style
(c. 1760 - c. 1850)

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Neo-Classical Style
was a style in art, architecture, and the decorative arts that flourished in Europe and North America from about 1750 to the early 1800s, marked by the emulation of Graeco-Roman forms. More than just an antique revival, Neo-Classicism was linked to contemporary political events. Neo-Classical artists at first sought to replace the sensuality and what they viewed as the triviality of the Rococo style with a style that was logical, solemn in tone, and moralizing in character. When revolutionary movements established republics in France and America, the new republican governments adopted Neo-Classicism as the style for their official art, by virtue of its association with the democracy of ancient Greece and republican Rome. Later, as Napoleon I rose to power in France, the style was modified to serve his propagandistic needs. With the rise of the Romantic movement (see Romanticism), a preference for personal expression replaced an art based upon fixed, ideal values. 

A wonderful example of the Neo-Classical Style is found n the world famous monument, known to practically everyone, without even having ever visited it, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, with a sculpture of the four-in-hand carriage, known as The Quadriga, on the top, overlooking Berlin. 

Germany 1991. Neo-Classical Style. Brandenburg Gate. German Democratic Republic 1964. Close-up of the Quadriga on the top of Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

The once proud symbol of the imperial capital Berlin was completed by C,G, Langhans in 1791. It is is 20 meters high and 65 meters wide. It heralded the classical era in Prussia. Modelled on the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens, the middle of the five arches was reserved exclusively for the members of the imperial court until the November Revolution of 1918. The customs houses in the wings were converted into hallways for pedestrians after the toll wall was pulled down in 1868. The Victory Chariot [Siegeswagen] on the top of the gate, known as the Quadriga, depicts a goddess of victory driving a four-in-hand carriage, is the work of sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow (1794). It was created from moulds which managed to survive the war. Ordered by Napoleon, the Quadriga was taken down in 1806 during the French occupation and transferred to Paris. It was returned to Berlin in 1841. 

Another world famous example of Neo Classical architecture is Church of Madeleine, Paris, in its present form designed as a temple to the glory of Napoleon's Army. Having been unable to find a recent postage stamp of this magnificent edifice, I will show you instead an ancient postcard from Paris, with the Madeleine in the background. Today, the view is exactly the same, and as breathtaking as ever. 

Neo Classical Architecture. Postcard. Madeleine Church, Paris.

Neo-Classical painting was centered in Rome, where many expatriate painters gathered around the German art historian Johann Winckelmann. Winckelmann's circle included the expatriate German Anton Raphael Mengs, the Scot Gavin Hamilton, and the American Benjamin West. By the early 1790s painters began to emulate the flat, silhouetted figures of Greek vase painting. The style was immensely successful and widely imitated, among others by the French Jacques-Louis David, and his pupil, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the latter becoming the inheritor of his role as leading interpreter of the classical tradition.  

France 1989. Neo Classical Art. Jacques-Louis David. Serment du Jeu de Paume. France 1967. Neo Classical Art. Painting by Ingres. Denmark 1984. Neo Classical Art. C.W. Eckersberg. Carnival in Rome.

The Danish painter, C.W. Eckersberg (1783-1853), was educated in the classical tradition as a pupil of J.L. David in the period 1811-1813, but became a naturalist by devotion, and had an enormous impact on Danish art for the rest of the 19th century. One of his most famous paintings "Carnival in Rome", was issued on a stamp by Denmark in 1984, the first large format stamp in the Danish art. His contemporary, Nicolai Abildgaard (1743-1809), was one of the leading Danish painters of the Neo Classical style.  . 

Because sculpture in Europe had been profoundly influenced by Classical forms since the Renaissance, Neo-Classical principles had a less revolutionary impact on it than on the other arts.  In general, Neo-Classical sculptors tended to avoid the dramatic twisting poses and the coloured marble characteristic of late Baroque or Rococo sculpture, preferring crisp contours, a noble stillness, and idealized forms carved from white marble. 

The dominant figure in the history of Neo-Classical sculpture, however, was the Italian Antonio Canova (1757-1822), who became a member of the Rome Circle in 1780. 

Abandoning his earlier Baroque manner, he sought to capture in the Neo-Classical style the severity and ideal purity of ancient art. 

Theseus and the Dead Minotaur (1781-1782) portrays the calm of victory rather than active conflict; this was Canova's first work in the new style, and it brought him immediate fame. 

  • Vatican City 1944.  Antonio Canova. 

  • Italy 1972.  Antonio Canova: The Three Graces (issued to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death.  

Vatican City 1944. Neo Classical Art. Antonio Canova. Italy 1972. Neo Classical Art. Antonio Canova. The Three Graces.

After Canova's death, the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844)  inherited his position as Europe's leading sculptor. 

Denmark 1938. Neo Classical Art. Bertel Thorvaldsen. Jason with the Golden Fleece. Denmark 2003. Neo Classical Art. Bertel Thorvaldsen. Jason with The Golden Fleece.

His many international commissions help sustain strict Neo-Classicism as the dominant mode in sculpture until the mid-19th century. One of Thorvaldsen's most famous sculptures is Jason with the Golden Fleece, sculpted by inspiration from the Greek Antiquity. 

The style was carried to the United States by one of his friends, Horatio Greenough, and was continued by Hiram Powers, an American long resident in Italy, sculptor of the celebrated Greek Slave (1843), of which many replicas were made. 

  • Denmark 1938. Jason with the Golden Fleece.

  • Denmark 2003. Jason with the Golden Fleece. 

The French sculptor of the neo-classical style, Jacques Francois-Joseph Saly (1717-1776), arrived in Denmark around 1750, and it took him almost 20 years to create the statue, which today is recognised as one of Europe's most famous equestrian statues. The monument depicts King Frederik V and was unveiled in 1771.

The statue in the center of the stately square at Amalienborg Palace (official residence of the Danish Royal Family) in Copenhagen, is known as Saly's equestrian statue. 

  • Denmark 1955. Saly's Equestrian Statue.  The stamp is part of the series "Kingdom for 1000 years", issued in the period 1953-1956. 
  • Denmark 1985. Saly's Equestrian Statue.Test stamp, engraved by Czeslaw Slania. The stamp is clearly marked "PRØVE" [Test], and is not issued for postal use. 

Denmark 1955. Neo Classical Art. Saly's Equestrian Statue.

Denmark 1985. Neo Classical Art. Test stamp engraved by Czeslaw Slania. Saly's Equestrian Statue.

Decorative Arts 
The Neo-Classical style pervaded almost every aspect of the decorative arts. By the early 1760s furniture with Graeco-Roman motifs was being made by Robert Adam. Introduced into France, his simple, classical style became known as the style étrusque (Etruscan style), and was favoured by the court of Louis XV. With further adaptations of Classical design, based on later archaeological finds, it evolved into the elegant style known as Louis XVI, favoured by the royal family during the 1780s. 

France 1957. Neo Classical Art. National Manufacturing of Sevres Porcelain.

In ceramics the Neo-Classical style was seen in Wedgwood jasperware in England and in Sèvres porcelain in France. 
  • France 1957. National Manufacturing of Sevres Porcelain, founded in 1756.  

Under Napoleon I, former royal residences were redecorated for official use according to plans devised by Percier and Fontaine and filled with furniture, porcelain, and tapestries all incorporating Graeco-Roman design and motifs. Taken as a whole, such interiors defined the Neo-Classical style in the decorative arts, and it was soon emulated throughout Europe. 

So was the case in Denmark, where the famous Flora Danica Tableware saw light at the end of the 18th century. It is said that it was commissioned by the Danish King, Christian VII, who wanted a porcelain service so beautiful and rare that it would gain a place among the Russian Empress Catherine II’s large porcelain collection. But then the Empress died in 1796 before the great work was finished. The service therefore remained with the Royal Danish Household and today belongs to H.M. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

The service’s name and decorations stem from the botanical work Flora Danica whose 51 volumes and total of 3.060 coloured copper prints were issued in the period 1761-1883. The wide-ranging work reproduced in minute detail the Danish flora. The great task of transcribing the decorations to the porcelain became the life’s work of one man – Johann Christoph Bayer. He undertook the majority of the painting of the 1,802 pieces that are contained in the tableware, a task which took him 12 years. The copper prints were carefully copied onto the porcelain and if he was in doubt about any detail he sent a messenger to the Botanical Gardens to have his observations verified. He would then study the plant to ensure that the reproduction was correct.

Denmark 1990. Neo Classical Art. Presentation pack of the famous tableware Flora Danica.

Sources and links:

Painters and artists from this period, listed in alphabetical order.  Click on any of the active links to go to the individual artist's page. Those marked with an asterisk are represented on this page. 

  • Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (Danish painter)

  • Bertel Thorvaldsen (Danish Sculptor)

  • Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (Danish painter) *

Many thanks to Mr. Gerhard Reichert, Germany, for all help and research connected with the German stamps of Brandenburg Gate. 

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Revised 04-aug-2007. Ann Mette Heindorff
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