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Differences Between Neoclassicism and Romanticism

A Cultural Battle for the Ages: An Analysis of Neoclassicism and Romanticism

A Cultural Battle for the Ages An Analysis of Neoclassicism and Romanticism


Any hard and fast lists to illustrate the differences between Neoclassicism and Romanticism is doomed to fail and be ripped horribly to shreds by art and literature critics. Rather it is more prudent to analyze each movement in turn as well as the overriding approach to each movement. There we are able to see the differences in approach and theory far better than a generated list. Both movements had far-reaching influence not only in the visual arts but literature as well.

There has been a tendency to oversimplify the two movements as been directly opposed to one another. Even in my title, I allude to this oversimplification. However, particularly in the realm of visual art, Neoclassicism, as will be seen below, directly influenced painters that formed part of the Romantic Movement. Both movements had to a large extent still have an influence on modern culture and Western culture in particular.


Neoclassicism has been regarded by many as the predominant movement in European art and architecture during the late 18th century and early 19th century (Visual Arts Cork n.d.). There is still much debate over the exact dates of the movement but it can broadly be seen to be from 1750 – 1860 with neoclassical architecture predating the art movement by nearly a century, beginning in 1640. Interestingly the Augustan or Neoclassical literary tradition also predates the art movement, beginning in 1690 – 1744, round the death of Alexander Pope (Nestvold n.d.).

The movement gained traction as a result of three contributing factors, those being:

  • The works and though of Johann Winkelman who was a thinker, art historian, and archaeologist. He was a great admirer of Greek art and in particular sculpture and architecture. His works on the subject have been seen by many critics as the single greatest instigator of the neoclassical movement.
  • The newly discovered ruins of Pompeii in Italy and Herculanean in Greece, which helped help excite the revival of Greek and Roman thought and art (Gontar 2003)
  • Students and those wealthy enough to travel embarked on what was to be known as the Grand Tour (Gontar 2003). This was a trip for the intended purpose of studying artworks and architecture of antiquity with an emphasis on locations as well as studios in Italy and ruins in Greece. Thus exposing more, although wealthy, to the wonders of the ancient world.

Not only did these factors assist in the general revival of Greek and Roman culture but also influenced the thought and philosophy of the day. The principles of order, reason and simplicity were adopted by 18th-century artists and thinkers. These principles were in essence similar to the philosophers of the time and thus adopted. This age became known as the Age of Enlightenment where human reason and moral order would be the highest good in society or at least regarded by the heavy hitters of philosophy like Emmanuel Kant.

Neoclassicism in the Visual Arts

The neoclassical style within the arts arose directly from first-hand study and reproduction of famous works from ancient Greece and Rome (Gontar 2003). At the core of Neoclassical art was what was essential to become an ethical consideration. That being, they believed that strong drawing was rational, that art should be cerebral and not sensual, and that adherence to this would not only be aesthetically pleasing but morally better (Gersh – Nesic n.d.). The neoclassical style was opposed to the rococo style that preceded it which can appear quite over the top and gaudy to modern tastes and definitely gaudy when compared to Neoclassicism’s pursuit of simplicity.

One of the movement’s key exponents was Jacque-Louis David who “…preferred the well-delineated form – clear drawing and modeling (shading). Drawing was considered more important than painting. The neoclassical surface had to look perfectly smooth – no evidence of brush strokes should be discernible to the naked eye.”(Gersh – Nesic n.d.). In general, Neoclassicism works could summarized as having the following characteristics: they were serious, unemotional and heroic (Visual Arts Cork n.d.). They used somber colors to convey a moral narrative defined by self-sacrifice and self-denial (Visual Arts Cork n.d). These ethical considerations which were mirrored in antiquity found common ground in the Age of Enlightenment.

Neoclassicism in Literature

Often referred to as the Augustan Age, Neoclassicism in literature resulted from a self-conscious imitation of the Augustan writers of old, Virgil and Horace (Nestvold n.d.). Augustan writers despite imitating the forms used by Homer, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace sought to strive for harmony, balance, and precision in their own works. Often incorporating the heroic couplet and satire as stylistic devices to better achieve their aims (Nestvold n.d.).

Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Dafoe are seen by many, particularly in English literature, as the main contributors to the movement. Interestingly this movement help usher in the form of the novel that we would recognize as such today. An important characteristic of Augustan writers is their view on nature. Their view on Nature was a revival of classical theory in the sense that nature could be understood as “a rational and comprehensible moral order in the universe, demonstrating God’s providential design.”(Nestvold n.d.). Put differently and far more poetically using Pope’s words:

“Those rules of old discovered, not devised

Are nature still, but nature methodised,” (Nestvold n.d.)

As we will see below this view of nature is in stark contrast to the Romantics with their wild and spiritualized view on nature.


Romanticism is a term used to loosely describe changes within the art from roughly 1760 – 1870. The changes can be seen as a direct reaction against the values of Neoclassicism. In terms of solely personal temperament, some critics have argued that romanticism always existed (Visual Arts Cork n.d.). In general, it can be argued that the Romantic Movement emphasized the personal, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the spontaneous, the emotional and, visionary or transcendental works of art (Visual Arts Cork n.d.). Generally the opposite of what those who subscribed to Neoclassicism espoused as values.

It was first writers and poets who gave the initial expression to Romantic ideas; while painters latter garnered inspiration from the poets and writers. Both art forms agreed that it was the experience of profound inner emotion that served as an inspiration to artistic endeavor (All Art n.d).

Romanticism in the Visual Arts

As has been mentioned above, Romanticism emerged as a response to the disillusionment with neoclassical values. However, rather ironically many of the artists who would become known as Romantic painters studied in David’s studio (Galitz 2004). This led to a blurring of stylistic boundaries, between Romanticism and Neoclassicism, and ultimately resulted in Igres’ Apotheosis of Homer. Seen as a romantic classic it most definitely was influenced by Neoclassicism. Despite the influence, what is prominent in the work is Igres’ originality, a core concept of Romanticism (Galitz 2004).

As with Neoclassicism, nature was a dominant theme in Romanticism. However, nature was viewed as an uncontrollable power, which was unpredictable and can result in cataclysmic extremes. Often in British and French painting of the time, there is a recurrence of images depicting shipwrecks. This depiction came to symbolize man struggle against nature (Gaylitz 2004). Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa is an excellent example of this. Not all the Romantics had this view of nature John Constable often idealized nature, however, it was his own personal view of nature that showed his individuality that displayed a central tenet of Romanticism. That being the artist’s imagination (Galitz 2004).

Romanticism in Literature

Romanticism in literature was a movement that covered so many styles, themes, and content that it has caused much disagreement and confusion as to its defining principles (Rash 2011). Although in general Romanticism in literature is concerned with the individual and the individual’s imagination rather than society as a whole. Early Romantics also yearned for simpler times, particularly in Britain where the industrial revolution had just begun, which resulted in writers believing they had a stronger connection to medievalism and mythologies like King Arthur (Rash 2011).

This ultimately resulted in a loosening of rules regarding artistic expression. Which in turn resulted in experimentation in different poetic styles (Rash 2011). One of the most influential romantic writers was William Blake. It can be argued he was before his time in many respects. He was a talented poet, artist and, engraver who came to embody many of the core beliefs of Romanticism. In his poetry, he replaced the high-flown language of older poets with language that emphasized natural cadence and verbiage. This produced a rhythmic style not solely dependent on rhyming (Rash 2011). This displays the Romantics willingness to experiment with poetic devices in order to better achieve their individual goals.


As we have seen from the above discussion both movements had significant roles to play within their respective time frames. However, with the assistance of history, we can see the differences and similarities and how those have influenced other movements. It is often easy to generalize their differences and make it seem that the two movements above were at war with one another. The truth is far more complex as one movement couldn’t have existed without the other. Different approaches exhibited by the two movements have undoubtedly colored human endeavor for the better.

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References :

[0]All Art. No Date. Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Retrieved from http://www.all-art.org/history356.html

[1]Galitz, K. 2004. Romanticism. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roma/hd_roma.htm

[2]Gersh – Nesic, B. No Date. Neoclassicism, an introduction. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/a/neoclassicism-an-introduction

[3]Gontar, C. 2003. Neoclassicism. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/neoc_1/hd_neoc_1.htm

[4]Nestvold, R. No Date. The Augustan Age. Retrieved from http://www.ruthnestvold.com/Augustan.htm

[5]Rash, J. 2011. Romanticism. Retrieved from http://www.online-literature.com/periods/romanticism.php

[6]Visual Arts Cork. No Date. Neoclassical Art (Flourished 1770-1830). Retrieved from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/neo-classical.htm

[7]Visual Arts Cork. No Date. Romantic Art Style (c.1770-1920). Retrieved from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/romanticism.htm


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