Neoclassicism and realism are two prominent art styles that respectively emerged during the 18th and 19th century. This sample essay explains how both styles were mutually inspired by the emphasis on rationality during the Enlightenment Era, the styles differ in terms of the subjects they embrace.
Neoclassical and Realist Styles in the Visual Arts
An analysis of the works of neoclassicist painter Jaque-Louis David and realist painter Gustave Courbet demonstrates the contrasting elements that define these two styles. While neoclassicism appealed to the interests of elite members of European society and appealing to idealism, realism allowed for the emergence of modern art forms by portraying common subjects and rejecting romanticism in the arts.
Neoclassicism refers to an artistic style that emerged in Western Europe during the Enlightenment Period of the mid-eighteenth century. Neoclassicism art refers to works of art that adopt the subjects and styles that were prominent in ancient art (Kleiner, 2009, p. 766). The style borrows from classicism, which originated in Greece between the years 480 BCE and 323 BCE (Stokstad & Cothren, 2011, p. 119). A primary characteristics of Greek classical art is its focus on humanism, rationalism, and idealism (2011, p. 119).
Further, classical art held that man was the measure of all things, thus the human form was featured prominently in classical works (2011, p. 119). Further, because the Romans borrowed heavily from preceding Greek styles, the term classicism similarly refers to the artistic styles of the Romans (2011, p. 124). Thus, neoclassicism can be defined as a revival of ancient Greek and Roman styles and motifs in art.
Urbanization and the rise of the middle class are among the social trends that contributed to neoclassicism. Neoclassical style emerged during the mid-eighteenth century Enlightenment Period and appealed to the taste of the rising middle class elite who shared artistic tastes with the nobility (Hunt, 2009, p. 600). Between 1750 and 1800, rapid urbanization led to the concentration of a growing middle class in industrial centers (2009, p. 601).
Though classical art traditionally appealed to elite segments of society, it gained rapid currency as the rising middle class of the Enlightenment sought to copy many of the social trends embraced by the aristocracy (2009, p. 601). Because of they lived closer together in urban centers, the middle class and nobles spent more time together in Masonic lodges and other social clubs that sought to create fellowship (2009, p. 601). These expanded social bonds made elite artistic preferences more accessible to the public.
Increased middle class
Further, the increased expendable income of the middle class enabled them to seek recreation that fostered their tastes for classical arts. During the period, professional middle class individuals and nobles took extended trips, known as Grand Tours, to Greece and Italy to visit cultural sites, which strengthened their appreciation for neoclassical themes (2009, p. 600). Prior to the period, the ability to enjoy original classical works would have been out of reach to the wider public and would have remained an exclusive privilege of the elite.
Further, middle-class proponents of the Enlightenment valued neoclassicism because it reflected the value of science and reason that dominated the period. Ideologically, the focus of neoclassical work on geometric harmony and civic values aligned with the emphasis on rationality during the Enlightenment (Kleiner, 2009, p. 766). Thus, neoclassicism was favored because it appealed to both the philosophical and social trends that emerged from the increased interaction between European aristocrats and non-titled citizens.
Realism emerged in Europe during the mid- to late-nineteenth century as a result of political and social trends of the period. While neoclassicism was noted for its focus on high-minded ideals and humanistic themes that sought to convey harmony and perfection, realism presented a starker portrayal of the world. As a movement that developed in France, realism extended the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality to incorporate a mechanical, scientific worldview into the arts (Kleiner, 2009, p. 798).
The emergence of realism can be attributed to the rise of philosophies that emphasized pragmatism and practicality over idealism. During the period, the emergence of realpolitik, which utilized power politics and violence to achieve political goals marked the political climate in central Europe (Hunt, 2009, p. 721).
Rather than fighting wars for the sake of nationalism or other romantic goals, leaders began to fight conquests to achieve the practical goals of unifying nations and acquiring territories. For example, Otto von Bismark adopted the tools of realpolitik to unify the German people through military conquest (2009, p. 721).
Further, social developments, such as the advent of Communism, caused intellectuals to critically examine the poor conditions of ordinary individuals in society (2009, p. 721). After a century of urbanization, rampant inequality and the poor economic conditions endured by the poor marked the European landscape (2009, p. 721).
Thus, from the perspective of realist artists, it was inappropriate for an artist faced with the poverty created by industrialism and the destruction caused by wars to gloss over the gritty elements of life in their arts. As artists began to focus on dreary elements of society, the abandoned the romantic themes that dominated previous styles and focused upon themes that sought to convey everyday subjects.
While there are several similarities between neoclassicism and realism, there are also significant points of departure. The main similarity between neoclassicism and realism is that they are both borne from the ideals of the Enlightenment. Neoclassicism reflects the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality through its use of perfect forms and geometrical patterns to convey order and harmony.
Similarly, realism prefers images that are in alignment with reason by emphasizing subjects that convey everyday themes that can be experienced through the senses. However, realism departs from neoclassicism by rejecting the desire to uphold idealism through the arts. While neoclassicism attempts to convey the world as it should be, realism attempts to convey the world as it is.
Rather than adopting the perfected forms that define neoclassical artwork, realist art features subjects that are highly flawed. Most significantly, realism appeals to the sensibilities of the ordinary while neoclassicism appealed to the tastes of the elites. Because of these key differences, realist style deviated from and differed dramatically from neoclassical style.
Painters Jaques-Louis David and Gustave Courbet respectively represent the main stylistic differences between neoclassical and realist art. In his 1784 oil on canvass painting Oath of Horatii, David encompasses the themes of neoclassicism to present a work of art that appeals to civic values. The painting portrays the image of Roman soldiers taking an oath upon their swords while their female family members are weeping and morning in the background.
The painting was first exhibited in Paris in 1785 and was welcomed as an embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution because of its emphasis on patriotism and sacrifice (Kleiner, 2011, p. 769). By focusing on history over the present, David idealizes the past and connects it to the values of contemporary French society.
Gustave Courbet demonstrates the contrast between the idealism of neoclassicism and the realistic approach of latter 19th century art. In his 1849 oil on canvass painting The Stone Breakers, Courbet portrays two workers breaking rocks in rural France (2011, p. 798). In the painting, one laborer is carrying a heavy stone while the other laborer in crushing the rocks with a pick ax (2011, p. 798). While David’s painting focuses upon a historical theme, Courbet portrays a scene from everyday life.
Further, while the colors in David’s painting include rich and vibrant hues, Courbet utilizes browns and dull grays to convey the landscape and his subjects. Further, in contrast to the elegant clothing of the Roman soldiers and the women in David’s painting, Courbet’s subjects are wearing tattered, dirty clothing. A contrast between the two paintings demonstrates the departure that realist artwork takes from appealing to the sensibilities of the elite by focusing upon the mundane elements of life.
While neoclassicism reflects styles are still included in the canon of great Western art, realism encompasses stylistic preferences that can be found in everyday art. Photography and film are among the artworks that similarly focus on ordinary life events and a focus on realism. Additionally, architectural styles that utilize advancements in engineering embody the emphasis on scientific achievement and rationality that realists embraced.
By enabling painters to examine everyday reality through a critical lens and adopt a scientific perspective in their works, realism increased the political and social utility of art. Rather than remaining a pursuit that could be actively enjoyed by the elite, realism enabled ordinary members of society to achieve representation through the arts. As a result, realism enabled the visual arts to remain relevant in the modern age.
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Kleiner, F.S. (2009). Gardner’s art through the ages: A global history (13th ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson Higher Education.
Stokstad, M., & Cothren, M.W. (2011). Art history (4th ed.). New York: Pearson.