The Development of Neoclassicism

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The Development of Neoclassicism

Reaction against the Rococo.

Even as fanciful patterns of Rococo decoration and architectural creation achieved great popularity in many wealthy circles throughout Europe, people began to react negatively toward the style. By 1750, many architects and patrons viewed the movement as corrupt and decadent, and began to embrace a broad, Neoclassical revival in place of the Rococo. The forces that inspired Neoclassicism arose from numerous intellectual, economic, and social sources. By the second half of the eighteenth century, though, a rising fascination with Antiquity is undeniable throughout Europe. One force that helped to create this fascination was the phenomenon of the Grand Tour, a circuit that intellectuals and wealthy cultivated men and women often made through Europe's main capitals. The Grand Tour was particularly popular among English elites, and during the eighteenth century it became an event that was seen as necessary to complete one's education. Many people published accounts of their tours, and as later cultural pilgrims imitated the tours of others who had gone before, the Grand Tour became increasingly formalized as a social convention. Of course, elites from throughout Europe had long visited the continent's major capitals, and since the Renaissance they had been especially anxious to make the journey to Italy. Whereas earlier generations of intellectuals had frequently wanted to witness firsthand the cultural achievements of Renaissance humanists and artists, however, refined society in the eighteenth century desired to see firsthand the power and austere beauty of the ancient ruins in Rome as well as other antique sites. For many, the city of Rome was the high point and often the culmination of the Grand Tour for its wealth of ancient monuments. Literary and historical works that celebrated the achievements of Antiquity had whetted tourists' appetites for these sights. In the English-speaking world the greatest of these works was Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1788; but, as elsewhere in Europe, Gibbon's superb statement of eighteenth-century classical history had long been preceded by a number of other works that treated life in the ancient world. At its foundation, this fascination with all things classical arose from a deeply felt desire to imitate the cultural greatness of Rome and Greece.

Study of Antiquity.

One important result of this fascination was the rise of archeology as a new discipline at the time. As a result of scholarly attention, the artifacts and buildings of the ancient world were subjected to a new, more detailed examination. A key figure in popularizing the achievements of ancient builders was Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778). During a forty-year career spent mostly in Rome, he fostered close contacts with many European architects and patrons who visited the city. Piranesi acquired an unparalleled understanding of ancient architecture through the studies he undertook at archeological digs in Italy, and he spread this knowledge through a series of skilled and undeniably beautiful etchings of ancient monuments. Later in his career he also shaped the course of European architecture by publishing a series of polemical works that advocated an eclectic and practical adoption of ancient designs. Piranesi's voluminous and archeologically informed knowledge of the ancient world placed him in a uniquely powerful position to influence the Neoclassical revival. In his written works, for instance, he argued that ancient design had been practical, adopting influences and practices from throughout the Mediterranean to fit the changing needs and circumstances of people. Such arguments shifted the terms of the debates that had long raged about ancient architecture. Piranesi rejected longstanding questions about whether the architecture of the Greeks had been superior to that of the Romans. Instead he celebrated the ancient monuments that existed in Italy from the time of the Etruscans as practical and well suited to the needs of each culture's own time. Implicit within this defense of classical architecture, though, was a criticism of the highly ornamental and decorative styles of building that flourished in many places in Europe at the time. In this way his writings and etchings undermined the popularity of Baroque and Rococo styles of ornamentation. Fascinated by the images he presented of historically accurate ancient buildings, patrons and designers began to emulate the simpler, less adorned styles of Antiquity.

Neoclassicism in France.

During the high tide of the Rococo's popularity in Paris, townhouses and public buildings in the city had continued to be constructed with restrained façades, and many of the elements of these structures had their origins in the classicism of the Renaissance. In the later years of Louis XV's reign, an increased severity and gravity became the rule in many of the royal projects undertaken in Paris as the new, more historically informed Neoclassicism spread through Europe. The reigning architects of the second half of the eighteenth century were Germain Soufflot (1713–1780) and Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698–1782). Soufflot was originally from Lyons, France's second largest city, where he designed a number of country houses and public buildings before moving to Paris in the 1750s. In 1755, work began on his designs for the Church of Ste.Geneviéve (now known as the Panthéon), although numerous problems plagued this church's completion and the structure remained unfinished until 1790. This building commemorated Louis XV's recovery from an illness after he made a vow to the saint. Constructed on a hill overlooking the Left Bank of the Seine, the church commands the site by virtue of its enormous classical dome. The structure's classicizing tendencies bear greater resemblance to the architecture of the High Renaissance than they do to the exuberant and more decorative style of the seventeenth-century French Baroque. Throughout the church Soufflot deployed the sophistication he had acquired in classical design while a student in Rome. The exterior and interior surfaces of the church are largely unadorned and its porticos might have appeared on public buildings constructed in the Roman forum. By contrast, Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698–1782) was a French-trained architect who became the palace architect at Versailles. During his tenure he completed many works of reorganization at the château for Louis XV, a monarch obsessed with achieving greater privacy in the mammoth spaces of the palace. While constantly involved in projects of remodeling at Versailles, Fontainebleau, and other royal residences, Gabriel also designed several buildings that were notable for their use of the new, more severe Neoclassicism. In Paris, Gabriel designed two new public buildings that faced the Place Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde), then just west of the Tuileries Palace. While consonant with the façades that had been constructed for the nearby Louvre in the seventeenth century, Gabriel included details more in keeping with ancient than Baroque architecture. His colonnades, for instance, are comprised of rows of single, rather than paired columns, and the culminating pavilions of these buildings are each crowned with a pediment, rather than the elongated and solitary structure that stretched over the east façade of the Louvre.

Petit Trianon.

At about the same time Gabriel was completing plans for the buildings of the Place Louis XV, he was also creating his great masterpiece, the Petit Trianon at Versailles. He built this small retreat on the fringes of the garden of the Grand Trianon, the much larger haven that Louis XIV had built to escape Versaille's formality. This was one of the most notable buildings of the eighteenth century because its scale and layout very much resembled that of modern houses. In this relatively small house, Gabriel improved upon the Rococo's techniques for providing families with greater privacy. Built as a hideaway for the king and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, the building's small scale and perfection of decoration made it a fitting tribute to Pompadour, who avidly supported the Neoclassical style's development in France. With her banishment from court and the death of Louis XV, the property became a favorite retreat of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who found the structure's informality more attractive than the vast and cold spaces of nearby Versailles. The queen likely admired the structure because its use of space was completely different than most of the royal residences of the time. In his design Gabriel combined all the functions and spaces necessary for a nuclear family to live in relative quiet and seclusion. On the ground floor he located the kitchens and other facilities necessary to support the family, who lived above. On that upper story the bedchambers and bathrooms were segregated to one side, while the more sober drawing and dining rooms were found at the opposite end. All rooms offered attractive vistas into the gardens below. Relying on this logic of seclusion and privacy, a logic that had now intensified even from the time of Rococo interiors, Gabriel created a space that Marie-Antoinette prized because it afforded her the opportunity to control how much access visitors had to her inner sanctum. The house, for instance, was too small to provide accommodations for her ladies-in-waiting, who had to return to their rooms in nearby Versailles at the end of their visits with her.


introduction: The fashion for intimate interiors in the first half of the eighteenth century gave rise in later years to an intensified demand for small, private spaces that provided a focus for family life. Many members of the royal family and the court rejected life at Versailles in favor of newer and smaller-scaled residences. These houses were nevertheless decorated with sumptuous interiors, but at the same time they offered natural gardens and interiors constructed on a human scale. In the later years of her short reign as queen of France, Marie-Antoinette all but abandoned the great Palace of Versailles, and instead took up residence with her children in the Petit Trianon at the far reaches of the château's gardens. The queen's isolation attracted great controversy as rumors circulated that orgiastic parties occurred there. After the queen's execution, Madame Campan, a member of her aristocratic inner circle, tried to put to rest these rumors by reminiscing in her memoirs about Marie-Antoinette's intensely private family life in the small spaces of the Petit Trianon.

The king, always attentive to the comfort of his family, gave Mesdames, his aunts the use of Château de Bellevue, and afterwards purchased the Princess de Guéménée's house at the entrance to Paris for Elisabeth [Louis XVI's sister]. The Comtesse de Provence bought a small house at Montreuil; Monsieur already had Brunoy; the Comtesse d'Artois built Bagatelle; Versailles became, in the estimation of all the royal family, the least agreeable of residences. They only fancied themselves at home in the plainest houses, surrounded by English gardens, where they better enjoyed the beauties of nature. The taste for cascades and statues was entirely past.

The Queen occasionally remained a whole month at Petit Trianon, and had established there all the ways of life in a château. She entered the sitting-room without driving the ladies from their pianoforte or embroidery. The gentlemen continued their billiards or backgammon without suffering her presence to interrupt them. There was but little room in the small Château of Trianon. Madame Elisabeth accompanied the Queen there, but the ladies of honour and ladies of the palace had no establishment at Trianon. When invited by the Queen, they came from Versailles to dinner. The King and Princes came regularly to sup. A white gown, a gauze kerchief, and a straw hat were the uniform dress of the Princesses. Examining all the manufactories of the hamlet, seeing the cows milked, and fishing in the lake delighted the Queen; and every year she showed increased aversion to the pompous excursions to Marly [a country retreat originally built by Louis XIV].

source: Jeanne Louise Henriette Campan, Mémoires of Madam Campan. Vol. 1 (Paris and Boston: Grolier Society, 1890): 266–268.

Neoclassicism in England.

While Italian and French contributions to the classical revival were considerable, it was in England that the new style developed most decidedly. During the course of the eighteenth century, England exercised a powerful influence over intellectual life and fashions throughout Europe. The country acquired a role similar to that which France had played in the seventeenth century. In continental Europe the philosophers of the Enlightenment celebrated the genius of English constitutional government, seeing in it a system that provided greater freedom and that consequently fostered human ingenuity and creativity. Under the Hanoverian kings, limited monarchs who came to England from Germany, the country entered an era of undeniable prosperity. London became Europe's largest city, and England's trade contacts stretched to the furthest reaches of the globe. Although the groundwork for these transformations had been laid in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rapid growth and change characterized the eighteenth century. The period became known for its many cultural achievements. In art, literature, and architecture, it is often called England's Augustan Age, a term that calls attention to the undeniable greatness of works produced at this time, but also to their self-conscious emulation of ancient Rome.

Classical Influences.

England offered one of Europe's most receptive climates for the development of Neoclassicism for a variety of reasons. Its Baroque architecture, crafted by figures like Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, had included many important classical elements, while the suave elegance of the Rococo had made few inroads into English palaces and houses. Thus, as English designers tried to recapture an archeologically correct classicism in the second half of the eighteenth century they had less ground to cover than many of their continental counterparts. The country's economic growth created a ready class of consumers, aristocrats, gentlemen farmers, merchants, and—as the century progressed—new industrialists who were anxious to surround themselves with stylish buildings. The most visible testimonies to England's economic expansion at the time were in the countryside and in London. In rural England a boom in the construction of country homes hit soon after 1700. As new fortunes multiplied, and as older money became enriched by investment in the new ventures the age offered, England became a land filled with hundreds of country estates. At the same time, London acquired ever more the character of a metropolis. During the early eighteenth century, a characteristic pattern of development emerged in the city, particularly on its western fringes. In Piccadilly, Mayfair, Marylebone, and other once outlying suburbs, handsome new squares filled in with rows of attractive and harmonious Georgian townhouses became a noted feature. In this regard the aristocratic architect Robert Boyle, the third earl of Burlington, did much to impress a Palladian identity on the city in the eighteenth century. Born in 1694, he made his Grand Tour in 1714, returning home with over 870 pieces of luggage filled with Roman antiquities, drawings from the hands of Palladio, and other souvenirs of his journey. While in northern Italy, the grace of Palladian architecture captivated him, and back in London he decided to use the style in the construction of Burlington House in affluent Piccadilly. In the years that followed, he trained himself as an architect, acquiring a following among the country's aristocracy. He constructed his own country seat at Chiswick House, just outside London, during the 1720s, and made use of Palladio's own famous plans for the Villa Rotonda, near Vicenza in northern Italy. He crowned the simple, yet cubicle mass with a dome, and the structure did much to popularize Palladian architecture among English aristocrats. Elements of its design were frequently copied in the English-speaking world, most notably by Thomas Jefferson who used the designs of both Villa Rotonda and Chiswick House to inform his Monticello on the American frontier. Burlington's architecture, like that of James Gibbs and other architects then active on the scene in London, was important in establishing a taste for classicism. Although the buildings produced in this first wave of Palladian classicism were not highly original, they had the great advantage of creating undeniably attractive public thoroughfares and squares. The Palladian Revival of the early eighteenth century also laid the groundwork for the more thoroughly classical architecture that became popular throughout Britain in the second half of the century.

Change in Direction.

The significance of the changes in English architecture during the eighteenth century can be gauged by comparing the monuments constructed around 1700 with those built just a few decades later. Blenheim Palace, begun in 1705, was the largest Baroque house ever built in England. This enormous structure at Woodstock just outside Oxford was constructed at great taxpayer expense to honor the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, for his recent military victories. Blenheim was to be both a country seat for Marlborough and a national monument at the same time that was worthy of the country's growing international reputation. Unfortunately, the public purse was not able to withstand the weight of Marlborough's ambition, requiring the duke to underwrite the building's completion. When Blenheim was finally finished, the building and its courtyards stretched over seven acres and the cost had reached almost £300,000, an astonishing figure at a time when most English families survived on less than £100 per year. Designed by the Baroque architect John Vanbrugh, Blenheim's exteriors and interiors made use of classical elements, but there is scarcely anything "classical" about the palace's feel. The massive facade, almost 500 feet wide, can scarcely be taken in in a single view. Its enormous colonnades dwarf the human form, and reveal the typically Baroque tendency to overawe viewers. In scale, Blenheim is similar to the great country palaces of the Habsburgs and the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, but its effect offers little of the charm of those palatial country retreats. It is a monument to ambition, both national and personal, and its Baroque, stage-like settings disregard all thoughts of attractive scale or comfort. Even at the time that Blenheim Palace was being completed in the 1720s, its era was already passing, and the designs seemed to the practicing architects at the time to be passé. Few of Blenheim's features found imitation in the decades that followed. Instead, the Palladian revival fueled the construction of more modest structures, built on a human scale, that, like their French Rococo counterparts, did much to offer families and their guests intimate spaces for domestic life and entertaining. The interiors of these structures might have seemed severe and unadorned to continental European visitors at the time, yet their undeniable elegance continues to captivate even today. The Palladian style's quick rise to popularity, too, is evident in the ways in which it was quickly adapted to transform, not only London and the English countryside, but growing towns like Philadelphia, New York, Edinburgh, and Dublin.

Robert Adam.

While Palladian-styled homes continued to be popular in England and the colonies, new waves of a more historically accurate Neoclassicism swept through the English-speaking world after 1750. Key figures in establishing the popularity of this style were Robert Adam (1728–1792) and William Chambers (1723–1796), the two greatest British architects of the later eighteenth century. Adam was a Scot who made his Grand Tour in 1754 and on his return set up shop as an architect in London. A cosmopolitanite, he was in touch with the best French and Italian architects of his day, and he applied his firsthand knowledge of the excavations underway in Italy to interiors and exteriors he created in England. When his younger brother James completed his Grand Tour in 1763, he joined his brother's firm in London, and the two established a successful partnership, catering to aristocratic and wealthy British clients. His remodelings and interior design work undertaken in country houses was particularly noteworthy, and in these he brilliantly used color and a chaste decoration. One of his masterpieces was a series of rooms he remodeled in Syon House, just outside London. The entrance hall he constructed there demonstrated his understanding of how Roman houses might have looked. He set about this space a series of brilliant copies of ancient sculptures. In fact, Adam's interiors were notable for their great restraint, while those of ancient Rome had been filled with decoration. Yet Adam's austerity captured the imagination of the age, and it was the vision that many continued to associate with Antiquity, a vision of spare white walls and reserved decoration. Although William Chambers (1723–1796) came from a Scottish family, he grew up in England and completed his Tour in 1749–1750. On that circuit he first undertook studies in Paris before moving on to Rome, where he came in contact with Giovanni Battista Piranesi. For a time he seems even to have lived in the Italian architect's studio. He set himself up in business in London just a few years before Adam, and soon received commissions from the crown. During the 1760s Chambers and Adam became the sole two architects within the Office of Works, the English body charged with completing commissions for the king. From this vantage point, both Chambers and Adam held an unusual degree of influence over building in England, not only for the government, but for wealthy aristocrats and merchants also. Like Adam, Chambers's remodeling work and designs for new London town-houses and country villas were widely popular among aristocrats and the wealthy. An important theorist, he edited Vitruvius Brittanicus, a mostly Palladian architectural handbook that had served as a textbook for the first wave of English classical designers of the early century. Chambers set down the plans for Kew Gardens, a pleasure garden popular with Londoners in the late eighteenth century, and for Somerset House, a classically inspired building purposely built to house various public records' offices. The structure still stands today as a repository and spans a large space between the River Thames and the Strand. Chambers's structures, like Adam's, were notable for their great restraint and severity of detailing.


Wend von Kalnein, Architecture in France in the Eighteenth Century. Trans. David Britt (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).

Antoine Picon, French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment. Trans. Martin Thom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

John Summerson, Architecture in England, 1530–1830 (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1991).

see also Visual Arts: Neoclassicism

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The Development of Neoclassicism

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The Development of Neoclassicism