Classical Painting

The themes in classicist painting and sculpture are often derived from ancient history and mythology and are sometimes moralistic or heroic in nature. In Italy, the followers of the great Renaissance painters, as well as the Caravaggists, can be counted among the classicists, such as Salvator Rosa and, somewhat later, the graphic artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Veduta di Piazza Navona sopra le rovine del Circo Agonale.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Veduta di Piazza Navona sopra le rovine del Circo Agonale.
Salvator Rosa - Marina del Porto.
Salvator Rosa - Marina del Porto.

Definition of Classical Painting

Generally speaking, in the history of painting, Classicism can be understood in at least two main ways:

  1. as a metahistorical category and understood 'in the broadest sense', classical painting becomes synonymous with academic painting, which is based above all on realism and figuration, and depicts things in a supposedly objective, traditional6 and even somewhat mawkish manner, and does not seek to provoke scandal at any cost. This meaning is generally quite depreciatory.
  2. As a historical category and understood in a restricted sense, classical painting is an artistic movement that is opposed to the Baroque movement, whether in terms of workmanship, composition or the subjects favoured. After the excesses of Mannerism, a number of painters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries decided to return to a kind of order and wished to rediscover the balance9 and perfection achieved by the artists of antiquity and rediscovered by the painters of the late Renaissance.

Characteristics of Classical Painting

Classical painting was based mainly on the work of Raphael, who would remain the reference. It tends towards an ideal of perfection and beauty, through noble subjects, preferably inspired by antiquity or Greco-Latin mythology such as heroic figures, victories or the purity of women.

Classical painters sought to symbolise the triumph of reason over the disorder of the passions: composition and drawing had to take precedence over colour, the concept over the seduction of the senses. For this reason, the representation of nature must be based on precise and strict rules. The composition is therefore almost always symmetrical or - at least - balanced, and the figures are always reduced to smaller proportions and depicted in full-length, with the out-of-frame being virtually banished. On the other hand, the decor, and especially nature, must reflect the main subject, echoing it by taking up the same themes.

Classical painting leads to meditation and studies the new masters to express morality and, moreover, drama. The triumphal processions occupy a large place, as well as the subjects that exalt noble feelings.

Two Artistic Reactions

In the period between 1770 and 1840, classicism replaced the baroque. Art and architecture wanted to be highlighted more strongly than in the late Baroque. Works of Classicism mainly dealt with idealised subjects and the content was based on the Italian Renaissance. The emotional world of the Rococo was replaced by the reason and enlightenment of this era. For art and architecture, this meant a clear sharpening of content, form and colour.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who designed the Royal Oberland as the architect in charge, was an outstanding classical architect and artist who shaped classicism with images of both North and East German cityscapes.

This style of art was also replaced by another counter movement. Romanticism brought a new composition of styles from antiquity and brought feelings, passion and individuality into life and art.

Representatives of Classical Painting

Among the greatest representatives of classical painting were a large number of French painters, the movement having a considerable influence in the country thanks to the predominance of classicism in architecture during the reign of Louis XIV. These include Philippe de Champaigne, Nicolas Poussin and Charles Le Brun.

In France, Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Philippe de Champaigne, Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy and Charles Le Brun were the best-known classicists.

In The Netherlands, Gerard van Honthorst, Gerard Seghers and Gerard de Lairesse can be counted among the classicists. Some paintings by the architect Pieter Post are also known.

Gerrit van Honthorst - De Koppelaarster.
Gerrit van Honthorst - De Koppelaarster.
Nicolas Poussin - Jupiter enfant nourri par la chèvre Amalthée.
Nicolas Poussin - Jupiter enfant nourri par la chèvre Amalthée.


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Andrea Palladio
Classical Antiquity
Classical Period
Dutch Classicism
Literary Classicism


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This page was last changed on 2021-09-21.