Neoclassical Sculpture – Greek/Roman Style Art: The Evolution

Cupid and Psyche; by Antonio Canova; 1794; plaster; overall: 134.6 × 151.1 × 81.3 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)


Neoclassicism was a Western cultural movement in the visual and decorative arts, music, theatre, literature, and design that drew inspiration from classical antiquity’s art and culture. Neoclassicism started in Rome largely thanks to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s writing at the time of the rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Still, its reputation spread all over Europe as different batches of European art completed finished their Grand Tour and came from Italy to their home nations with newly rediscovered Greco-Roman ideals. The central Neoclassical movement coincided with the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment and extended into the early 19th century, laterally competing with Romanticism.


If Neoclassical painting experienced a lack of ancient models, Neoclassical sculpture tended to experience an excess of them. However, examples of original Greek sculpture of the “classical period” starting in about 500 BCE were then very few highly regarded works were predominantly Roman copies. The principal Neoclassical sculptors savored significant reputations in their own day but are now less regarded, except Jean-Antoine Houdon, whose work was principally portraits, very often as busts, which do not surrender a strong impression of the sitter’s personality to philosophy. His signature style became more classical as his lengthy career continued and represented relatively smooth progress from Rococo appeal to classical dignity. Unlike some other weird Neoclassical sculptors, he did not surprisingly insist on his servants wearing a Roman dress or naked. He represented most of the notable figures of the Enlightenment and traveled to America to assemble a statue of George Washington, as well as busts of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other founders of the new land.

The Dane Bertel Thorvaldsen and Antonio Canova were both based in Rome, and as well as pictures produced many formidable life-size figures and groups; both described the heavily idealizing tendency in Neoclassical sculpture. Canova has a grace and lightness, where Thorvaldsen is more rigid; the difference is represented in their respective groups of the Three Graces. All these, and Flaxman, were still operating in the 1820s CE. Romanticism was slow to influence sculpture, where Neoclassicism’s versions remained the prevailing style for most of the 19th century CE.

An old Neoclassicist in sculpture was the popular Swede Johan Tobias Sergel. John Flaxman was also, or essentially, a sculptor, primarily producing seriously classical reliefs comparable in style to his prints; he also modeled and designed Neoclassical ceramics for Josiah Wedgwood for many years. Johann Gottfried Schadow and his boy Rudolph, one of the few Neoclassical artists to die young, were the chief German artists, with Franz Anton von Zauner from Austria. The late Baroque Austrian modeler Franz Xaver Messerschmidt moved to Neoclassicism in mid-career, shortly before he seems to have suffered some mental crisis, after which he retired to the farm and devoted himself to the highly distinctive “character heads” of bald figures pulling exaggerated facial expressions.

Like Piranesi’s Carceri, these fancied an excellent service of interest during the age of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century CE. The Dutch Neoclassical carver Mathieu Kessels studied with Thorvaldsen and worked almost solely in Rome.

Since before the 1830s CE, the United States did not have a carving tradition of its own, save in the areas of weathervanes, tombstones, and ship figureheads, the European Neoclassical manner was fostered there, and it was to hold sway for decades and is illustrated in the sculptures of Harriet Hosmer, Horatio Greenough, Randolph Rogers, Hiram Powers, and William Rinehart.

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