Classical Art Paintings: A Brief Introduction
The term classicism often appears in discussions of fine art. It’s something artists have taken inspiration from and rallied against since the dawn of “classical” civilizations themselves.
Nonetheless, it’s also an often misunderstood term that’s famously tricky to define. This brief introduction explains what classic oil paintings are and their defining characteristics. We’ll also examine five leading artists and their most famous classical paintings.
What does classicism mean in art?
The word “classicism” refers to art taking inspiration from ancient Greece or Rome.
This period of classical antiquity (lasting from the 8th century BC to the 6th century AD) saw the civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea flourish. They gained massive influence throughout Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa.
Starting with the epic Greek poetry of Homer, the period covers the rise of Christianity (in the 1st century AD) through to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It lasted until the decline of classical culture in the 6th century. The term includes many cultures and histories, supplying rich and varied artistic sources.
In terms of classical art paintings, the descriptions “classic” and “classical” appeared during the seventeenth century. Describing ancient Rome and Greece's arts, culture, and philosophy was a major inspiration for writers, thinkers, artists, and architects.
This style dominated western artistic production from the late Renaissance onwards. Indeed, classical mythology (the myths and tales of ancient Greco-Roman heroes and gods) became one of the most painted subjects.
What are the characteristics of classical paintings?
Classic oil paintings are usually associated with principles of restraint and harmony. This type of art emphasized obedience to accepted forms of composition, color, and technique. These standards were based on the art of ancient Greek and Rome, which classicists tried to emulate.
All artists in this genre shared a deep respect for the Greco-Roman world, often in a heavily idealized form. As the poet Edgar Allan Poe put it, artists celebrated the “glory that was Greece” and the “grandeur that was Rome.”
Indeed, classicism refers to an artistic canon of widely accepted “ideal forms” and their revival in western art. Emerging during the seventeenth century, classicism was particularly prevalent during the “Age of the Enlightenment.”
These developments started in the eighteenth century and continued into the early nineteenth century. The movement eventually gave way to more modern approaches such as impressionism and expressionism.
What are five characteristics of classicism?
In its simplest form, classicism refers to a philosophical and aesthetic outlook inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. While this applies to a wide variety of painting, architecture, and literature, it resulted in five essential characteristics:
- Restrained simplicity in color and form
- Muted or calm emotions and “ideal” bodies
- Strict proportions and perspectives
- An intellectual approach to art and architecture
- Clear compositions and narratives
Speaking of the Discobolus (an iconic Greek sculpture depicting a male athlete throwing a discus), the art historian Kenneth Clark remarked how its “restraint and compression” was fundamental to its appeal.
He described how violent emotion or rhythmic motion would destroy the principles of “balance and completeness.” It was only through these qualities, Clark argued, that classical artwork kept its “position of authority” through the centuries.
What makes a painting a classic?
What exactly makes a classic painting is famously tricky to define. Indeed, art historians vigorously debate the differences between movements such as classicism, neo-classicism, and academicism.
While many Renaissance old masters focused on Greco-Roman mythology (for instance, Leonardo da Vinci or Titian), these aren’t usually described as “classical” works. Instead, the Renaissance led to developments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when paintings became more formally classical.
This involved emphasizing structure, order, geometry, and the use of grids in painting—a new generation of rigorously disciplined painters stuck to the strict teaching of Europe’s prestigious art academies. The French King Louis XIV’s court was the center of this European classicism. Indeed, the grandeur of Versailles launched some of the finest painters of the era.
To better understand what makes a classic painting, however, it’s worthwhile exploring some of the most famous classical paintings themselves.
What is considered classical painting?
Here are five leading classical painters and their famous oil paintings:
1. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Nicolas Poussin created some of the most famous classical paintings of all time. He grew up in France but spent most of his working life in Rome. Almost all Nicolas Poussin paintings focus on religious and mythological narratives, painted for private commissions.
One of Poussin’s most celebrated works is Et in Arcadia Ego (also known as The Arcadian Shepherds). Four individuals stand around an austere tomb in a heavily stylized pastoral scene. It serves as a “memento mori” to the viewer that death remains even in the idyllic Arcadia.
As the founding father of classicism, Poussin inspired many later painters. This included Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and the post-impressionist Paul Cézanne.
2. Claude Lorrain (1600-1682)
A contemporary of Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain is another leading French classical and baroque painter. He also spent much of his working life in Italy, reflecting the commercial importance of Rome at the time.
Unlike Poussin’s strictly mythological works, Lorrain is notable for focusing on landscape. This was incredibly unusual at the time when the more prestigious genre of history painting usually took precedence.
Lorrain’s landscapes often contained small figures, adding extra meaning to his paintings. For instance, Sunrise and View of Delphi with a Procession transform rural views into moralizing, allegorical works.
3. Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
As a painter working in nineteenth-century France, Alexandre Cabanel heavily drew on the works of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Well-known as a portrait painter, Cabanel served as Napoleon III’s preferred artist.
Dedicated to the classical style, Cabanel produced many “L’art Pompier” works. Originating in the late nineteenth century, this (initially derisive) term refers to the large “official” academic canvases of the time.
While Cabanel produced several large history paintings, The Birth of Venus (1863) is his most famous work today. Displayed at the Paris Salon, Napoleon III immediately bought the work for his private collection.
Indeed, the painting’s sexuality combined with classical imagery was incredibly appealing. As one art critic put it, Cabanel’s Venus hovers halfway between “an ancient deity” and a “modern dream.”
4. William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Like Cabanel’s Venus, William-Adolphe Bouguereau is also known for his classic nude paintings. Bouguereau produced his own La Naissance de Venus (painted 1879). It shows Venus rising out of a seashell, surrounded by dolphins, fifteen putti (cherubs), and nymphs and centaurs.
Bouguereau often painted mythological subjects with a focus on the nude female body. Particularly popular in France and the United States, he was a famed Salon painter of the highest quality.
Because of this renown, Cabanel was reviled by the impressionist artists. Seen as increasingly old-fashioned, his classical art gradually fell out of favor towards the end of his life.
5. Pierre Auguste Cot (1837-1883)
As the last painter on this list, Pierre Auguste Cot produced some stunning classic oil paintings. He excelled in realistic portraiture and studied under Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Cot’s Salon debut came in 1863, and his popularity and prestige grew from that moment onwards. His artwork ( e.g., The Storm) often depicted romantic couples in idealized landscapes.
Most usually wearing classical garb, Cot’s carefully observed figures are the pinnacle of youthful beauty and love. As some of our most popular replica oil paintings, his reputation lives on today.
Who are the lesser-known Classical painters?
In addition to well-known French masters such as Poussin, Lorrain, and Cabanel, there were several other renowned Classical painters. This included artists such as Pierre Subleyras and Guillaume Seignac. While the movement influenced many artists around the globe, it was also particularly prevalent in the UK.
Here, painters such as William Clarke Wontner (a portrait painter steeped in romanticism and classicism) and John William Godward (a neo-classical protégé of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema) maintained the movement’s beautifully constructed compositions and astounding painterly skill.
Later artists such as Lord Frederick Leighton were also heavily influenced by the Greek and Roman world. This is particularly exemplified by his most-famous work Flaming June (1895).
Classic Oil Paintings: Fine Art Reproductions
If you love the restrained beauty of classical art, explore our extensive collection of the most famous classical paintings and artists. From the classic nude paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau to the thrilling landscapes of Claude Lorrain and mythological scenes of Nicolas Poussin, you’ll find museum quality oil painting on canvas to transform your space.