The Neoclassical movement lasted from the mid-18th until the end of the 19th century, and was a distinct movement that drew on the Western classical art of Ancient Greece and Rome. Beginning in earnest in 1760’s, it was a reactionary movement against the sensuousness and frivolousness of the Rococo and Baroque styles and a return to the ‘ideal’ of Ancient Greece and the ‘purity’ of Roman art. Unlike Baroque or Rococo, Neoclassical paintings are sharp in colour and employ chiaroscuro, which is the (usually bold) contrast between light and dark. Neoclassicism reached the height of its popularity in the 1780’s-1790’s and lasted into the 1850’s. Archaeological discoveries of the buried Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum gave a great impetus to the movement. Initially, neoclassic paintings were not as distinctly stylistically divergent from its preceding styles because there were few surviving classical paintings until the discovery of the buried Roman cities. Architecture and sculpture made a more distinct change as artists were more easily able to model their works on ancient prototypes.
In France in the 1780’s, Jacques-Louis David led a more rigorously Neoclassical style of painting, which was uncompromising and ruthlessly austere. Many French painters immediately preceding and during the French Revolution adopted from Roman history the moral subject matter and values of heroism, austerity and stoic virtue associated with the Roman republic, drawing parallels between that era and France’s struggle for liberty. Classical mythology and history were a large part of neoclassical subject matter. The most often used and important source was Homer, but Virgil, Sophocles, Pliny and Plutarch were also key classical influences. Artists strove to perfectly replicate costumes, settings and subject matter details from ancient times. Neoclassicism saw a brief resurgence between WWI and WWII in art, literature and philosophy, with one of the most notable Neo-classicists from that era being T.S. Eliot. In both the movement’s first appearance and its comeback, Neoclassicism emphasized the resurgence and respect of traditional ideals and art.