HISTORY OF PAINTING: Classicism, Artists of Balance and Unity

Godward-In the Days of Sappho-1904
In the days of Sappho John William Godward Getty
Centre Los Angeles, California, USA Oil on Canvas

What we mean when we use the word ‘classism’ or say the classical? We generally mean that it is belonging to the past, a remote past, perhaps. You are half right. Yes, the classism theory of art is about the art done in past. But it is not all. The main elements are the values the artists were required to follow and maintain the standard of styles used in past. Classism refers to these elements.

In the world of the arts, classicism has specific regard. The word itself signifies the preservation of traditions and high respect for past excellences. In a civilised society, once the standards about values and attitude towards life are set, then the advanced people want to keep the set of those values intact, unaltered. You know, progressiveness is a hard pill to swallow. But that is how the human mind behaves in most cases. Thus when the values of the past are followed in any art, the same is termed as the act of classicism.  

The post classicism period is termed as neo-classical age, too. Here in this article, the focus would be on the paintings done during the period which is known as influenced by the concept of classicism.

What is Classical Painting:   Let us examine what makes an art piece a classicism work. What possible features the art carries to be stamped as classical art. In its broader perspective, the following features would be clearly visible as the hallmark. 

  • The art of classical nature would be carrying harmony in its form and appearance. The things depicted would look in agreement with each other, as if they are notes of a single song.
  • When we see a painting, and we found a sense of balance in the entire work, it is an important feature of classicism art.  Harmony would be the proper word. The excellence would radiate from the balanced proportions of the objected painted in the art.      
  • It is about how the artist himself or herself has treated the subject he or she has painted. If it is painted with keeping the self-emotion at a neutral level, the finished product would be a classical work. 

Jean Corot: Perspective Painting Space and Fleeting Effects

Gathering Primroses Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
National Gallery of Scotland

Theme: How to Create Effects of Space and Transitory Factors like Light and Seasons in Landscape Paintings

When an artist takes his or her brushes and stands before canvass for painting a landscape, he or she keeps a definite clue about the scene in mind. The artists love nature and show it by painting.

While painting a landscape the pivotal issue is how to depict the feeling of space. It is not a design where the viewers would be looking for flat surfaces of trees and mountains and rocks. They would expect the feeling that they are standing before the objects painted on canvas; they would love to feel the essence of a scene, its depth, its volume, and its climate. The landscape painters keep all these factors in their mind; they would follow all the conventions.

The sketches, the colours in all the hues, and the possibilities of endless tonal values: these would be the raw material at the artist’s disposal. Here in the above neoclassical painting, the French artist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot has tried creating the real feel of the atmosphere. By keeping the focal point at a long distance, he had succeeded in creating a sense of depth in the painting. The brightness and tonal values of the browns in the foreground, then the eye-catching green, and finally the neat blue creates a strong sense of space. While looking at the painting, from a distance, we can see the aerial space embedded in the canvas.

Nicolas Poussin: Painting Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter


Autumn from the Four Seasons Nicolas Poussin
Oil on Canvas, Louvre Museum, Paris, France

We look at the landscape paintings hanging on the walls of the museum displayed in the galleries as art lovers or as artists. We love to see the masterpieces painting which the artists had invested their lifetime labour. These beautiful landscapes on the walls of art galleries tell us the stories of the time and the challenges the painters might have faced while executing the paintings.

If we explore the beauties of the paintings further, we can enrich our knowledge of the art of painting in general and the landscape painting in particular. And we would certainly enjoy the art in the newer perspectives. Understanding these beautiful landscape paintings would be a journey on the land of various aspects, which had been active for making a particular piece of art alive on the earth.

An expert artist, aspiring to make an immediate place for the artwork in the hearts of the viewers, would focus on the foreground. He or she would make the foreground, the area of near vicinity, a richly painted region. By putting emphasis on the foreground, the artist creates a sense of space in the mind of the viewers, leading their eyes to travel further and further. The existence of light and the colours of the sky, with or without clouds, would create the feeling of those transitory aspects. The arrangement of trees, farms,  flowing rivers, and mountains help to create a sense of recession. In aggregate, all these factors would lead the viewers to conceive the whole scene, feel themselves within the same, and get enjoyed. 

While looking at the epoch-making landscape paintings by the master artists like Constable and Nicolas Poussin, we can have an idea about the changing themes for painting these artworks. On scrutinising the ongoing changes in the themes and subjects of these landscape paintings, we would understand these artworks in a better way and with enhanced enjoyment of art.

When an artist looks at nature, the wide areas of the landscape, he or she tries to find out the unity and harmony embedded in the scene. They see the flow of rives and the height of the mountain peaks; they saw the brightness of sunlight flooding on the land; they see the ever-changing moods of the sky. The artists enjoy the scene themselves and with a noble desire to let the others enjoy the same, they use their artistic skills of landscape paintings and paint the artwork.

These beautiful landscapes are like the statement that the artists have made on seeing the serene beauty of the mother earth. These landscape paintings are like the reproduction of the dialogue that had occurred between the artists and the beauty of the scene he had painted.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps
Jacques-Louis David

It is believed that history is the collection of chaotic moments of the past life of the human race; whereas the history of art collects the most beautiful moments the human race has seen till the day. We can have proof of that concept when we look at the paintings done under the style of classicism. Here the master artist Lacques  Lous David has painted Napoleon crossing the Alps mountains. We can see the three great things here: firstly the excellently painted landscape, secondly the striking movement of the horse, and lastly the Napoleon. 

When we think about classicism, we refer to the forms of literature and art, which were prevalent in the Roman Empire and in ancient Greece. We offer thinking on the characteristics of art and literature, especially while talking about the art movement known as classicism. All the arts adhering to the principles of ‘Classicism’ are thought together. 

The artists who followed this movement of art (1600 to 1800 AD) had set a standard for the taste keeping their paintings circumscribed informally and restrained within the boundary of the 'set rules'. This had assisted them to have balance and unity in their artistic representations. Classicism was a guiding force, stimulating the minds of medieval European artists more aesthetically.

Though the word 'Classicism' refers to the paintings done with the influence of the Roman Empire and ancient Greece, it also refers to the art that passes the test of high excellency and noble artistic qualities depicted with the flair of conservatism. During these three centuries, the European arts have seen many other movements, but the taste of classicism had never subsided. Here are some of the master artists who have lived during this period of classicism and had contributed immensely, through their theories of art and artistic representations. [All the paintings are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons]

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