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Art & Theory in Baroque Europe
Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe


Although orthodox art history has treated classicism primarily as an innocuous stylistic concept, the term nonetheless carries considerable ideological weight. Since the Renaissance, classicism has become central to our thinking (conscious or subconscious), containing within it the highest aspirations of western civilization. The terms "classic", "classical", "classicism" have over time become associated with notions of truth, goodness, purity, cleanliness, rightness, correctness, restraint, control, morality, beauty, harmony, clarity, balance, symmetry, unity, proportion, elegance, order, structure, stability, reason, peace, repose, honor, dignity, valor, quality, excellence, timelessness, immutability, archetypal form, the heroic, the rational, the ideal, and ultimate perfection. They may also be associated with notions of tradition, orthodoxy, academic canons, conservative thinking, frigidity, patriarchy, patriotism, and the status quo.

  • Ancient Greece and Rome

    The words Classic, Classical, Classicism summon up first of all thoughts of ancient Greece and Rome. The art of 5th-century Greece perhaps comes first to mind; the architecture of the Parthenon, the sculpture of Phidias.

  • Classicism Reborn and Revived

    The "Classical" past was also something that was revived or "reborn", first in the Renaissance, achieving its purest form in the High Renaissance in the paintings of Raphael, re-emerging again in the 17th-century, at its height in the paintings of Poussin ("Baroque Classicism"), and yet again in the latter half of the 18th century, notably in the art of Jacques-Louis David ("Neo-classicism"). Recently, it has been argued that Classicism has been revived once more in the Postmodern period.

  • Classicism as a Stylistic Concept

    Like so many terms in Art History (e.g. Renaissance, Surrealism), "Classic" and "Classical" were originally applied to literature and although they were subsequently used to label the art of ancient Greece and Rome and the Renaissance, their usage in the visual arts dates only from the 17th century.

    Since the 17th century, the terms have undergone two distinct changes in meaning. A "classic" has come to be understood as meaning the best of its kind (Wölfflin uses it in this sense when he talks about the High Renaissance in his book Classic Art). "Classical", on the other hand, generally refers to the art of 5th-century Greece. However, according to conventional thinking, the art of 5th-century Greece is also "classic", representing the highest achievement in Greek art. The perception (using the idea of organic growth) is that out of the "seedling" time of the Archaic period, Greek art "flowered" in the Classical, only to "decay" in the Hellenistic. This notion of organic growth is also applied to later periods. The High Renaissance was a "flowering" followed by the decay of Mannerism and/or the Baroque. Classical Baroque decayed into the Rococo, Neo-classicism into Romanticism.

  • Classicism and Idealism

    The emergence of the philosophy of Neoplatonism in 15th-century Florence injected into contemporary thinking Plato's views on poetry and art, and his concept of Forms (Ideas). It came to be argued that classical artists had achieved perfection in their art by painting or sculpting not the imperfect world perceived through the senses, but Plato's immutable, eternal forms conceived in the mind. In the Renaissance and later periods, classical art was identified as the model that artists should study and attempt to emulate if they wished to perfect their art.

  • Classicism and the Academy

    With the founding of academies of Art, especially the French Academy in the 17th century, antique or classical art came to be established as the standard for all future achievement. The academies attempted to define classicism as the norm in art. Classicism thereby became closely associated with the Academy. The most influential academies were subject to if not directly supported by the state. Academic, or classicizing, art came to be linked thereby with the power structure and the power-relations of society. But this was arguably also true in 5th-century Athens and in Rome of the High Renaissance.

  • Classicism and Ideology

    Classicism carries with it a barely concealed structure of values that informs and underlies our factual statements. Associated with classicism are modes of feeling, valuing, perceiving and believing which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power. The values of classicism are those that the prevailing power structure wishes to maintain in society.

  • Classicism and Women

    Classicizing art also plays a role in the service of gender ideology, communicating ideas about social order through the representation of female sexuality. The themes and styles of classicism often function as a prescription for relationships between men and women. It has been observed that classicism mutes women, implying an unequal division of power between men and women. In the patriarchal tradition of classicism in the West, men and their values have been privileged. Classicism may be understood as a patriarchal device used to demonstrate the moral and physical superiority of the male over the female. More subtly, it has convinced women that it is possible, and indeed desirable, to become like men.

  • Classicism and Art History

    Orthodox art history as an academic discipline, having first constructed a "history of art" ostensibly along stylistic lines, has tended to chart that history largely in terms of the rising and falling of classicism. The "flowering" of classical art (to return to the organic model) in ancient Greece, and the subsequent rebirths and revivals of art similar to it (classicism) in later periods is in each case regarded as a high point in the history of art. In the final analysis, classicism is the ultimate achievement against which all other art is measured.


  • Classical Greece:
    • Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, New York, 1968. Art and Its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, ed. Stephen David Ross, Albany, 1984.
    • Moshe Barasch, Theories of Art from Plato to Winckelmann, New York, 1985.
    • Benjamin Rowland, The Classical Tradition in Western Art, Cambridge, Mass., 1963.
    • T. B. L. Webster, "Plato and Aristotle as Critics of Greek Art", Symbolae Osloenses, XXIX, 1952, pp. 8-23.
    • Pliny, Book XXXV, Natural History, Loeb Classical Library, vol. IX, trans. H. Rackham, Cambridge, Mass, 1952, p. 301ff.
  • Italian Renaissance:
    • Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, New York, 1968.
    • Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, Stockholm, 1960.
    • Leone Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture, ed. and trans. Cecil Grayson, London, 1972.
    • Moshe Barasch, Theories of Art from Plato to Winckelmann, New York, 1985.
    • Bialostocki, "The Renaissance Concept of Nature and Antiquity" in The Renaissance and Mannerism, Studies in Western Art, Acts of the Twentieth International Congress of the History of Art, Princeton, 1963, vol. II, pp. 19-30.
    • E. H. Gombrich, "The Renaissance Conception of Artistic Progress and its Consequences", in Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, London, 1971, p. 1-10.
    • Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. G. Du C. DeVere, vol. IV, London, 1913.
    • Anthony Blunt, Artistic Theory in Italy 1450-1600, Oxford, 1973
    • Benjamin Rowland, The Classical Tradition in Western Art, Cambridge, Mass., 1963.
    • Samuel Holt Monk, "A Grace Beyond the Reach of Art", Journal of the History of Ideas, V, 1944, pp. 131-150.
    • Rensselaer W. Lee, Ut Pictura Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting, New York, 1967.
    • David Summers, The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics, Cambridge, 1987.
    • Nicholas Pevsner, Academies of Art Past and Present, Cambridge, 1940
    • Paul Oskar Kristeller, "The Modern System of the Arts", in Art and Philosophy: Readings in Aesthetics, ed. W. E. Kennick, New York, 1979, pp. 7-33.
  • 17th- and 18th-century Europe:
    • Moshe Barasch, Theories of Art from Plato to Winckelmann, New York, 1985.
    • Benjamin Rowland, The Classical Tradition in Western Art, Cambridge, Mass., 1963.
    • Johann Joachim Winckelmann, On the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks (1755), in Winckelmann: Writings on Art, ed. David Irwin, London, 1972, pp. 61-75.
    • David, Ingres, in Nineteenth-Century Theories of Art, ed. Joshua C. Taylor, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 44-45.

© Christopher L. C.E. Witcombe