"Classicism" derives from the term "classic". It not only refers to the blossoming of a style, but also to classical antiquity, which was regarded as exemplary because of its perfection. Thus, like the Renaissance, classicism made reference to the antique, posing the question to what extent the styles could be differentiated from one another.
In stylistic terms, the classical period lasted from 1750 to 1840, parallel to the socio-political transition from Absolutism to the Enlightenment. All-encompassing humanism was replaced by specialist knowledge; Art would now represent logic and clarity, and reflect morality and ethos. Artistic approaches became increasingly academic, and archaeology was first practised during this period. In 1738 Herculaneum was excavated, followed by Pompeii in 1748. The academic study of antique architecture resulted in a new interest in antique forms. The debate begun by Johann Joachim Winckelmann in 1755, which pitted Greek art against Roman, marked the beginning of the Greek revival. Comte de Caylus, endorsed Greek antiquity, which led Piranesi to respond in his tract "Le Magnificenze di Roma". His writings "Vedute di Roma" introduced Northern Europe to antique Roman monuments. Architecture was characterised by a revival of antique elements such as porticos, temple facades, and orders, which became part of the normal classical repertoire, as exemplified in Leo von Klenze’s Propyläen. Baroque and rococo’s playfulness was supplanted by what Winckelmann described as the "noble and silent grandeur" of classicism. Classicism became the official art of the French court, due to its socio-political associations, and classical architecture was used for representative purposes. This was exemplified in Chalgrin’s Arc de Triomphe, erected under Napoleon’s orders. Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Neue Wache in Berlin, which was inspired by Greek temple architecture.
This emerging rationalism could also be seen in the formal language of painting. Whilst the colour harmonies were cool and restrained, characters were silhouetted against backgrounds, and painterly values were rejected. Images were composed with a clear structure, geometry, and symmetry. Subjects included historical or mythological scenes in antique settings. Sculpture was similarly influenced by antiquity. The silhouettes of the subjects, often antique gods, were rendered in a linear way like the paintings, and were often block-like and rarely expansive. Artists used pure and precious materials such as marble and bronze. This academic and archaeological classicism developed into the very pure "revolutionary art" at the end of the century. The term had little to do with the French revolution, but rather referred to radical aesthetic changes. Thus Claude Nicolas Ledoux and Boullée’s tracts were characterised by strict geometrical architecture. Classicism was the official art of the French court, and its socio-political associations made it suitable for representative purposes. This was exemplified in Chalgrin’s Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon. Greek Temples inspired Schinkel’s Neue Wache in Berlin.
The main exponents of classicism included the groundbreaking architect, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-79) ,Robert Adam (1728-92), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Leo von Klenze and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Sculptors Antonio Canova (1757-1822) from Italy, Bert(h)el Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) from Denmark, Johann Gottfried Schadow (1764-1850) and his student Christian Daniel Rauch (1777-1857); Painters Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) from France.