Neoclassicism: The Philhellenic Art Movement that Revived the Hellenic Spirit

Why are there so many buildings that resemble ancient Greek temples in Europe? And why do so many artists from the Romantic era depict ancient Greek mythological characters in their sculptures and paintings?

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The Movement of Neoclassicism/ Hellenism

If you have ever visited some of the major cities of Europe, such as Paris, Vienna, Munich, and Brussels, you might have noticed some 18th and 19th century buildings that are clearly inspired by the simplicity and symmetry of Classical Athens’ architecture. You might have visited the Orsay Museum in Paris and noticed a collection of artworks from that same period that depict characters from ancient Greek mythology. Maybe you have heard of cities named Athens in the United States of America and Canada and of secret societies communicating in ancient Greek in American Universities.

This movement in art and architecture is called “Hellenism”, “Neoclassicism”, or “Neoclassical Hellenism”. These terms were introduced during the Romantic era (18th and 19th Century Europe) by the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. It was a time when noble Europeans would study the political and philosophical ideas of Classical Athens, often romanticizing the era.

With Hellenism, “Philhellenism” was born: a love and admiration for the living descendants of ancient Greeks, who lived under the Ottoman rule. Philhellenes played a crucial role in reviving the Hellenic (Greek) spirit and encouraging the enslaved Greeks of the Ottoman Empire  to create a national identity and fight for their independence.

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Neoclassicism in Art

Helinika has gathered a collection of artworks and buildingsthat were inspired by the Neoclassical movement.

Psyche Revived by the Kiss of Love, Antonio Canova

By Kimberly Vardeman – Flickr: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, CC BY 2.0

Italian artist Antonio Canova is behind the masterpiece of Neoclassical sculpture named “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”. The sculpture respresents the god Eros (Cupid) kissing and reviving Psyche (Soul). The sculpture was inspired by Greek mythological characters, however the depicted scene comes from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Antonio Canova

Canova is also behind the marble sculpture of Perseus holding the head of Gorgon Medusa in the Vatican. Perseus was the ancient Greek legendary hero who slayed a monster named Medusa who would turn people into stone with her gaze.

When The Heart is Young, John William Godward

John William Godward was an English Neoclassicism painter who draw inspiration from both ancient Greece and Rome. “When The Heart is Young” was painted in 1902 and depicts a young woman laying wearing on a marble bench.

In The Days od Sappho, John William Godward

Here is another painting from Godward, created in 1904. The painting depicts another young woman in a scenery that reminds us of ancient Greece. The title of the painting includes the name Sappho. Sappho was an archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, often called the “Tenth Muse”.

Neoclassicism in Arcitecture

Neoclassical architecture is prevalent in Greece and other European countries but also in the United States of America and South America. The epicenter of Neoclassical architecture was, without a doubut, Munich, Germany.

The Hellenic Parliament

The Hellenic Parliament, an austere and fuctional building, which initially served as the palace of King Otto, was designed by the German architect Friedrich von Gaertner.

Altes Museum Berlin, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Designed by the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the Altes Museum in the historic center of Berlin is a major work of German Neoclassical architecture. The Museum is part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

The White House, James Hoban

The official residence of the president of the United States, known as the “White House”, is an example of both Neoclassical and Palladian arcitecture. The White House was designed by the Irish architect James Hoban in Washington DC.

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