National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Neoclassical Decorative Arts of the Late 1700s
Overview

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During the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792), many French intellectuals called for a moral austerity and social dignity that they associated with ancient Greece and republican Rome. Neoclassicism, adapting ideals from classical civilizations, replaced the pastel frivolity of the earlier rococo mode with a clear-cut sobriety. Eighteenth-century excavations at the ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, provided archeological artifacts to inspire this new, classicizing style.

Flat surfaces and straight edges reflect the architectural sources for Louis XVI design. Elements of ancient Roman moldings, friezes, and columns became important motifs. Neoclassical furniture employed geometrical forms—squares, circles, and triangles—for decorative patterns as well as overall silhouettes. Tastes had changed gradually from the time of Louis XV to that of his grandson Louis XVI. Therefore, the furniture of the 1760s and 1770s is sometimes called transitional because it incorporates both graceful rococo curves and the geometrical severity of the later neoclassical mode.

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