Neoclassicism in the United States

Jean-Antoine Houdon, George Washington, 1788-1792
State Capitol, Richmond

Neoclassicism was also popular in the United States, as can be seen in this portrait of George Washington.  The statue was created by Jean-Antoine Houdon for the rotunda of the Richmond State Capitol in Virginia, and depicts the first President of the United standing in the classical contraposto pose.  The figure leans on a column that alludes to the Roman Republic, which educated viewers would have been familiar with, but he is dressed in contemporary clothes, much like the figures in Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolf.

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Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Landsdowne Portrait), 1796
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

One of the most famous portraits of George Washington is Gilbert Stuart’s so-called Landsdowne Portrait (the picture was originally painted for the Marquis of Landsdowne, a supporter of the American Revolution)Like the Houdon statue, George Washington’s pose is based on classical statuary – but his plain dress, and noble demeanor was meant to contrast with the imposing grandeur of royal portraits such as Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV.  The clarity and simplicity of the Neoclassical style was much more suited to expressing the practical ideals of democracy than the overblown fireworks of the Baroque.

Can You Spot the Hidden Symbols in This Portrait of Washington? (Smithsonian)

Jean Antoine Houdon, Bust of Thomas Jefferson, 1789
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thomas Jefferson was also an avid fan of Neoclassicism.  While travelling in Europe he discovered Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, and upon his return to Virginia he began working on his lifelong project of remodeling his home in Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, 1770-1806

Based on Andrea Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, Jefferson’s Monticello is a centrally planned building, with a Greek temple front, and a round dome.  A unique feature of the building is its use of local materials, such as brick and wood.

Jefferson’s Monticello (Smithsonian)

View of the State Capitol Washington DC in 1852
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When a competition was held for the design of the United States Capitol, a Neoclassical style was favored.  The style was politically apt, since the first great democracies had been established in ancient Greece and Rome, but it was visually appropriate as well.   The Baroque style of architecture was too grand and imposing for the newly established democracy, and connoted the disparaged values of monarchy.  Democracy needed an architecture of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,” and the simplicity and clarity of classical architecture made it an appealing model.

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Web Resources:

Neoclassicism and America 1750-1900

The Landsdowne Portrait, Smithsonian

Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne Portrait (Smarthistory)

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