“Classical Greece”, meaning, authoritative: of recognized authority or excellence; "the definitive work on Greece" or relating to the most highly developed stage of an earlier civilization and its culture.
This interpretation of the term “classic” clearly defines the Greece of 500 BC, which has constantly re-inspired the Western world. The well known Athenian Acropolis constructed in 500 BC, the temple to Athena, being a perfect example of classical Greek architecture.
At various periods thought history, revivals of the superb designs of Greek classicism have emerged in art and design and particularly, architecture. Architectural styles have been inspired by elements of ancient Greek temples, with the use of massive marble Corinthian and Doric columns, decorative friezes and grand stair cases.
These revisits are generally known today as periods of “Greek Revival”. These movements were dominant from about the middle of the 18th century, lasting, almost until the close of the 19th century, 1750 – 1890.
When speaking of design and the visual arts, the neoclassical movement or the turning back to the classic, can be dated to about circa 1765 with its introduction generally seen as a reaction to the restraints of the former styles of the Baroque and Rococo, both of which were heavy with form and ornamentation.
The neo classical style can be seen as a desire to go back to the perceived purity and clean lines of ancient Greece. In France, this classical style became known as the style “Etruscan” and was much favored by the court of Louis XV and XVI.
From the late 18th century and up until about 1830, the style greatly influenced designers, peaking through the early years of the 19th century. Interior and furniture designers began to design and produce Greek style tables, chairs, wall hangings, pottery silver and even coaches. These were all designed in the new classical Greek style, with simple lines and decorative elements drawn from the repertoire of Greco-Roman ornament, particularly from Greek vase painting and from classical architecture, i.e. architectural motifs such as the repetitive Greek key, palmettes and Acanthus leaf.
The typical colour range of this neoclassic revival included black motifs outlined against terracotta and Pompeian red, powder blue, puce and olive, these colours sometimes used in a single décor.
With the exception of porcelain and pottery of the period, when we see these colours today, they appear as pastels. We forget that these objects have been exposed to over 200 years of sunlight with original interiors having long since faded.
From about 1800, European archaeology was “discovering” ancient Greece, with new design elements being literally brought to the surface! In 1806, Lord Elgin transported architectural elements of the Parthenon from Athens to London with events such as this having the effect of lifting neoclassicism to new heights. Many artists were now taking the path to Greece and a steady flow of sketches and engravings were now making their way north.
The style swept across Europe, now variously known in France, as the Neo-Greek and Empire style, in England as the Regency style and in Russia as Empire style, with its influence felt not only in architecture and design, but in literature, theatre and music.
The Greek revival had a profound influence on architecture, an influence which lasted well into the 19th century. In fact, it was not until the 1840’s that the term “Greek Revival” was used, believing to have been first used by Charles Cockerell, Professor of Architecture, in a lecture delivered to the Royal Society in 1842.
The style lasted well into the 1860’s, especially in North America. The revival saw the construction of many banks, courthouses and other large public buildings including private houses designed on the grand scale. From an architectural perspective, it was held to reflect intellect, prosperity and stability, with the use of grand porticoes supported by stately columns, reminiscent of Greek temples.
With the decorative arts, the revival was again strengthened in the 1860-1870 period. At this date, of course, we are talking of the high Victorian period, with design now characterised by a Victorian robustness. Throughout this late revival decade, art and design again swung toward the neoclassical, although this time without the early 19th century slenderness and elegant fine lines.
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