The Neoclassical Temple

See works of art
  • Dining room from Lansdowne House
  • Tureen with cover and stand
  • Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
  • Pair of five-light candelabra
  • Boiserie from the Hotel de Cabris
  • Personification of the River Nile
  • Folding stool (pliant) (one of a pair)
  • Drop-front secretary (secrétaire à abattant or secrétaire en armoire)
  • Bowl (jatte à anses relevées or jatte écuelle)
  • Vase
  • George Washington
  • Lyre-guitar

Works of Art (13)


Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier (1711–1769), author of the influential Essai sur l’architecture (1755), argued for purity of form in building. The book’s frontispiece shows a rustic hut composed of still-living trees. Laugier explained, “The pieces of wood raised perpendicularly have given us the idea of columns. The horizontal pieces which surmount them have given us ideas of lintels. Finally the sloping pieces which form the roof have given us the idea of pediments. That has been recognized by all the masters of art. But one should be on one’s guard. Never has an idea been more fertile in its consequences.” Laugier’s writings gave support to the view that harmony and grace were principles laid down by nature herself. The rustic hut had been praised by the Roman writer Vitruvius (fl. 46–30 B.C.), and for Laugier it was a model for simplicity and the elimination of superfluous embellishment. As eighteenth-century architects were exposed to such ideas, the Greek temple with its mathematically proportioned columns and pediments became reborn as mansion, church, bank, museum, or other commercial institution.

Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s (1713–1780) church, Saint-Geneviève (now the Panthéon), was one of the first Neoclassical structures in France, heralding the simplification of churches that became increasingly classical in inspiration. In England, the leading architects were Richard Boyle (earl of Burlington), Colen Campbell (1676–1729), and Sir William Chambers (1726–1796), disciples of the architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) and called Neo-Palladians. Author of I quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books of Architecture) (1570), Palladio took Vitruvius’s De Architettura as the foundation for his own study of classical forms and the resulting designs were directly incorporated into the plans of the Neo-Palladians. Mereworth Castle, Kent (1722–25), is a British country house whose structure is derived from Palladio’s Villa Rotunda in Vicenza. Palladian-style architecture spread rapidly and was favored by wealthy patrons as an expression of their rank and judgment. The style appeared in the United States in the work of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and the Rotunda, University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1823–26). The Neo-Palladian style gave way to the innovations of Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam (1728–1792), whose interiors such as the Etruscan dressing room at Osterley Park, Middlesex (ca. 1775–76) were drawn from a repertory of classical motifs culled from design literature and his own travels.

Furnishing such elegant interiors were a rich variety of decorative arts for which ancient models were transformed into gilt-bronze ornament, silver, pottery, and porcelain. Paris, in particular, was a great center of production for objects of le goût grec (Greek taste). Eighteenth-century Parisian cabinetmakers Georges Jacob, Martin Carlin, and Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sené freely employed classical motifs in their pieces (1971.206.17; 1977.102.9). Lavish dinner services were issued in porcelain and silver to grace aristocratic dining tables as symbols of status (1997.518; 33.165.2a-c). Miniature biscuit reproductions of noteworthy antique sculptures also decorated the dining table, mantlepiece, and bureau (2001.456), along with classicizing busts of leading intellectuals, political and society figures, and theatrical performers by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) and Augustin Pajou (1730–1809). Neoclassical taste was perhaps most industrially promoted in England by the pottery firm of Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley, which produced trade catalogues (in English, French, German, and Dutch) of its wares made after engravings and plaster casts of classical pieces. Another leading design publication was Robert and James Adam’s Works in Architecture (2 volumes, 1773, 1779), which, in addition to building plans, included engraved designs for tables, chairs, mirrors, wall lights, clocks, and doorknobs. In America, furniture makers and silversmiths were directly inspired by English models and pattern books.

Outside the home, classically inspired architecture and other structures like tombs, small temples, and bridges were often strategically set into “picturesque” landscapes. Such landscape gardens were not re-creations from the ancient Greek and Roman world, but instead were made to showcase monuments and encourage contemplation. Inspired by seventeenth-century idyllic Italian landscape paintings, particularly those by Claude Lorrain, these gardens were designed to be seen like pictures as the viewer walked from one carefully constructed vantage point to another.

Cybele Gontar
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003


Gontar, Cybele. “The Neoclassical Temple.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

Further Reading

Bowron, Edgar Peters, and Joseph J. Rishel, eds. Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century. Exhibition catalogue. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000.

Ficacci, Luigi. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. Cologne: Taschen, 2000.

Harris, John. Palladian Revival: Lord Burlington, His Villa and Garden at Chiswick. Exhibition catalogue. Montréal: Centre Canadien d'Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1994.

Haskell, Francis, and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500–1900. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Irwin, David. Neoclassicism. London: Phaidon, 1997.

King, David. The Complete Works of Robert and James Adam. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1991.

The Age of Neo-classicism. Exhibition catalogue. London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972.

Praz, Mario. On Neoclassicism. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969.

Thornton, Peter. Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior 1620–1920. London: Seven Dials, 2000.

Additional Essays by Cybele Gontar