Hellenism (neoclassicism)

Hellenism, as a neoclassical movement distinct from other Roman or Greco-Roman forms of neoclassicism emerging after the European Renaissance, is most often associated with Germany and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Germany, the preeminent figure in the movement was Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the art historian and aesthetic theoretician who first articulated what would come to be the orthodoxies of the Greek ideal in sculpture (though he only examined Roman copies of Greek statues, and was murdered before setting foot in Greece). For Winckelmann, the essence of Greek art was noble simplicity and sedate grandeur, often encapsulated in sculptures representing moments of intense emotion or tribulation. Other major figures include Hegel, Schlegel, Schelling and Schiller.

In England, the so-called "second generation" Romantic poets, especially John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron are considered exemplars of Hellenism. Drawing from Winckelmann (either directly or derivatively), these poets frequently turned to Greece as a model of ideal beauty, transcendent philosophy, democratic politics, and homosociality or homosexuality (for Shelley especially). Women poets, such as Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were also deeply involved in retelling the myths of classical Greece.[1]

In art and architecture, the Greek influence saw a zenith in the early nineteenth century, following from a Greek Revival that began with archaeological discoveries in the eighteenth century, and that changed the look of buildings, gardens and cemeteries (among other things) in England and continental Europe. This movement also inflected the worlds of fashion, interior design, furniture-making--even hairstyles. In painting and sculpture, no single event was more inspiring for the movement of Hellenism than the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from Greece to England by Lord Elgin. The English government purchased the Marbles from Elgin in 1816 and placed them in the British Museum, where they were seen by generations of English artists. Elgin's activities caused a controversy that continues to this day.[2]

The Victorian period saw new forms of Hellenism, none more famous than the social theory of Matthew Arnold in his book, Culture and Anarchy. For Arnold, Hellenism was the opposite of Hebraism. The former term stood for "spontaneity," and for "things as they really are"; the latter term stood for "strictness of conscience," and for "conduct and obedience." Human history, according to Arnold, oscillated between these two modes.[3] Other major figures include Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, and Symonds.[4]

In the early nineteenth century, during the Greek War of Independence, many foreign parties--including prominent Englishmen such as Lord Byron--offered zealous support for the Greek cause. This particular brand of Hellenism, pertaining to modern rather than ancient Greece, has come to be called philhellenism. Byron was perhaps the best-known philhellene; he died in Missolonghi while preparing to fight for the Greeks against the Ottoman Turks.


  1. See especially Noah Comet, Isobel Hurst, and Yopie Prins.
  2. See William St. Clair.
  3. See Warren Anderson and David DeLaura.
  4. See especially Linda Dowling.


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