Skip to main content
Good taste, which is becoming more prevalent throughout the world, had its origins under the skies of Greece…the taste which the Greeks exhibited in their works of art was unique and has seldom been taken far from its source without loss…The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients. What someone once said of Homer- that to understand him well means to admire him- is also true for the art works of the ancients, especially the Greeks…In the masterpieces of Greek art, connoisseurs and imitators find not only nature at its most beautiful but also something beyond nature, namely certain ideal forms of its beauty, which, as an ancient interpreter of Plato teaches us, come from images created by the mind alone.
Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768)*

The classical style of Greece and Rome has been revered and revived in many periods of art, even since the time of Charlemagne. Long respected as the forbearers of artistic beauty and perfection, philosophers and artists have often attempted to imitate the classical era in dress, architecture, and the ideals they espouse.

Look for Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of the Butler and the Baker by the School of David and consider in what way Jacques-Louis David and his followers embraced the classical style in terms of form, composition, and mood. Why do you think that artist Francis Davis Millet would choose a Greek procession featured in Thesmophoria as the main mural for an American institution such as the Bank of Pittsburgh?

What other works in these galleries appear to be influenced by the Greek or Roman tradition?

Hidden image


Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of the Butler and the Baker has a calm, austere, and restrained style that matches the self-discipline valued by neoclassical artists. The intense focus on the human form, including beautifully modeled anatomy, mirrors the focus on the individual form that was espoused by the ancients.

David embraced classicism not only because it was an attractive artistic style but because of the ideals that it represented. Artists of his day often depicted subjects from classical antiquity as examples of civic virtue- of those who loved the state more than their own personal interests.

The high classical Greek period valued order, beauty, and aesthetic appeal based on mathematical proportions that were utilized to create not only beautiful buildings but also beautiful human forms. These anatomical ideals have remained a standard among many world cultures to the present day.

Like many cultures, the Americans also claimed Greek and Roman art traditions as their own. Without an ancient history of their own to reference, American artists often employed classical motifs to symbolize the vitality of their large institutions. Viewers of the late nineteenth century were transported from their industrialized world to an age of timeless Roman beauty whose grace and simplicity were much admired.

*Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Gedancken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Wercke in der Mahlerey und Bildhauer-Kunst (Friedrichstadt Hagenmüller, 1755). English translation Elfriede Heyer and Roger C. Norton, Reflections on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture (Illinois: La Salle, 1987).