Neo-Grec is a term referring to late manifestations of Neoclassicism, early Neo-Renaissance now called the Greek Revival style, which was popularized in architecture, the decorative arts, and in painting during France's Second Empire, or the reign of Napoleon III, a period that lasted approximately between 1848 and 1865. It was one of many "Revival styles" of the mid to late 19th century, and just one among several concurrent modes of Classicism. The Neo-Grec vogue took as its starting point the earlier expressions of the Neoclassical style inspired by 18th-century excavations at Pompeii, which resumed in earnest in 1848, and similar excavations at Herculaneum.
In spite of much effort, it was not till after the publication of Stuart's Athens, in 1761, and of Adam's Spalatro — a statistical description, with many plates, of the palace of Diocletian — in 1757, that the reign of pure and severe classicism began in England, although Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, and Sir John Vanbrugh had all done their best. Even then the classic struggled with the Chinese, Sir William Chambers's book of Chinese interiors having been published in the same year with Spalatro, while the best workers condescended to design and gild and carve, when required, in all the mesquinages of the Rococo. Excellent things were nevertheless produced not only by the Chippendales, but by George Hepplewhite, among others, Henry Copeland and Matthias Lock, by Thomas Sheraton, and particularly by the brothers Adam, who designed exterior and interior fittings and furnishings, who introduced polished steel grates, and who took the pains to visit Italy and procure at the source instructions for their columns and capitals and moldings and festoons. The Adams were the authors of numerous fine designs, none finer than their mantles and their looking-glass frames, which latter, exquisitely carved in airy grace and delicacy of broken garlands of fine blossoms falling about the great beveled sheet of glass, whether ebony or white or gilt, are of unrivaled beauty.
There was much mechanical arrangement at this time about the furniture, which, although to be regretted for its tendency toward instability, had some reason for its being, in the use of bedrooms for sitting rooms, writing rooms, and for the reception of favored guests; tables that opened if a portion were lifted; desks that transformed themselves; chairs, sofas, and wardrobes that answered two purposes. Lions' heads and feet and eagles' talons, although an old ornament, were now everywhere to be found again. There were claw-footed loo tables, and bedsteads and chairs resting on feet where the claws clutched a ball; certain tall secretaries, whose glass doors were sashed and latticed, were a nearly universal article; and there were charming light chairs of satin wood and marquetry — for satin wood had come in with the last as mahogany had with the first quarter of the century, and it would be difficult to imagine woods capable of producing more beauty than the creamy richness of the one or the wine-dark depths of the other, especially when ornamented, as frequently was the case, with medallions painted by Angelica Kauffmann and by Giovanni Cipriani.
With the more finished acquaintance with classic subjects that the latter portion of the century acquired, of course the confused and mongrel shapes and decorations in furniture grew more and more distasteful, and the efforts to reach the purity of the classic were correspondingly increased. Something of this was due to the way in which the buried beauty of Pompeii had been slowly rising from its ashes, and something to the splendor of the Louis Seize revival of that beauty — an effort rather helped than hindered, too, by the classical assumptions of the First Empire. The British fancy was carried captive; journeys were taken, explorations were set on foot, measurements were made and at last the Elgin Marbles came to England.
Just before this event, Thomas Hope, the brilliant author of Anastasius, a man of vast wealth and learning, and a discriminating collector, had published his folio volume of plates and text upon the subject of Furniture and Internal Decoration, which did a great deal to stimulate the popular taste. Mr. Hope described one of his own many and magnificent rooms, designed entirely with reference to the statuary which was its chief ornament: "The central object in this room is a fine marble group, executed by Mr. Flaxman, and representing Aurora visiting Cephalus on Mount Ida. The whole surrounding decoration has been rendered in some degree analogous to these personages, and to the face of nature at the moment when the first of the two, the goddess of the morn, is supposed to announce approaching day. Round the bottom of the room still reign the emblems of night. In the rail of a black marble table are introduced medallions of the god of sleep and of the goddess of night. The bird consecrated to the latter deity perches on the pillars of a black marble mantelpiece, whose broad frieze is studded with golden stars. The sides of the room display, in satin curtains draped in ample folds over panels of looking-glass and edged with black velvet, the fiery hue which fringes the clouds just before sunrise; and in a ceiling of cooler sky blue are sown, amidst a few unextinguished luminaries of the night, the roses which the harbinger of the day in her course spreads on every side around her. The pedestal of the group offers the torches, the garlands, the wreaths, and the other insignia belonging to the mistress of Cephalus, disposed around the fatal dart of which she made her lover a present. The broad band which girds the top of the room contains medallions of the ruddy goddess and of the Phrygian youth intermixed with the instruments and the emblems of the chase, his favorite amusement. Figures of the youthful Horae, adorned with wreaths of foliage, adorn part of the furniture, which is chiefly gilt in order to give more relief to the azure, the black, and the orange compartments of the hangings."
It was not often that the style could be treated on such a scale of splendor as this; yet it needed the most lavish expenditure and critical care in order to be seen at its best, and with any poverty of treatment it became hard and formal and almost unlovely. It maintained its supremacy briefly before other fashions came to the top in France.
In architecture the Neo-Grec is not always clearly distinguishable from the Neoclassical designs of the earlier part of the century, in buildings such as the Church of the Madeleine, Paris. The classic example of Neo-Grec architecture is Henri Labrouste's innovative Bibliothèque Sainte Genevieve in Paris, 1843-50, generally seen as the first major public building in this later mode of classicism.
Not only was the Neo-Grec popular in France, but also in Victorian England and especially in the United States, where its severity accorded with the "American Renaissance". The architectural historian Neil Levine has explained the style as a reaction against the rigidity of classicism. According to Levine, Neo-Grec was a somewhat looser style, which "replaced the rhetorical form of classical architectural discourse by a more literal and descriptive syntax of form." It was meant to be a "readable" architecture.
In painting, the Neoclassical style continued to be taught in the French Academy des Beaux-Arts, inculcating crisp outlines, pellucid atmosphere, and a clear, clean palette. However, a formal Neo-Grec group of artists was created in the mid 19th century after growing interest in Ancient Greece and Rome, and especially the later excavations at Pompeii. The Paris Salon of 1847, an art exhibition, revealed the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, who in The Cock Fight depicted a composition in which, in a scene of antiquity, a young boy and a girl attend the combat of two cocks. Gérôme gained fame from this exhibition, and in the next year formed the Neo-Grec group with Jean-Louis Hamon and Henri-Pierre Picou—all three pupils in the same atelier under Charles Gleyre. Gleyre himself adopted the tenets of neo-classicism more strictly than others at the time, adopting the classical style and aesthetic, but almost exclusively applying it to myths and motifs from antiquity, recalling both characters from Greek myth, and antique emblems such as bacchantes and putti. The Neo-Grec group took Gleyre's style and interests, but adapted it from use in history painting as in Gleyre's work, into genre painting. Because they were inspired by discoveries at Pompeii, they were also called néo-pompéiens.
The paintings of the Neo-Grecs sought to capture everyday, anecdotal trivialities of ancient Greek life, in a manner of whimsy, grace, and charm, and were often realistic, sensual, and erotic. For this reason they were also called "anacreontic" after the Greek poet Anacreon, who wrote sprightly verses in praise of love and wine. Alfred de Tanouarn describes one of Hamon's paintings as "clear, simple and natural, the idea, the attitudes and the aspects. It leads the lips a soft smile; it causes us an inexpressible feeling of pleasure in which one is happy to stop and view the painting". It can perhaps be said the motto of this group was "the goal of art is to charm". Most Neo-Grec paintings were also done in a horizontal layout as in a frieze decoration or Greek vases, with the composition simplified.
The Neo-Grec school was criticized in many respects; for its attention to historical detail it was said by Baudelaire "the scholarship is to disguise the absence of imagination", and the subject matter was considered by many as trivial. The painters were also charged with selectively adopting the ancient Greek style, in that they left out noble themes and only focused on trivial daily life—leading to the accusation that they were creating art that supported the ideologies of the bourgeoisie, or comfortable middle class.
The Neo-Grec vogue even made its way into French music through the works of the composer Erik Satie in a series of pieces called Gymnopédies--the title a reference to dances performed by the youths of ancient Sparta in honour of Diana and Apollo at ceremonies commemorating the dead of the Battle of Thyrea. Their archaic melodies float above a modally oriented harmonic basis. The melodies of the Gnossiennes go further in this direction—they use ancient Greek chromatic mode (A - G flat - F - E - D flat - C - B - A) and an arabesque ornamentation.