From the 1750s onwards, Europeans became greatly enamoured with the classical arts of Greek and Roman Antiquity. This was the time when Pompeii was excavated and the German archaeologist and art theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann published his views on antique art. These influences, combined with a reaction to the frivolous Rococo, gave rise to the Neoclassicist style. Characteristic features are the presence of antique elements (clothing, figures, architecture, landscapes, etc.); cool, 'academic' colours; aiming at exactness of rendition; and a balanced composition. The style originated in Italy and spread all over Europe. In the Southern Netherlands, Neoclassicism was still in competition with the Baroque at first. Soon after 1800, Neoclassicism lost momentum, but for many decades afterwards and even into the next century, it remained the dominant style taught at art academies.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the bourgeois art-minded public in Ghent, that was fully up-to-date with developments at the European level, was strongly centred on Paris. That explains why the museum owns so many examples of Belgian Neoclassicist painting. The style had a large following here, partly due to the influence of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, who was in exile in Brussels for a while and specialised in heroic compositions. In those days, lots of Belgian artists went to Paris and/or to Rome for shorter or longer periods. A few international Neoclassicists of note, in addition to David, are his pupil Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, William Blake, Johann Heinrich Füssli and the Americans Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. Many of these artists combined their Neoclassicism with Romantic features. The Romantic movement gained in importance from 1800 onwards.
Neoclassicism is, of course, an academic style. In the 19th century, young generations of painters rebelled against its precepts, but nevertheless its cool aesthetics continued to influence painters of landscapes, town views, domestic scenes, etc. They often seem hardly different from similar scenes painted by their 17th- and 18th-century predecessors, except in one major aspect: the striving for an exact reproduction of reality and a detailed finish, as prescribed by the Neoclassicist canon.