Art history reimagined: the revival of classicism – Creative Review

Fashion and art are cyclical by nature. Trends usually skip two or three generations before making a comeback, but the latest blast from the past predates anyone alive today.

Fashion houses, web designers, musicians and photographers have recently been looking to art history for inspiration. Centuries-old art is being reinterpreted with added diversity, modern visuals and a sprinkling of satire – but what has caused this resurgence? And why is it happening now?


Art has never been more accessible than it is today. Museums are embracing the digitisation of art so that anyone can interact with classic paintings from their own homes. The accessibility and free public usage of these works has opened up new opportunities for artists to play with iconic paintings. Add Instagram to the mix, and you have a broad audience engaging with a whole new take on Vermeer.

Thanks to technological advances, younger generations are also able to interact with art and have fun while doing it. AR, VR and apps like Google Arts n Culture have led to the creation of immersive experiences and a whole new way to explore classic pieces.

Immersed in technology by Colin Anderson


The revival of classicism could be a retaliation against the whitewashed minimalism that has dominated visual culture of late. Trends are reactive, so it makes perfect sense that in this side of the decade, we’re seeing more of the dark, cinematic styling, vibrant pigments, and ornate props found in classic fine art. This trend is visible in everything from food styling to dark UIs like Apple’s Mojave OS.


As we revisit the sitters, mythological allegories, and outrageous scenes of classicism, a representational void presents itself. Now, creatives are putting the underrepresented back in the frame – and showing us what art history might look like if art had been more diverse.

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the past six months, you’ll have likely have seen or at least heard of Beyonce and Jay-Z’s (a.k.a. The Carters) recent hit, Apeshit. The video, which has clocked up over 150 million views on YouTube, was filmed in the Louvre and positions Queen Bey and King J in front of some of the world’s best-known paintings and sculptures. It was viewed as a powerful statement on the lack of positive representations of people of colour in classic art – something Kehinde Wiley, who recently became the first person of colour to paint an official portrait of an American president, highlighted in an interview with the New York Times. “At its best, what art does is, it points to who we as human beings and what we as human beings value. And if Black Lives Matter, they deserve to be in paintings,” said Wiley.

Many modern revamps of classic art look to the aesthetics of historic portraiture. Some call to mind classic works like Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist’s, Portrait d’une négresse while others simply frame people of diverse racial backgrounds in a classic art style, communicating their legitimacy as subjects of artistic expression.


The politician and arts patron Lorenzo the Magnificent once described the ideal beauty of the Italian Renaissance as a woman “of an attractive and ideal height; the tone of her skin, white but not pale, fresh but not glowing; her demeanour was grave but not proud, sweet and pleasing, without frivolity or fear. Her eyes were lively and her gaze restrained, without trace of pride or meanness.… She dressed in those fashions which suited a noble and gentle lady”.

Classic fine art was created through the lens of a small group of predominantly white male commissioners who spoke for the era. But as art becomes more accessible, photographers and filmmakers are offering a more empowering and modern view of beauty and femininity. Women are being reframed in the classic art style, assuming the kind of poses that would once have been the preserve of the ruling male class – and in the process, subverting the classical ideal of the demure female.


It’s no secret that art history is also making an appearance in contemporary still life photography. Da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt were known for their striking depictions of ordinary subjects, adding a certain sophistication and weight to everyday items. Today’s still life photographers are taking inspiration from the texture and depth found in these classic paintings, and we’re seeing darker, more mysterious images emerge as a result.

Stocksy artist Audrey Shtecinjo styled his latest still-life shoot with classic compositions in mind, stating: “I was thinking about the old masters’ work like Rubens, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. I experimented with light, casting shadows over drapery and objects to make it feel more “royal” and ‘baroque’ or ‘arty’ looking. I also just love playing with light over objects to give them the sense of couture.”

Brands are also following suit with dark and decadent websites and campaigns. Elementi Cucina’s interiors, Henge’s furniture, Ellie Cashman’s floral wallpaper and Chanel’s latest fragrance all speak to this trend, with rich, deep colours and floral motifs.


Renaissance artists loved antiquity – just look at the mass reintroduction of Greco-Roman style statues and busts in this era. In the 21st century, the bust has once again made a comeback, but this time, it has become a tool for humour and satire.

Vaporwave led the co-opt of the marble bust – once a symbol of prestige – juxtaposing Roman sculptures next to 90s graphics. The Vaporwave aesthetic was interpreted as a subversive critique of late capitalism, and the bust has since been welcomed back into pop culture with the addition of hipster outfits, lipstick and debasing poses.

This could be a symptom of post-modern satirical irony, or it could just be a bit of comic relief from our tumultuous political landscape. Either way, it seems the hipster bust is here to stay.

As art continues to become more accessible, the masterpieces of the past will no doubt continue to inspire the creativity of the present – from conceptual still-lifes to blockbuster music videos and high-end fashion and homeware. But one thing’s for certain, as we reinterpret classic art for the modern world, we are painting more of ourselves into it than ever before – making it more diverse, more inclusive and in some cases, more humorous.

Stocksy United is a multi-stakeholder co-operative home to a curated collection of royalty free stock photography and video footage; You can view the full ‘Classicism Reimagined’ gallery on Stocksy here.

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