Dec 8, 2020 in Description
Thomas Jefferson and Classicism

Thomas Jefferson and Classicism in American Architecture


A powerful upsurge of patriotism, which united the American people, contributed to the victorious completion of the war for independence against the United Kingdom and the formation of a new nation the United States of America in 1776. Since that time, American art developed with all its complex and contradictory trends, with a distinct line in the most realistic progressive forms of architecture, painting, and sculpture. In order to appreciate the importance and value of the first flowering of arts in the USA, it should be noted that after the Revolutionary War, a high rise took place in the architecture. During this time, an American version of Neoclassicism was developed. It was widely spread throughout the Eastern United States. The new trend determined the features of public buildings and large private estates of that time.

The third U.S. president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, a lawyer and architect, Thomas Jefferson, introduced Neoclassicism to the USA based on both ancient Roman architecture and modern French rationalism, which was a contrast to a federated style. Jefferson was the largest representative of Neoclassicism, who managed to implement the classical heritage in his best buildings. The current paper analyzes Jeffersons contribution to the development of Neo-classicism in the United States. The main goal of the paper suggests an appeal to the notion of classicism in architecture, some facts of life biography of Thomas Jefferson and the description of the features of neo-classical architecture of the United States under the influence of Jefferson.

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The Features of Neoclassicism as an Architectural Style

The revival of classics is associated with the emergence of a new class - the bourgeoisie. Classicism adopted ancient traditions in architecture and conquered Europe rather quickly, becoming a reflection of a public opinion. Classicism in architecture is a style based on the norms and traditions of antiquity. This style is characterized by clean lines and shapes, symmetry of facades and order system. What is more, it has the following architectural elements: columns, pilasters, triangular pediments, bas-reliefs in round medallions, statues, including the atlantes and caryatids, and rotundas on roofs. The architectural style of Classicism was a reflection of the social thought of progressive Europeans of the 18th century. German artist Johann Joachim Winckelmann  wrote in 1755 that the imitation of the ancient is the only way to be great, and this call received an active support among artists. The imitation of the ancient Greeks was reflected in the works of German architects such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Leo von Klenze and others. Their buildings adorned with columns and triangular facades became the objects for imitation by their contemporaries - architects.

The features of antiquity provided buildings with noble simplicity and grandeur. If in ancient Greece an order system was used only for the construction of temple buildings, in Europe, the in 18-19 centuries, the style of classicism was used when building palaces and residences such as Marktplatz in Karlsruhe, Maksimilianshtadt and Ludwigstrasse in Munich and facilities in Darmstadt. The style of Classicism was also reflected in the buildings in Berlin and Potsdam. The style was used not only in constructing the palaces for the nobility, but also in building suburban homes, theaters, universities, hospitals, museums, and public libraries.

Classical elements were used in the construction of urban public buildings: town halls, schools, foster homes and guesthouses. Even prisons and barracks acquired a classic look. The architectural style of Classicism proved to be controversial in the construction of temple buildings since priests could not determine whether the idea of ?? antiquity corresponds with the Christian doctrine. However, churches with a touch of antiquity were built in Karlsruhe, Potsdam and Darmstadt. In the 19th century, the development of architecture begins to accelerate. The cyclical development of architecture presupposed a long transition from simple forms to complex. For example, baroque that appeared after the simple forms of the Renaissance was forming more than a decade and reigned in the architectural fashion for several centuries. In turn, a return to simple forms and structures required much less time.

Classicism in architecture emerged in Europe and reached the USA in less than a hundred years. The house at Monticello, Charlottesville, is an example of it. The construction of the house was begun by the fan of Andrea Palladio - Thomas Jefferson in 1769. After eleven years, Jefferson became a follower of a different direction - French classicism and rebuilt much of the building. Architectural classicism reached its peak in France, Germany, Russia, England, and the USA. Classicism in architecture replaced the courtly baroque and rococo along with bourgeois revolutions the English in 1688 and the French after a century. It won its position due to the ideological content, which met the requirements of the time.

The ancient structures, proportions and shapes were filled with a new content. Their clear and distinct aesthetics was posed in opposition to oppressive uncertainty and the magnitude of the Baroque and the excessive sweetness of Rococo, which were the characteristics of European aristocracy as opposed to the new class - the bourgeoisie, which did not have aristocratic roots and wanted to create a culture of its own layer. The ideas of the Enlightenment that captured the European progressive society found its reflection in the architecture based on antiquity and attractiveness by its simplicity and rigor.

Classicism is also referred to as Neoclassicism. Neoclassical architecture is first presented by the buildings inspired by the heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. The building in the style of neoclassicism is usually characterized by the following features: symmetrical forms, high columns, rectangular facades and dome-shaped roofs. During the XVI century, a famous architect of the Renaissance Andre Palladio awakened interest in the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome among his colleagues. Palladio's ideas and principles remained the standard of architectural excellence for Western Europe and the USA for a long time after his death.

At the end of XVIII - beginning of XIX centuries, the recently formed United States accepted the ideals of classical times and started to construct most administrative buildings in accordance with Neoclassicism. Nevertheless, the simple dwellings were also performed in this style. Often the architecture of the houses on the plantations of North and South America was inspired by classical architecture. In the late XIX - early XX centuries, the ideas of Ancient Greece and Rome were organically combined with luxury balustrades, balconies and twisted decorations. Classical ideals also influenced the style called the Greek Revival, which united popular in the XIX century stately houses with columns. The style of "federalism" was not always characterized by columns; however, its details and ornaments were inspired by classics.

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Jefferson's Contribution to the Development of Neoclassic Architecture in USA

The third U.S. president and a prominent politician Thomas Jefferson played a particularly important role in the development of neoclassic architecture in the United States. Being not only a gifted politician, but also a talented designer and architect, Jefferson decided to use Neoclassicism as a way to raise the patriotic spirit of Americans and turn the U.S. into a modern country with beautiful architecture. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson was a talented architect who had a tremendous influence on the style of classicism in the architecture of the country. He introduced Neoclassicism based on both ancient Roman architecture and modern French rationalism. The style was a contrast to a federated one. Jefferson was the most important representative of Neoclassicism, who managed to implement the classical heritage in his best projects.

The new American nation needed to create their own and unique identity, and Jefferson, who had passion for architecture, was confident that he knew how to do it. To this day, the United States of America owe to Jefferson for its firm and unchanged architectural metaphor - the idea that classical Roman ideals are the basis of harmonious coexistence of a man and the state. It was Jefferson who made ??sure that these ideals found their tangible architectural embodiment. Classicism and rationalism were the dominant trends in the development of American architecture for many years. Neoclassicism became so firmly associated with the base of the young state that because of two factors the style eventually became known as the "federal style". First, a former British colony was painfully aware of their cultural inferiority in comparison to Europe. Second, Americans sought to achieve democracy. Striving by all means to get rid of the autocratic England, they decided to establish the Senate. Such symbolic expression needed classics in its modern interpretation. Neoclassicism became the embodiment of the federal style under the guidance of Jefferson.

Neoclassicism converges two different but complementary tendencies inherent in the bourgeois spirit: individualistic rigor and passion for archeology. Attention to privacy, to housing, so typical for individualism of a modern man, finds concrete expression in the search for and application of unchanging and immutable rules. The house that Thomas Jefferson designed personally is the example of it. New classicism offers a canon of true classic beauty. Its ideal is presented by the new Athens in two ways: as a classic Greek city and as the embodiment of the goddess of Reason, where there is no place for the recent past. This aspect is combined with the so-called archaeological neoclassicism expressed in growing interest to archeology in the XVIII century.

Unlike the Federalists, who felt that England was still the cultural homeland of the new nation, Jefferson thought that the United States of America must not adhere to British colonial architecture but, instead, draw directly on the architecture of the ancient Roman Republic. Republican Rome would function as Jeffersons cultural and political patrimony as he argued against Federalist visions of a land of industry and commerce and in favor of a democratic society of independent farmers.

A harmony of proportions and grandeur distinguishes the building of the Virgin Capitol in Richmond, which reminds of the type of an ancient temple with a six-columned portico strongly projecting forward. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, wonderfully connected with the surrounding park, is more intimate in nature and picturesque in its planning. Its construction was started in 1817 and finished in 1826, the year of Jeffersons death. When designing the project for the new University, Jefferson thought of creating an "academic town", a community of students and teachers - what is now called the "campus".

He imagined a group of brick buildings set aside for training and accommodations, built close together and grouped around a central U-shaped lawn. The facades of the buildings present the typical style of Jefferson and resemble such ancient classical buildings as the Pantheon in Rome, on the model of which the round library, the Rotunda, with a portico of the giant order was built. It is located in the center of the group of structures on the lawn. Two-storied apartment buildings for professors, as well as ten pavilions with classrooms (for educational purposes they represent different classical orders) are near to it. These buildings were accompanied by accommodations for students connected with the loggia.

These features of the intimate and harmonious connection with nature characterize the Villa Monticello in Virginia, in which the principles of free interpretation not only of ancient, but also of Palladian architecture are clearly represented. The work on what historians in the future will call the first Monticello began in 1768. In 1770, Jefferson moved to South Hall. Later, he left Monticello in order to take the post of the U.S. envoy in France. While working in Europe, Jefferson had the opportunity to see many classical buildings, which until now he knew only from books, and imbue with some new-fangled ideas of French architecture.

Perhaps, it was then that he decided to rebuild the manor. In 1794, being appointed the first U.S. Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson began to put this idea into practice. The rebuilding took up most of his presidential term. Jefferson added a central hall and a parallel series of rooms, increasing the total area of ??the building more than twice. Then, he replaced the second floor with a mezzanine and a bedroom floor. An octagonal dome, which Jefferson placed on the western facade of the building, was the most unusual feature of the new version of the manor.

In general, the buildings in the time of Jefferson had the following characteristics:

Elegance, lightness and straightness;

Reliance on classics and ancient order system;

Strict proportions, the minimum of decor and aspiration to exquisite colors;

Compliance with classic proportions and aspiration to comfort and harmony;

Light and elegant furniture;

Light and subtle shades of gold, blue, beige and brown colors;

Noble, but not excessive decor;

Departure from classical conservatism.

As for the interior, its design was also consistent with the rules of neoclassicism. It is characterized by an appeal to antiquity with its light and graceful straight lines. Leaves, shells and architectural gables were the most popular decorations. The hallmark of the furniture, made in the style of neoclassicism, is easiness perfectly combined with gentle tones and thus creating a harmonious picture with all the decor of the room. Furniture was presented by the most necessary elements that resulted not in the awkwardness and massiveness, but in the atmosphere of warmth and coziness. It should be noted that the apparent lack of the elements of interior was compensated by their high functionality. In addition, all home furnishings were easy to use. The most commonly used pieces of furniture were the following: small coffee tables, chairs, sofas, cupboards with glass and mirrored glass windows. Furniture was made of precious wood in light colors.

Neoclassicism embodied solemnity and luxury, and using stained-glass window, it created a visual sense of grandeur and expansion of the space in the room. The interior usually had huge and arched mirrors, decorated with gold leaves in the form of flower garlands. Glass mirrors, starting almost from the floor, created an illusion of a labyrinth as well as they revealed an exquisite interior of the rooms. When filling the space, the masters of this style tried to get away from the massive and supersaturated interior and reflected ancient forms easily and naturally, sometimes in two-dimensional form or a mild (shallow) relief. It gave a refined look to the whole interior.

The corners, handles and locks were decorated with elegant bronze finish. Wood, preferably mahogany, with porcelain inserts was also widely used. The design of curtains supposed a semicircular pelmet draped with folds and combined with jabot. Curtains were made of heavy and dense silk textile. Small bronze sculptures often decorated the rooms. Sometimes, they were gilded, and their luster echoed with a dull glow of gilded frames, hung on the walls of the picture. Paintings demonstrated ancient and monumental scenes, for example, battle scenes. Lampshades made ??of gorgeous fabrics in pastel filled the room with an atmosphere of warmth, comfort and noble luxury. Crystal chandeliers created a feeling of solemnity and grandeur.

All above marked characteristics correspond with another brainchild of Jefferson that made his name famous, namely, the US Capitol in Washington. The original idea was to design it in accordance with the principles of the Renaissance, but Jefferson insisted that it was built in according to the ancient canons believing that the Capitol should resemble the Roman Pantheon with a circular domed rotunda. The interior of the US Capitol was decorated with the help of various sculptures, including busts and many paintings depicting, in particular, political leaders of the United States that were somehow involved in its heroic destiny.

As noted by Johns, Jefferson's ideas were brazenly original for their time and do embody, at least in spirit, the intellectual, cultural, and political ideals for the nation. Jefferson contributed his architectural statement to federal buildings... Jefferson believed that "from architecture would flow education in taste, values, and ideals," and therefore constructed buildings that became ideas for America. The fact that Neoclassicism was in part a political phenomenon is no less important.

In the late eighteenth century, spurred by classical ideas, Americans established a republican government modeled on Greek and Roman principles. This was a form of government that cherished liberty, using ancient models to try to reform polities, protect individuals, and constrain tyranny.By using our services, you will be satisfied because our staff consists of


The official style of governmental buildings in the early American Republic and their decoration (both national and state) corresponded, in particular, to the Roman ideas about architecture and the decor of interiors. The use by Jefferson of the heritage of the Roman culture was no accident because the main idea was to represent the American Republic as a reflection of the Roman Republic and in some ways Periclean Athens. Jefferson understood his main task in presenting the United States as a strong, free and independent country that won in the Revolutionary War due to the patriotism of its people and leadership. Therefore, the task of the architecture was to embody patriotism and heroism of the American people as well as to strengthen the pride and joy of their country among Americans. The exteriors and interiors of many buildings were also subject to this idea, trying to focus on the heroism and freedom of the American people.

Jefferson did everything possible to ensure the credibility of the American nation as a democratic people living in harmony with their government. Being a fan of architecture and having knowledge of European architectural trends, the third president of the United States was not only a talented politician, but also a creative architect whose ideas played a major role in the development of the architectural appearance of the USA. Jefferson was able to harness the power of architectural art as a political instrument. With this instrument, he declared his country as a full member in the international arena, able to independently develop its economy, policy and other spheres. Jeffersons contribution to the development of American architecture and with it the representation of the USA as an independent, strong and democratic nation cannot be overemphasized.


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