As with architecture, almost all fields were affected by classicism, especially literature. The rich collection of Greek and Roman writings, the theories of Aristotle and Longinus, and the considerable body of accumulating Italian and French literary criticism inspired many to write in imitation (mimesis) of the ancients, observing the "rules" they thought inherent in the ancient writings. The flourishing literary criticism included, for example, long discussions of the unities of time, place, and action, of decorum, and of high moral quality. France for a time became the artistic center of this new neoclassicism. Although Racine, Corneille, Molière, Boileau, and others were successful in espousing and observing the rules of classicism, an individual genius elevated their writing. The rules were followed less successfully in Joseph Addison's correct and popular, though stiff Cato, but Dryden and Pope in England, and Goethe and Schiller in Germany wrote many inspired classical works.
In the twenty-first century we speak of many creators prior to the early nineteenth century as being classical or neoclassical. Classicism has a recognizable core of ideas that draws creators and critics to it again and again. Behind classicism is the innate desire to make accessible the civilizing influence of great art, music, literature, and architecture. The painters Jacques-Louis David in France (1748–1825) and Joshua Reynolds in Britain (1723–1792) were influential classicists who not only painted but also put their theories into print. Even music, which has no extant models from the ancients, produced classicists: The music of Haydn, Mozart, and the early Beethoven has a strong, clear structure. Their dominant sonata form—orderly, complete, balanced—gives shape and purpose to the chaos of sound.
By the late eighteenth century the neoclassical movement began to burn itself out as artists turned elsewhere for inspiration. In a sense, classicism is an ideal not a reality, since humans almost compulsively veer into irregularities or even rebel against ideals. Classicism tried to give answers, but multitudinous questions remained. Hence countermovements arose, which critics have termed Romantic, with its concern for self-expression, and baroque, with its intentional rejection of balance and harmony. Classicism's closed form, with its completeness, balanced proportion, solid repose, and clean structure, often became a more open form, with restless parts and unstressed edges. The classical The Ambassadors (1533) of Hans Holbein (1497–1543), for example, has a symmetrical structure with clear, distinct figures. In contrast, in the baroque Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (1556) of Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, 1518–1594), Christ at the center right of the picture is smaller than the figures on the left, and the colors and shapes blend into one another.
Though theoretically classicism aspires to produce the best art, in reality much of the best art veers from the classical or outright rebels against it. The classical critic Samuel Johnson has pointed out the many deviations from classicism of William Shakespeare's plays but still recognized their greatness. Much art has elements of classicism. Mary Cassatt's (1844–1926) many paintings, for example, have classical beauty, balance, and repose, but contiguous mothers and daughters blend. The much-admired works of Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) demonstrate rejection of classicism. Note the restless parts and unstressed edges of Klee's Remembrance of a Garden or Pollock's Moon Woman.