The Return to Order was a European stylistic art movement that followed World War I.  A backlash against the abstract art forms such as Cubism and Expressionism, which represented the chaos of war, this movement was associated with a revival of classicism. The common goal of the Return to Order artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Gino Severini, was the revival of and return to classical subjects. Despite this, the artists participating in this movement updated their neoclassical works using modern techniques. The “return to order” of the post World War I period is more a rejection of the extreme avant-grade art rather than a complete embracement of the classical style of painting.

This Return to Order can be described as a form of Neoclassicism, or a revival of classic antiquity, and “At the simplest level [of classicism] there was uniformity in subject matter, for painters addressed the ‘classic’ themes and worked within the established genres of figure composition, the nude, landscape and still life.”[1] Severini, for example, painted a popular classical subject in Maternity.  This painting has been depicted very realistically and represents stability through the traditional subject of motherhood.  Picasso began painting traditional and timeless subjects, such as male nudes and women doing their hair.[2] He even imitated the style of the nineteenth-century French master, Ingres. In 1917, he painted a portrait of his wife Olga as Ingres had painted a young French girl from a good family. This painting is done in a classical style with incredible attention to the texture and fabric. Similarly, inspired by Ingres’ Odalisque With Slave, Matisse painted a classical harem girl in Odalisque with Magnolias. This return to the painting of timeless subjects was an important aspect of the return to order.

All of these artists participated in the artistic trend of the return to order in distinct ways. Although Picasso paints classical subjects he subverts classicism of his paintings through subtle methods. For example, in Two Women Running on the Beach, he paints two women wearing classical clothes in a classical palette. Despite that, this painting does not have a wholly classical appearance as the women running wildly on the beach do not have the classical body type. Rather, their bodies are grotesquely distorted, and they seem clumsy. Matisse’s richly painted 1919 work Plaster Torso and Bouquet is a vibrant interior still life in which he creates a harmonious, balanced illustration, with a palette of both bright colors and pastels, calculated to be visually appealing.  The brushstrokes, however, are not classical, but are rather Impressionistic in their appearance.  Similarly, careful analysis of Gino Severini’s painting, Motherhood, while classical in appearance, reveals the modernity of the subject. Although she is engaging in the traditional activity of breastfeeding, she is dressed in modern clothing with a modern hairstyle. This reveals that these artists participated in the Return to Order in different ways.

Other artists in this period have also used classical techniques while still keeping their works distinctly modern. Artists that participated in the Return to Order had originally embraced abstract modern art movements prior to World War I. After the war, however, they turned away from these movements, which were seen as chaotic and German, and toward the stability of classical art. This return to order, however, was not a complete return to classicism but a step away from modern avant-grade movements of the time.




Cowling, Elizabeth and Jennifer Mundy. On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico, and the New Classicism, 1910-1930. London : Tate Gallery, 1990.

[1] Elizabeth Cowling, Tate Gallery, On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism, 1910-1930 (Tate Gallery, 1990), 12.

[2] Ibid., 200.

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