“Classicism” comes from the Latin “classicus”, which means “first class” or “first-ranking”. The term was first used in the Renaissance to talk about art. Today the term “classicism” can be used any time art looks back to 5 BC Greek art and its successive imitators – whether academic paintings of the 19th century, neoclassical works of the late 18th century, and even art produced under 20th century dictatorships such as the Fascist or Nazi regimes.
Throughout the history of art there has indeed been a continual pendulum swing between exploration and the return to the Greek reference. The first major revival of classicism with a small “c” was in Carolingian and Ottonian art. The next and greater one was with the Renaissance; increasing trade with Islamic countries meant greater exposure to Antique knowledge, especially mathematics, art, and humanism. This is when the Golden Mean was again used to mathematically define ideal ratios in architecture and art.
The next pendulum swing was in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the Classical Period with a capital “C” came into being. It first developed in Italy in the early 17th century in the work of Annibale Carracci, but came into full flower in the art of the French Nicolas Poussin who conducted his career for the most part in Rome. It was under Louis XIV, especially in the work of painter Charles Le Brun, that the Classical Period took centre stage.