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The word is widely used to describe something which is an exemplar of quality. In an art-historical context it is often employed to describe the culture and artefacts of Greco-Roman antiquity (as well as a specific period of Greek art). In many contexts these two general applications are combined, the implication being that the art of those epochs provides a model of perfection.

Painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Raphael and Poussin, have also been described as classical. They were inspired by the idealisation and compositional stability of such precedents, and in turn established formulas in their work which came to be regarded as 'classic', and the basis of the academic tradition of painting. (See the entry for Neo-classical.)