30 Romanticism


Romanticism, fueled by the French Revolution, was a reaction to the scientific rationalism and classicism of the Age of Enlightenment.

Key Points

  • The ideals of the French Revolution created the context from which both Romanticism and the Counter- Enlightenment emerged.
  • Romanticism was a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and also a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.
  • Romanticism legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art.
  • The Industrial Revolution also influenced Romanticism, which was in part about escaping from modern realities.

Key Terms

  • Romanticism: 18th century artistic and intellectual movement that stressed emotion, freedom, and individual imagination.
  • Counter-Enlightenment: A movement that arose primarily in late 18th and early 19th century Germany against the rationalism, universalism, and empiricism commonly associated with the Enlightenment.
  • Avantgarde: originally a military term referring to the vanguard, or those soldiers out in front.

Overview

Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. In most areas the movement was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 CE to 1840 CE. Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate a revived medievalism.

The Influence of the French Revolution

Though influenced by other artistic and intellectual movements, the ideologies and events of the French Revolution created the primary context from which both Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment emerged. Upholding the ideals of the Revolution, Romanticism was a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and also a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individualists and artists, whose pioneering examples would elevate society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art.

Romanticism in Europe had two major strains: Orientalism and the Gothic. Earlier in the 18th century novels like The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole published in 1764, or The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796, created an audience for entertainments that appealed to the imagination and the senses. Dark visions and portrayals of nightmares were gaining popularity in Germany as evidenced by Goethe’s possession and admiration of paintings by Fuseli, which were said to be capable of “giving the viewer a good fright.” Notable artists included Joseph Vernet, Caspar Wolf, Philip James de Loutherbourg, and Henry Fuseli who often turned to the supernatural subjects in Shakespeare’s plays as material.

A woman in white hanging off a bead while a squat creature sits on her stomach and a dark horse looks on
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts. PD=US

The Industrial Revolution also had an influence on Romanticism, which was in part an escape from modern realities of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism. Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, “Realism” was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism.

Painting in the Romantic Period

Romanticism was a prevalent artistic movement in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Key Points

  • “History painting,” traditionally referred to technically difficult narrative paintings of multiple subjects, but became more frequently focused on recent historical events.
  • Gericault and Delacroix were leaders of French romantic painting, and both produced iconic history paintings.
  • Ingres, though firmly committed to Neoclassical values, is seen as expressing the Romantic spirit of the times.
  • The Spanish artist Francisco Goya is considered perhaps the greatest painter of the Romantic period, though he did not necessarily self-identify with the movement; his oeuvre reflects the integration of many styles.
  • The German variety of Romanticism notably valued wit, humor, and beauty.
  • The Gothic and the Gothic Revival in architecture turned to ideas made popular in literature that often featured horror or terror. Architecture used features from the Gothic of the 12th – 15/16th c. which seemed to participate in that emotionally dark moment.
  • In England, Edmund Burke will write A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757 which suggested that wild nature could elicit emotions of terror in humans.

Key Terms

  • Romanticism: 18th century artistic and intellectual movement that stressed emotion, freedom, and individual imagination.
  • Neoclassicism: The name given to Western movements in the decorative and visual arts, literature, theater, music, and architecture that draw inspiration from the “classical” art and culture of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome.
  • history painting: A genre in painting defined by its subject matter rather than artistic style. These paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story, rather than a specific and static subject.

Romanticism

While the arrival of Romanticism in French art was delayed by the hold of Neoclassicism on the academies, it became increasingly popular during the Napoleonic period. Its initial form was the history paintings that acted as propaganda for the new regime. The key generation of French Romantics born between 1795–1805, in the words of Alfred de Vigny, had been “conceived between battles, attended school to the rolling of drums.” The French Revolution (1789–1799) followed by the Napoleonic Wars until 1815, meant that war, and the attending political and social turmoil that went along with them, served as the background for Romanticism.

History Painting

Since the Renaissance, history painting was considered among the highest and most difficult forms of art. History painting is defined by its subject matter rather than artistic style. History paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story rather than a specific and static subject. In the Romantic period, history painting was extremely popular and increasingly came to refer to the depiction of historical scenes, rather than those from religion or mythology.

French Romanticism

This generation of the French school developed personal Romantic styles while still concentrating on history painting with a political message. Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa of 1821 remains the greatest achievement of the Romantic history painting, which in its day had a powerful anti-government message. The subject was one of contemporary horror depicting shipwrecked men who had reportedly resorted to cannibalism to survive.

A group of desperate and dying men on a shipwreck at sunset
The Raft of the Medusa by Jean Louis Theodore Gericault, 1818–21: This painting is regarded as one of the greatest Romantic era paintings

Ingres

Profoundly respectful of the past, Ingres assumed the role of a guardian of academic orthodoxy against the ascendant Romantic style represented by his nemesis Eugène Delacroix. He described himself as a “conservator of good doctrine, and not an innovator.” Nevertheless, modern opinion has tended to regard Ingres and the other Neoclassicists of his era as embodying the Romantic spirit of his time, while his expressive distortions of form and space make him an important precursor of modern art.

Several men wearing Roman helmets and shawls talking near a musician
Achilles Receiving the Envoys of Agamemnon by Ingres, 1801: Ingres, though firmly committed to Neoclassical values, is seen as expressing the Romantic spirit of the times

Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) had great success at the Salon with works like The Barque of Dante (1822), The Massacre at Chios (1824) and Death of Sardanapalus (1827). Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) remains, with The Medusa, one of the best known works of French Romantic painting. Both of these works reflected current events and appealed to public sentiment.

Woman with bared breasts holding the French flag above a group of dead men
Liberty Leading the People, by Delacroix, 1830: Liberty Leading the People is a painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X of France

Goya

Spanish painter Francisco Goya is today generally regarded as the greatest painter of the Romantic period. However, in many ways he remained wedded to the classicism and realism of his training. More than any other artist of the period, Goya exemplified the Romantic expression of the artist’s feelings and his personal imaginative world. He also shared with many of the Romantic painters a more free handling of paint, emphasized in the new prominence of the brushstroke and impasto, which tended to be repressed in neoclassicism under a self-effacing finish. Goya’s work is renowned for its expressive line, color, and brushwork as well as its distinct subversive commentary. His Third of May, 1808, pictured an incident from the French Peninsular War in which civilians were slaughtered at the hands of Napoleon’s mercenaries. The terror it invokes is part of the Gothic mindset of the Romantic period, but with real-world subject matter.

A man surrendering as a line of soldiers point guns at him and others
Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, 2.9 × 3.8 yd. PDUS, The Prado in Google Earth: Home – 7th level of zoom, JPEG compression quality: Photoshop 8

The Hudson River School

In the United States, a similar movement, called the Hudson River School, emerged in the 19th century and quickly became one of the most distinctive worldwide purveyors of landscape pieces. American painters in this movement created works of mammoth scale in an attempt to capture the epic size and scope of the landscapes that inspired them. The work of Thomas Cole, the school’s generally acknowledged founder, seemed to emanate from a similar philosophical position as that of European landscape artists. Both championed, from a position of secular faith, the spiritual benefits that could be gained from contemplating nature. Some of the later Hudson River School artists, such as Albert Bierstadt, created less comforting works that placed a greater emphasis (with a great deal of Romantic exaggeration) on the raw, terrifying power of nature.

A river winding through a valley beside a jungle under dark clouds
The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, 1836: Thomas Cole was a founding member of the pioneering Hudson School, the most influential landscape art movement in 19th century America

The Gothic Revival

The Gothic strain of Romanticism was also seen in architecture. The Gothic Revival, as it was called, was an architectural movement beginning in England during the 1740s that sought to revive medieval forms.

Key Points

  • Gothic Revival sought to revive medieval forms, much like the Neoclassical style sought to revive works from classical antiquity.
  • The Gothic Revival occurred as industrialization progressed, in part because there was a reaction against the use of machinery and factory production.
  • While the Neoclassical style of the 18th century was associated with “radical” and liberal perspectives, the Gothic Revival was associated with “traditional” sensibilities, such as conservatism and the monarchy. The Gothic Revival style is characterized by its stone and brick structures, many of which are religious in nature, as well as having heavy decoration, pointed arches, steep gables, and large windows.
  • Gothic revival cottages and smaller buildings, called “Carpenter Gothic,” also became popular.
  • A. W. N. Pugin was a prominent architect, designer, artist, and critic who was involved in the Gothic Revival style.

Key Terms

  • medievalism: A custom or belief from the Middle Ages.
  • gable: The triangular area of external wall adjacent to two meeting sloped roofs.
  • tracery: Bars or ribs, usually of stone or wood, or other material, that subdivide an opening or stand in relief against a door or wall as an ornamental feature.

The Gothic Revival was primarily an architectural movement that began in 1740s England. The style sought to revive medieval forms, much as the Neoclassical style sought to revive works from classical antiquity. During the 18th century, the ruins of medieval Gothic architecture began to receive newfound appreciation after having been relatively dismissed in the overall history of architecture. Some critics believe there was a kind of nostalgia for an enchanted, less rational world that was linked to the perceived superstitions of medieval Catholicism.

In England, the center of the Gothic revival, the movement was intertwined with philosophical trends associated with a reawakening of Christian traditions in response to the growth of religious nonconformism. Ultimately, the Gothic style became widespread in the third quarter of the 19th century. While the Neoclassical style of the 18th century was associated with “radical” and liberal perspectives, the Gothic Revival was associated with “traditional” sensibilities, such as conservatism and the monarchy. As industrialization progressed, there was an increasing reaction against the use of machinery and factory production. Supporters of medievalism criticized industrial society, believing the pre-industrial model to be a golden age.

The Gothic Revival style is characterized by its stone and brick structures, many of which are religious in nature, as well as heavy decoration. The most fundamental element of the Gothic style of architecture is the pointed arch. Columns that support arches are smaller in Gothic buildings, and continue all the way to the roof, where they become part of the vault. In the vault, the pointed arch can be seen in three dimensions where the ribbed vaulting meets in the center of the ceiling of each bay. This ribbed vaulting is another distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture. The slender columns and lighter systems of thrust allowed for larger windows and more light in Gothic structures. The windows, tracery, carvings, and ribs make up a bewildering display of decoration where almost every surface is decorated with a profusion of shapes and patterns. Gothic revival cottages and smaller buildings also became popular and are referred to as “Carpenter Gothic.” These structures are defined by their use of Gothic elements such as pointed arches and steep gables.

A. W. N. Pugin was a prominent architect, designer, artist, and critic who was deeply involved in the Gothic Revival. The height of his work is seen in the interior design of the Palace of Westminster. Pugin designed many churches in England during his career and published a series of volumes of architectural drawings entitled Examples of Gothic Architecture and Specimens of Gothic Architecture that remained in print and were the standards for the Gothic Revival for the next century.

Sharp building with many windows and steeples and a statue of a rider on a horse in front
Exterior of the Palace of Westminster: A. W. N. Pugin designed the Palace of Westminster, and was an architect, designer, artist, and critic deeply involved in the Gothic Revival

Orientalism

Especially in France which had political and economic interests in overseas colonies, protectorates and mandate territories that came under French rule from the 16th century onward, the picturing of the “Oriental Other” became popular. France began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830 and would hold it until the 1960s..1 The paintings that came out of this period are, as Linda Nochlin and others have pointed out, not a true record of the life of the people of these areas, but a romantic and essentially racist characterization of them as exotic, brutal, highly sexualized and essentially uncivilized compared to the French.

A group of dark haired women seated in a harem
Eugène Delacroix, The Women of Algiers, 1834. Oil on canvas, 5’10 7/8 x 7’6 1/8”. Louvre. PD-US. http://www.abcgallery.com/D/delacroix/delacroix22.html

Eugene Delacroix was the leading painter of the French Romantic movement and had made a trip to North Africa in 1832 to gain visual material for paintings. The results were romantic fantasies like The Women of Algiers from 1834. The idea of a harem – women who were sexually available to a single man – the Sultan – was part of the exotic appeal.

As opposed to the smooth, academic “licked surface” of Neoclassicism, Romantic paintings like those of Delacroix are characterized by more painterly brushstrokes, softer edges or contours, and areas of impasto paint (thicker paint).

Romantic Landscape in England

Key Points

  • The Industrial Revolution also influenced Romanticism, which was in part about escaping from modern realities.
  • Romanticism was a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and also a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.
  • Romanticism legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art.
  • The decline of explicitly religious works, a result of the Protestant Reformation, contributed to the rise in the popularity of landscapes.
  • English painters, working in the Romantic tradition, became well known for watercolor landscapes in the 18th century.
  • Artists in the Barbizon School brought landscape painting to prominence in France, and were inspired by English landscape artist John Constable. The Barbizon school was an important precursor to Impressionism.
  • The glorified depiction of a nation’s natural wonders, and the development of a distinct national style, were both ways in which nationalism influenced landscape painting in Europe and America.
  • The Hudson River School was the most influential landscape art movement in 19th century America.
Key Terms
  • Romanticism: 18th century artistic and intellectual movement that stressed emotion, freedom, and individual imagination.
  • plein air: En plein air is a French expression that means “in the open air,” and refers to the act of painting outdoors. In the mid-19th century, working in natural light became particularly important to the Barbizon School and Impressionism.
  • Picturesque: as described by Thomas Girtin, the picturesque was a method of creating satisfying landscape drawings, sketches, or paintings by including such formulaic things as a rough, dark foreground, a long light vista, and ruins.

In England, landscapes had initially only been painted as the backgrounds for portraits, and typically portrayed the parks or estates of a landowner. This changed as a result of Anthony van Dyck, who, along with other Flemish artists living in England, began a national tradition. In the 18th century, watercolor painting, mostly of landscapes, became an English speciality. The nation had both a buoyant market for professional works of this variety, and a large number of amateur painters. By the beginning of the 19th century, the most highly regarded English artists were all, for the most part, dedicated landscapists, including John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, and Samuel Palmer.

The Hay Wain by John Constable, 1821: Constable was a popular English Romantic Painter.

In Europe, as John Ruskin noted, and Sir Kenneth Clark confirmed, landscape painting was the “chief artistic creation of the 19th century,” and “the dominant art.” As a result, in the times that followed, it became common for people to “assume that the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape was a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity.”

William Gilpin was an English clergyman whose walks and sketches in the countryside resulted in a formula for the creation of pleasant views. His ideas resulted in more constrained landscapes with the sorts of restrained subjects young ladies of good breeding would feel comfortable, the culture thought, recreating. Jane Austin’s heroine in Pride and Prejudice remarks upon being asked, belatedly, to join Darcy, Mrs. Hurst, and Miss Bingley on a walk she replies:

“No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly group’d, and appear to uncommon, advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good bye.”

She then ran gaily off …

As several critics have noted, the “subtext” here is Gilpin’s appendix on his prints, where he explains in technical jargon that there are problems in “forming two into a group,” while “four introduce a new difficulty in grouping.” But with three you “are almost sure of a good group.” Elizabeth shows herself to be a good student of Gilpin, like her creator; but the cause for her gay laugh is the little joke she shares with those of us who have read Gilpin, since what Gilpin is actually talking about is “the doctrine of grouping larger cattle.”2

Dark scene of a castle on the side of a hill with a tower in front of a mountain
William Gilpin, Penrith Castle, 1772
Tall trees blowing in the wind before a valley with a river
John Constable, Dedham Vale, 1802, oil on canvas, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Constable’s landscapes never moved far from his childhood home on the River Stour in Suffolk. His father was a successful landowner and farmer, and Constable recorded the life of the rural gentry in the traditional English countryside that was rapidly giving way to the factories and choking coal smoke of the Industrial Revolution. He studied the old masters including Claude Lorrain and the Dutch landscapists of the Baroque, but his subject matter was always what he saw as the truth of what he knew best. He refused to travel on the continent, but ironically his work became well-known and admired in France and was influential to the Barbizon School which would, in turn, inspire the Impressionists. Constable, like Turner, was a Romantic at heart in that his work sometimes suggested the themes of Burke’s Sublime. Turner was more dramatic in his subjects, but Constable’s emphasis on the nostalgia of the English countryside as it disappeared was also in the Romantic tradition.

J.M.W. Turner looked to subjects of a more Sublime character including those of his own imagination. Unlike Constable, Turner traveled widely in Europe and incorporated elements of landscape, weather, sea travel and other subjects into the work. Some of his most awe-inspiring, or horror-inducing and therefore Sublime, subjects were the shipwrecks and especially the politically inspired The Slave Ship, of 1840. You can see a good analysis of that work at https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/enlightenment-revolution/v/turner-slave-ship-slavers-throwing-overboard-the-dead-and-dying-typhoon-coming-on-1840.

Several ships full of people being thrown by large waves
J.M.W. Turner, The Wreck of a Transport Ship, c. 1810, oil on canvas
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_colonial_empire
2 A. Walton Litz, “The Picturesque in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen Society of North America, No. 1, Princeton University, Princeton, 1979.

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Introduction To Art by Muffet Jones is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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