Summary of Romanticism
At the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th, Romanticism quickly spread throughout Europe and the United States to challenge the rational ideal held so tightly during the Enlightenment. The artists emphasized that sense and emotions - not simply reason and order - were equally important means of understanding and experiencing the world. Romanticism celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the enduring search for individual rights and liberty. Its ideals of the creative, subjective powers of the artist fueled avant-garde movements well into the 20th century.
Romanticist practitioners found their voices across all genres, including literature, music, art, and architecture. Reacting against the sober style of Neoclassicism preferred by most countries' academies, the far reaching international movement valued originality, inspiration, and imagination, thus promoting a variety of styles within the movement. Additionally, in an effort to stem the tide of increasing industrialization, many of the Romanticists emphasized the individual's connection to nature and an idealized past.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- In part spurred by the idealism of the French Revolution, Romanticism embraced the struggles for freedom and equality and the promotion of justice. Painters began using current events and atrocities to shed light on injustices in dramatic compositions that rivaled the more staid Neoclassical history paintings accepted by national academies.
- Romanticism embraced individuality and subjectivity to counteract the excessive insistence on logical thought. Artists began exploring various emotional and psychological states as well as moods. The preoccupation with the hero and the genius translated to new views of the artist as a brilliant creator who was unburdened by academic dictate and tastes. As the French poet Charles Baudelaire described it, "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling."
- In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and plein air painting, or painting out of doors. Works based on close observation of the landscape as well as the sky and atmosphere elevated landscape painting to a new, more respectful level. While some artists emphasized humans at one with and a part of nature, others portrayed nature's power and unpredictability, evoking a feeling of the sublime - awe mixed with terror - in the viewer.
- Romanticism was closely bound up with the emergence of newly found nationalism that swept many countries after the American Revolution. Emphasizing local folklore, traditions, and landscapes, Romanticists provided the visual imagery that further spurred national identity and pride. Romantic painters combined the ideal with the particular, imbuing their paintings with a call to spiritual renewal that would usher in an age of freedom and liberties not yet seen.
Overview of Romanticism
When he was four years old, William Blake had a vision of "the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty!" Later, expressed in his poetry and visual art, his prophetic visions and belief in the "real and eternal world" of the imagination resulted in the unknown artist being acknowledged as the "father of Romanticism."
Important Art and Artists of Romanticism
Fuseli's strange and macabre painting depicts a ravished woman, draped across a divan with a small, hairy incubus sitting on top of her, staring out menacingly at the viewer. A mysterious black mare with white eyes and flaring nostrils appears behind her, entering the scene through lush, red curtains. We seem to be looking at the effects and the contents of the woman's dream at the same time.
Fuseli's ghastly scene was the first of its kind in the midst of The Age of Reason, and Fuseli became something of a transitional figure. While Fuseli held many of the same tenets as the Neoclassicists (notice the idealized depiction of the woman), he was intent on exploring the dark recesses of human psychology when most were concerned with scientific exploration of the objective world. When shown in 1782 at London's Royal Academy exhibition, the painting shocked and frightened visitors. Unlike the paintings the public was used to seeing, Fuseli's subject matter was not drawn from history or the bible, nor did it carry any moralizing intent. This new subject matter would have wide-ranging repercussions in the art world. Even though the woman is bathed in a bright light, Fuseli's composition suggests that light is unable to penetrate the darker realms of the human mind.
The relationship between the mare, the incubus, and the woman remains suggestive and not explicit, heightening the terrifying possibilities. Fuseli's combination of horror, sexuality, and death insured the image's notoriety as a defining example of Gothic horror, which inspired such writers as Mary Shelly and Edgar Allan Poe.
The Ancient of Days served as the frontispiece to Blake's book, Europe a Prophecy (1794), which contained 18 engravings. This image depicts Urizen, a mythological figure first created by the poet in 1793 to represent the rule of reason and law and influenced by the image of God described in the Book of Proverbs as one who "set a compass upon the face of the earth." Depicted as an old man with flowing white beard and hair in an illuminated orb, surrounded by a circle of clouds, Urizen crouches, as his left hand extends a golden compass over the darkness below, creating and containing the universe. Blake combines classical anatomy with a bold and energetic composition to evoke a vision of divine creation.
Blake eschewed traditional Christianity and felt instead that imagination was "the body of God." His highly original and often mysterious poems and images were meant to convey the mystical visions he often experienced. Europe a Prophecy reflected his disappointment in the French Revolution that he felt had not resulted in true freedom but in a world full of suffering as reflected in England and France in the 1790s. Little known during his lifetime, Blake's works were rediscovered by the Pre-Raphaelites at the end of the 19th century, and as more artists continued to rediscover him in the 20th century, he has become one of the most influential of the Romantic artists.
This painting depicts Napoleon I, not yet the Emperor, visiting his ailing soldiers in 1799 in Jaffa, Syria, at the end of his Egyptian Campaign. His troops had violently sacked the city but were subsequently stricken in an outbreak of plague. Gros creates a dramatic tableau of light and shade with Napoleon in the center, as if on a stage. He stands in front of a Moorish arcade and touches the sores of one of his soldiers, while his staff officer holds his nose from the stench. In the foreground, sick and dying men, many naked, suffer on the ground in the shadows. A Syrian man on the left, along with his servant who carries a breadbasket, gives bread to the ill, and two men behind them carry a man out on a stretcher.
While Gros' teacher Jaques Louis David also portrayed Napoleon in all of his mythic glory, Gros, along with some of David's other students, injected a Baroque dynamism into their compositions to create a more dramatic effect than David's Neoclassicism offered. Gros' depiction of suffering and death, combined with heroism and patriotism within an exotic locale became hallmarks of many Romantic paintings.
The use of color and light highlights Napoleon's gesture, meant to convey his noble character in addition to likening him to Christ, who healed the sick. Napoleon commissioned the painting, hoping to silence the rumors that he had ordered fifty plague victims poisoned. The work was exhibited at the 1804 Salon de Paris, its appearance timed to occur between Napoleon's proclaiming himself as emperor and his coronation.
Useful Resources on Romanticism
- 41k viewsLandmarks of Western Art Documentary: RomanticismOur PickBritish overview of the movement
- 22k viewsDelacroix: and the Rise of Modern ArtOur PickLecture By The National Gallery, London
- 29k viewsJ.M.W. Turner: Episode of The Power of ArtOur PickBy Simon Schama
- 103k viewsJohn Constable: The Hay Wain (1821)Educator Colin Wiggins of The National Gallery, London
- 25k viewsFrancisco Goya: DocumentaryBy the BBC
- 16k viewsThomas Cole - The Voyage of Life (1842)By the National Gallery of Art
- 33k viewsWilliam Blake: Poet, Artist & VisionaryEarly Romanticism in England By Ashmolean Museum
- 16k viewsThéodore Géricault: Raft of the MedusaIn French, with English subtitles
- Delacroix: and the Rise of Modern ArtOur PickBy Patrick Noon and Christopher Riopelle
- Théodore GéricaultBy Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer
- Romanticism: A German AffairBy Rüdiger Safranski and Robert E. Goodwin
- Romanticism and Art (World of Art)Our PickBy William Vaughn
- Caspar David FriedrichBy Johannes Grave
- Cry Freedom: Jonathan Jones on how Delacroix captured the ecstasy of libertyOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / April 1, 2005
- Caspar David Friedrich at the edge of the imaginableBy Julian Bell / Times Literary Supplement / October 26, 2012
- Lord Byron - A Rock Star Poet in an Age of ExtravaganceBy Carolyn McDowall / The Culture Concept Circle / April 21, 2012