Romanticism 1770 - 1840
Romanticism reflected the revolutionary spirit of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Initially a literary movement, its ideas soon spread to the visual arts.
Romanticism developed in response to political upheavals such as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Peninsular War in Spain, the War of Independence against Ottoman rule and a long campaign by the anti-slavery movement leading the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Europe was shaken by these political crises, revolutions and wars. This led to significant and rapid social change.
When leaders met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to reorganise European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars, it became clear that the peoples’ hopes for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ hadn’t been realised. However, during the course of the chaotic years since the French Revolution of 1789, new ideas and attitudes had taken hold.
The stress of change encouraged artists to produce highly imaginative and personal works that were full of turmoil and ambiguity.
Horace Vernet, Stormy Coast Scene after a Shipwreck, c1820
Romantic art can be identified by the following features:
Subjects express extremes and high drama or landscape into nature, exotic worlds or an idealised past;
Its emphasis is on emotion and spirituality, rejecting Neoclassical forms (inspired by the "classical" art and culture of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome) as overly mechanical and unfeeling;
Lines are organised in diagonal and swirling directions;
Composition are open, complicated by multiple figures, objects and spaces;
Compositions are often asymmetrical with dramatic proportions;
Light and colour show strong contrast;
Landscapes are favoured as a way to express emotion.
Artists from this period include:
Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
William Blake 1757-1827
Philipp Otti Runge 1777-1810 (also early colour therorist)
Theodore Gericault 1791-1824
Francis Danby 1793-1861
Francisco de Goya 1746-1828
Eugene Delacroix 1798-1863
JMW Turner 1775-1851
Caspar David Friedrich 1774-1840
Horace Vernet 1789–1863
Théodore Chassériau 1819–1856
Antoine-Louis Barye 1796-1875
Carl Julius von Leypold 1805–1874
Although the early Romantic artists may have wanted to tear up the classic artistic rule book, they nonetheless hand-picked elements from the past, reassembling them to create new images of great imaginative power.
For example, classical sculpture provided a source of inspiration, the age old theme of witchcraft had a particular resonance with the romantic sense of humanity’s powerlessness in the face of unseen forces, and apparitions and dreams had long provided subjects for paintings.
Many romantic artists became adept at conveying psychological horror through ghoulish visions which extended into the exploration of the animal kingdom. The Romanticists became known for using animals as both forces of nature and metaphors for human behaviour.
This was demonstrated in the sketches of wild animals in the menageries (zoos) of Paris and London in the 1820s by artists such as Delacroix, Antoine-Louis Barye, and Edwin Landseer. Images of wild, unbridled animals evoked primal states that stirred the Romantic imagination. Horses were a favourite subject. Gericault depicted horses of all breeds, from workhorses to racehorses, in his work. Lord Byron's 1819 tale of Mazeppa tied to a wild horse captivated Romantic artists from Delacroix to Théodore Chassériau, who exploited the violence and passion in the story. Similarly, Horace Vernet, who exhibited two scenes from Mazeppa in the Salon of 1827, also painted the riderless horse race that marked the end of the Roman Carnival, which he witnessed during his 1820 visit to Rome. His oil sketch captures the frenetic energy of the spectacle, just before the start of the race.
Along with emotional and behavioural extremes, Orientalism interested the Romantic artists. Ingres' sinuous odalisques reflect the contemporary fascination with the exoticism of the harem, albeit a purely imagined Orient, as he never travelled beyond Italy. In 1832 Delacroix travelled to Morocco, which prompted other artists to follow. A few years later, in 1846, Chassériau documented his visit to Algeria in notebooks filled with watercolours and drawings, which later served as models for paintings done in his Paris studio.
Literature also offered an alternative form of escapism. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poetry of Lord Byron, and the drama of Shakespeare transported artists' imagination to other worlds and eras. For example, Medieval England is the setting for Delacroix's tumultuous Abduction of Rebecca, which illustrates an episode from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.
In its stylistic diversity and range of subjects, Romanticism can't be easily categorised. As the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1846, "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling."
Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19
A key figure in French romanticism was Théodore Géricault, who shifted the emphasis of battle paintings from heroism to suffering and endurance. Géricault's masterpiece, Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), portrays on a heroic scale the suffering of ordinary humanity.
The Raft of the Medusa is generally regarded as an icon of Romanticism. It depicts an event in which the human and political aspects greatly interested Géricault: the wreck of a French Royal Navy frigate Méduse off the coast of Senegal in 1816, with over 150 soldiers on board.
It was captained by an officer of the Ancien Régime who had not sailed for over twenty years, and who ran the ship aground on a sandbank. Due to the shortage of lifeboats, those who were left behind had to build a raft for 150 people which resulted in a bloody 13 day odyssey which only 15 people survived.
The disaster of the shipwreck was made worse by the brutality and cannibalism that followed.
Géricault decided to represent the vain hope of the shipwrecked sailors - the rescue boat is visible on the horizon — but sails away without seeing them.
The pallid bodies are given cruel emphasis by the use of strong contrasts between light and dark; some writhe in the elation of hope, while others are unaware of the passing ship. It includes two figures in despair and solitude: one mourning his son, the other bewailing his own fate.
Géricault spent a long time preparing the composition of this painting, which he intended to exhibit at the Paris Salon of 1819. He began with extensive research and questioned the survivors, whom he sketched. He then worked with a model and wax figurines, studied severed cadavers in his studio, used friends as models, and hesitated between a number of subjects before finally completing the work.
Géricault's Raft of the Medusa was the star at the Salon of 1819: "It strikes and attracts all eyes" (Le Journal de Paris). Critics were divided: the horror and "terribilità" of the subject caused fascination, but devotees of classicism expressed their distaste for what they described as a "pile of corpses".
Géricault's work expressed a paradox: how could a hideous subject be translated into a powerful painting, how could the painter reconcile art and reality?
The pictorial composition of the painting is constructed upon two pyramidal structures.
The perimeter of the large mast on the left of the canvas forms the first. The horizontal grouping of dead and dying figures in the foreground forms the base from which the survivors emerge, surging upward towards the emotional peak, where the central figure waves desperately at a rescue ship.
The viewer's attention is first drawn to the centre of the canvas, then follows the directional flow of the survivors' bodies, viewed from behind and straining to the right.
According to the art historian Justin Wintle, "a single horizontal diagonal rhythm [leads] us from the dead at the bottom left, to the living at the apex."
Two other diagonal lines are used to heighten the dramatic tension. One follows the mast and its rigging and leads the viewer's eye towards an approaching wave that threatens to engulf the raft, while the second, composed of reaching figures, leads to the distant silhouette of the Argus, the ship that eventually rescued the survivors.
Diagram showing the outline of the two pyramidal structures that form the basis of the work. The position of the Argus is indicated by the yellow dot.
Géricault's palette is composed of pallid flesh tones, and the murky colours of the survivors' clothes, the sea and the clouds.
Overall the painting is dark and relies largely on the use of sombre, mostly brown pigments, a palette that Géricault believed was effective in suggesting tragedy and pain. The work's lighting has been described as "Caravaggesque", after the Italian artist closely associated with tenebrism — the use of violent contrast between light and dark. Even Géricault's treatment of the sea is muted, being rendered in dark greens rather than the deep blues that could have afforded contrast with the tones of the raft and its figures. From the distant area of the rescue ship, a bright light shines, providing illumination to an otherwise dull brown scene.
Francisco José de Goya was a Spanish artist who moved from popularist to deeply pessimistic and enquiring paintings, drawings, etchings, and frescoes over a long career.
Goya came to artistic maturity during an age of enlightenment whilst Bourbon king Charles III ruled Spain as a monarch sympathetic to change, employing ministers who supported radical economic, industrial, and agricultural reform. Goya moved in circles of royal patronage and at the age of forty, he was appointed painter to the king and was promoted to court painter in 1789, under the newly accessioned Charles IV.
The rule of Charles IV came to an end when Napoleon's armies invaded Spain in 1808 and Napoleon placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne. The brutal incursion included mass executions of Spanish citizens who rose up in opposition to Napoleon's invasion.
Although repulsed by French atrocities, Goya pledged allegiance to Bonaparte, and painted members of the French regime. In 1811, he was awarded the Royal Order of Spain.
Ferdinand VII (son of Charles IV), who took over the throne after Napoleon's fall in 1814, revoked the Constitution, reinstated the Inquisition, and declared himself absolute monarch. Not long afterward, he launched a reign of terror.
In response, Goya demonstrated his allegiance to the king by commemorating Spain's uprising against the French. On May 2, 1808, in the heart of Madrid, a crowd of citizens had attacked a detachment of Mameluke (Moorish) cavalry led by a French general. Then, the following day, May 3, the French struck back.
Goya painted two monumental works so that these events should never be forgotten. The rising of May 2 1808 (The Second of May, 1808) and the execution of the partisans on May 3, 1808 (The Third of May, 1808) at Príncipe Pío, a hill just outside Madrid .
The Third of May, 1808 is a painting against which all future paintings of tragic violence can be measured.
The focal point of the picture is the man in the white shirt. His expression is of disbelief. His outstretched arms inevitably recalling Christ on the Cross - a defiant gesture of indescribable power. The coarse, swarthy, dilated face - all vitality. Beside him a man stares at his executioners, while a monk stars at the ground and clasps his hands in prayer.
The next group of victims trudge the hill to their terrible fate. The faces of the pueblo , the Spanish people, keep their individuality right up to the edge of the mass grave. They are in contrast to the utter anonymity of the firing squad - they are a faceless line displaying machine-like efficiency.
For dramatic effect, Goya shows the scene taking place at night, although in fact the killings were carried out during the day.
He has used a limited range of black and brown tones relieved by splashes of bright colour, such as the brilliant white light of the lantern and red of the shirt. The remarkably free handling a paint which Goya applied with his fingers and knives, as well as brushes, add to the overall dynamism of the scene.
(Goya continued his account of the atrocities of war in a series of eighty-five prints called The Disasters of War which depict the travesties witnessed during Spain's struggle for independence from France)
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Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808
Monk by the Sea, exhibited in the Academy in Berlin in 1810, depicts a monk standing on the shore looking out to sea. The location has been identified as Rügen, an island off the north-east coast of Germany, a site Friedrich frequently painted.
The monk is positioned a little over a third of the way into the painting from the left, to a ratio of around 1:1.6, known as the golden ratio. However there is little else about this painting that can be described as conventional.
The horizon line is unusually low and stretches uninterrupted from one end of the canvas to the other.
Friedrich uses colour and form to reveal emotional truths of an individual at a time of great change and uncertainty. The monk appears almost inconsequential - a small lone figure in dark attire.
The dark blue sea is flecked with white suggesting the threat of a storm. Above it in that turbulent middle section blue-grey clouds gather giving way in the highest part to a clearer, calmer blue.The transition from one to the other is achieved subtly through a technique called scumbling, in which one colour is applied in thin layers on top of another to create an ill-defined, hazy effect.
Friedrich would have painted this in his studio, using freely drawn plein air sketches, and he would have used the most evocative elements to create an expressive composition, continuing to modify it to make it more evocative. It has also been suggested that the monk may be modelled on Friedrich himself.
The composition could not be further from typical German landscape paintings of the time. These generally followed the principles of the picturesque style imported from England. This style tended to employ well-established perspective techniques designed to draw the viewer into the picture; devices such as trees situated in the foreground, or rivers winding their course, in a soft s shape, into the distance.
Friedrich however deliberately shunned these principles. His unconventional decisions in a painting of this size (110 cm × 171.5 cm (43 in × 67.5 in)) provoked consternation among contemporary viewers, as his friend Heinrich von Kleist famously wrote: “Since it has, in its uniformity and boundlessness, no foreground but the frame, it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut off.”
Friedrich drew on the natural world around him, often returning to the same area again and again. He condensed the image so as to communicate an exact emotion. As he put it, “a painter should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself.”
Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
Liberty Leading the People is one of Eugéne Delacroix's most well known Romantic paintings and is often associated with the French Revolution of 1789, even though it was painted following the 1830 uprising known as the Trois Glorieuses ("Three Glorious Days").
However, it is an enduring image of what we imagine a revolution to feel like: violent, ecstatic, and murderous.
Delacroix wrote to his nephew Charles Verninac: "Three days amid gunfire and bullets, as there was fighting all around. A simple stroller like myself ran the same risk of stopping a bullet as the impromptu heroes who advanced on the enemy with pieces of iron fixed to broom handles."
By the time Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People in the autumn of 1830 he was already an acknowledged leader of the Romantic school in French painting.
He took inspiration from Rubens and other painters from the Venetian Renaissance, with an emphasis on colour and movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modelled form. His central themes were characterised by dramatic and romantic content, which led him to travel to North Africa in search of the exotic. A friend and supporter of Théodore Géricault, Delacroix was also inspired by Byron, with whom he shared a strong identification with the "forces of the sublime" of nature in violent action.
The painting was first exhibited at the official Salon of May 1831. In a letter to his brother, he wrote: "My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject—a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her".
In the painting, the allegory of Liberty is personified by a young woman of the people wearing the Phrygian cap (liberty cap), of the earlier Revolution, her curls escaping onto her neck. With her dress falling down to expose her breasts, Liberty holds up the tricolour, the flag of liberty (and now the French national flag) in a powerful arm. In her other hand is a rifle with a fixed bayonet. She stands noble and resolute, her body illuminated on the right, cutting a distinct figure among the men as she turns her head to spur them on to final victory. The mound of corpses acts as a kind of pedestal from which she strides barefoot out of the picture frame and into the space of the viewer.
Two Parisian urchins have joined the fight: the one on the left wide-eyed under his light infantry cap; the more famous figure to the right of Liberty is Gavroche, a symbol of youthful revolt against injustice and sacrifice for a noble cause. He sports the black velvet beret worn by students as a symbol of rebellion, and advances right foot forward, brandishing cavalry pistols with one arm raised, a war cry on his lips.
The fighter who carries an infantry saber is recognisably a factory worker with his apron and sailor trousers.
The kneeling figure with the top hat of a bourgeois or fashionable urbanite (a poet or an artist, perhaps even Delacroix himself?) who wears loose-fitting trousers and an artisan's red flannel belt, clutches a double-barrelled hunting gun as if he has never touched a firearm before.
The wounded man raising himself up at the sight of Liberty with his knotted scarf, peasant's smock and red flannel belt suggest the temporary workers of Paris. The blue jacket, red belt, and white shirt echo the colours of the flag.
What these figures, who represent the various Parisian social classes, have in common is the fierceness and determination in their eyes.
The towers of Notre Dame which can be seen in the distance represent liberty and Romanticism—as they did for writer Victor Hugo—and situate the action in Paris.
Delacroix's use of expressive brushstrokes and his study of the optical effects of colour shaped the work of the Post Impressionists. The composition is given unity by his skilful use of colour; the blue, white, and red elements have counterpoints; the white of the parallel straps across the fighters’ shoulders echoes that of the gaiters and of the shirt on the corpse to the left, while the grey tonality enhances the red of the flag.
This work was the inspiration for New York's Statue of Liberty, which was given to the United States by the French in 1886.
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Think of a contemporary social or political issue that you feel particularly passionate about.
Create a work using any medium that clearly expresses how you feel about that issue.
Focus on creating a 'hero/heroine' in your work. Think about wanting your audience to really take notice of your message.
How did you feel as you were working on this activity? Does this show in your work? Do you think you have been persuasive?