A movement in art, literature and music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that rejected neoclassical restraint in favour of emotion and individual expression.

Joseph Mallord William Turner Falls near the Source of the Jumna in the Himalayas About 1836

Origins of the style

Romanticism first emerged as a literary movement in the eighteenth century, spreading to the visual arts at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The style emerged in France, Britain and Germany primarily as a reaction against the logic, order and discipline of the prevalent Neo classical style, focussing instead on the expression of imagination and emotion. Looking back, 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.'

Artists also reacted against the rationalism that accompanied the age of the Enlightenment, looking inwards to find subjective responses to the world around them, investing a sense of awe, wonder and mystery to their work. The notion of the individual artist as an isolated, melancholic genius sprang from a Romanticist sensibility and lingered well into the following century.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789 Romanticism became part of a general revolt against the supposed logic and reason of the establishment and many paintings featured bleak socio-political commentary set against brooding, overbearing skies. Nationalist pride was also a recurring theme; in Britain Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable captured the rugged, unspoilt British countryside, in Germany Caspar David Friedrich painted German scenery with moody, sombre tones and in France Eugene Delacroix tackled the French political landscape with vivid, rich colours.

The Sublime Landscape

The uncontrollable, unpredictable nature of the landscape was a hugely popular subject for Romantic painters; with its potential to create terrifying, overwhelming scenes that seem to engulf the viewer it was the ideal subject to eclipse rational Enlightenment thought. Artists also found it the perfect backdrop in which to invest individual expression, painting highly subjective responses to the world around them, even venturing into en plein air techniques. They revisited the eighteenth-century tradition for sublime landscapes, a subject on which Denis Deridot wrote, '…all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime.' Shipwrecks tossed back and forth by the sea were a recurring theme, epitomising the fragility of our humanity in the face of nature’s sheer, destructive force. Turner captured a God-fearing, awe-inspiring sublime in many of his paintings including Falls near the Source of the Junna in the Himalayas, about 1836, while Constable’s richly worked canvases, including The Vale of Dedham, 1828 captured the flickering light and rugged terrain of his native English countryside. English poet and writer William Blake, who came to the Romantic movement later in the 19th century, was also a keen nature lover, investing his religious and mystic subjects with raw, expressive emotions, while exploring man’s history and relationship to the cosmos.

Romantic Figures

As with Romantic landscapes, figurative and animal subjects were treated in highly individual ways, as a mere starting point from which artists could take flight with their imagination. People became symbols for expressing psychological and emotional states of mind, seen in troubled expressions or body language, emphasised further with brooding, temperamental skies. Theodore Gericault favoured melancholic subjects, painting troubled psychiatric patients and children set against dramatic backdrops to intensify a sense of inner emotional turmoil.

Animals represented the wild untameable forces of nature, as well as symbolising a darker, carnal aspect of humanity, which Eugene Delacroix, Antoine Louis Barye and Edwin Landseer all captured in loose sketches and completed paintings. Landseer’s iconic, patriotic Monarch of the Glen, about 1851, is one of the most famous paintings of the era, encapsulating the wonder of the Scottish landscape.

Escapism

The notion that painting could evoke an otherworldly experience was hugely popular with Romantic artists and a theme that was carried over from its earlier, literary form. Walter Scott, Lord Byron and William Shakespeare all influenced painters to create an escape from the real world into the realms of dream-like experiences.

The largely unexplored, exotic cultures of Africa and the Middle East featured prominently, representing the desires and fears of the great unknown. Jean-Dominique Ingres painted a series of Odalisques from his imagination, conjuring up visions of an Orient he had never seen, while others were more adventurous; Delacroix visited Morocco to gather source material and Theodore Chasseriau travelled to Algeria in search of a new world, although they have latterly been criticised for creating a Eurocentric, idealised version of the East.

Later Developments

The Romantic predilection for subjectivity and imagination was waning by the mid-19th century, with artists increasingly focussed on Realism, yet many aspects of Romantic thought have persisted throughout the following centuries. In America, the Hudson River school developed Romantic landscapes through the portrayal of awe-inspiring vistas, such as Frederick Edwin Church’s breathtaking Niagara Falls, 1867. Their ideas also influenced the otherworldly qualities of the Pre-Raphaelites in Britain. In France, the Barbizon School and the Impressionists expanded the Romanticists’ expressive, en plein air techniques, channeling them closer towards real-life experiences. In many ways the Romanticists’ emphasis on art as a carrier of the artist’s inner world was also the foundation for the self-expression of Modernist culture, and the sense that the individual has the right to express his feelings and emotions persists in contemporary practices today.

 

Artists

William Blake
1757 - 1827
Eugene Delacroix
1798 - 1863
John Constable
1776 - 1837
John Martin
1789 - 1854