Art History: A Quick Brief of Romanticism

1790 -1890

The Romantic period arose in part when a society has grown tired of trends in intellectual thought, rationalization, industrialization, and the veneration of science. People longed for the escape of emotionally charged images and fantastical fiction in the visual arts and in literature.

Of key importance to romanticism art movement was expanding the emotion of the artist and of the viewer with scenes of beauty, love, anger, horror, suspense, and adoration. People and artists attuned to Romanticism preferred scenes in nature or the hint of a story to give them an escape of the reality of the new and crowded urban life.

Romanticism Origins and Historical Importance:

The beginnings of Romanticism coincide with the battles and political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic, with the American and French Revolutions. Additionally, Industrialism and urbanization were increasingly stressful for a people already tense from hardship. From this standpoint, the populace needed a break from the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment and an escape into the fantasy of Romanticism.

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself”.  – William Blake

Romanticism covered many artistic passions, particularly literature.

Literary trends often influence visual arts and in the visual arts, the first inklings of Romanticism appeared in land and seascapes and paintings of storms, shipwrecks, and disaster.

The Lady of Shallot Romanticism

Romantic paintings were created in all sizes, but the six-foot paintings, and in particular history paintings are enveloping in their impressive grandeur.

Meeting the public’s need for fantasy, many painters lost focus on the strict adherence to the technical mastery of painting principles and put all of their focus into creating mystical magical scenes that exported the viewer to another world. An example of this would be the work of John Waterhouse whose treatments of mythological female figures such as the Lady of Shallot are mesmerizing both in the rendition of the subject and her setting.

William Blake could tell entire stories in one panel without writing a single word in the way that he moved the viewer with emotional empathy toward the mythological beast or human in his painting.

“None know how often the hand of God is seen in a wilderness but them that rove it for a man’s life”.  – Thomas Cole

Transcendentalism and Romanticism coincided in North America and resulted in glorious landscapes from American artists.

The first incarnation was The Hudson River School in New York whose artists painted breathtaking natural scenes of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains. The next crop of American artists recorded the majesty, or idealized majesty, of the American West. Though greatly idealized, their paintings tempted, prompted, and moved the wealthy and the poor to move west and were influential in the Westward Expansion of the United States.

Venus and Anchises Romanticism

Venus and Anchises Romanticism

In as much beauty and spiritual grandeur as Romanticism did display through visual mediums, it could also put the viewer in suspense or horror.

Francisco de Goya and Theodore Gericault captured scenes of battle in graphic and macabre detail. Gericault’s Raft of Medusa illustrated the true graphic detail of a real shipwreck and also painted the sometimes gruesome life of asylum inmates.

“Nature is a collective idea, and, though its essence exists in each individual of the species, can never in its perfection inhabit a single object”.  – Henry Fuseli

Romanticism Key Highlights:

  • It was said of Francisco de Goya that he was “the last great painter in whose art thought and observation were balanced and combined to form a faultless unity.”
  • Romanticism believed in the potential for spiritual and emotional greatness in all people.
  • Marble was the popular sculptural medium of the time and was not appropriate for large scale sculptural work that would have been typical to Romanticism.
  • Auguste Preault created a plaster relief that told the story of the battle with such graphic reality that it was banned from the exhibition for almost 20 years.
  • Eugene Delacroix painted quite a lot of his art based on subject matter from the writings of Lord Byron, the Romantic era’s favorite poet, and most illustrious scandalous lover.
  • One of the very pressing reasons for the public to need the escape of Romanticism was the poor working conditions of the day. People often worked 14-hour shifts, never seeing the sunlight and then were forced to walk home through streets of filth to overcrowded homes, or worse, boarding houses.
  • Romanticism in America portrayed “the noble savage”, portraying Native Americans in commune with nature.
  • While both Romantics and Impressionists gave great focus to the effects of light, the Romantics were concerned with how light affects emotion in the viewer and how to manipulate it as such, while the Impressionists were concerned with the actual science of light as it behaves in nature.
  • German Romantic painters often painted single figures looking out over expansive vistas. This was related to the restrictions and boundaries on Germans politically and it expressed their need for expressive, physical, and emotional freedom.

Romanticism Top Works:

  • The Lady of Shallot – John Waterhouse
  • The Course of the Empire: The Savage State – Thomas Cole
  • The Bard – Thomas Jones
  • The Nightmare – Henry Fuseli
  • Shipwreck – Joseph Vernet
  • Twilight in the Wilderness – Frederic Edwin Church
  • Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog – Caspar David Frederich
  • Venus and Anchises – William Blake

Art Movements (Order by period of origin)

Dawn of Man – BC 10

1st Century to 10th Century

10thCentury to 15th Century

15th century onwards

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