The difficulty encountered in finding a definition for Romanticism that encompasses both its complex development and regional particularities seems insurmountable. Romanticism can be understood primarily as the acceptance and, finally, the exaltation of those elements that are characteristic of human consciousness and behavior: melancholy, irrationality, doubt, individual eccentricity, excessive egocentricity, despair, dissatisfaction with the repetitive mechanism of so-called “normal” life, the desire to reunite with the forces of nature to the point of being absorbed by them. These are elements that, during the two or three generations that preceded the Romantic movement proper, had not enjoyed any moral or social sanction.
That the eighteenth-century spirit contained similar elements is beyond doubt, but in them were not found, according to the writings of the time, nothing but negative values, so that the excellent description of the “evil of the century” that provides us with the French physician and philosopher La Mettrie (1709-51) in De la folie concludes by considering it a symptom of mental disorders. Although the first theorizing took place in Germany, Romanticism as a phenomenon had effects of wider resonance in France, where the directive norms of social behavior were stronger; so strong, that even a sense of unease, of guilt indeed, is concealed in almost all French romantics, up to Victor Hugo.
David’s commentary on Girodet’s work Ossian Welcomes the French Generals (1801: Château de la Malmaison), contains a certain disapproval and even disappointment, as if he discovered the artist in the act of indulging in some anti-social manifestation. Delacroix himself did not give his personal moral endorsement to this new form of art, although his work illustrates it in all its evolution. Romanticism therefore implied a certain isolation from the social and anthropocentric values that had guided human behavior and consciousness, or at least the moral attitudes of the 18th century.
One can also discover a certain reversal of the traditional concept of piety as a burning need for new metaphysical and emotional experience – a positive value for the development of consciousness and not a moral regression to seductive appearances. Romanticism was not only a means of getting to know different customs and different attitudes towards the past as well as the present, but it also developed a new humanitarianism, an idealism that emphasized integrity, adherence to a faith, the attitude of self-sacrifice, the desire to “live one’s life” according to one’s deepest instincts and not according to the laws of society, perhaps at the price of defeat. This liberation of desire from established fashions and norms brought about singular changes in behavior, ranging from individual eccentricities to social experiences of fraternity, Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite.
The most vulnerable spirits plunged into a sort of despair, the famous “evil of the century”, before the idea of an unrestrained free will, deprived of the help of a pre-established discipline; others instead clung to the present with renewed ardor and engaged in attempts at political reform in order to achieve purer forms of government. These two apparently contradictory reactions characterize the appearance of Romanticism in the history of European thought and sensibility. Similar attitudes are reflected more or less directly in the art of the Romantic period and especially in painting. Fundamentally, Romanticism consists in the rejection of classical principles and discipline in favor of a regenerative return to something older and at the same time freer, more personal and at the same time more exotic.
The classical renaissance of the 18th century, generated by the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii, was not unrelated to a nostalgic feeling of the past for which other forms of expression were recovered. At the same time, in France and England there was a revival of interest in the national past which was still close at hand, leading to a change in decoration and accessories and the appearance of a “troubadour style”, attitudes which had been present in both countries since 1770: in France, the series of statues commemorating great French men, commissioned by the Count of Angiviller, favoured this trend; in England, the poems of Milton and the works of Shakespeare played the same stimulating role with Füssli, West, Romney and Runciman. Geographically, we can say that the Mediterranean plastic ideal, embodied by the Greek or Roman hero, was gradually replaced by a taste for the Nordic civilizations, Germanic, English, Scandinavian and Scottish.
The study of their literature (especially the purported poems of Ossian) helped develop a taste for medieval, hazy, melancholy, and picturesque settings. There was then a renewed interest in Christianity and Gothic Europe, developed through the influence of the writings of Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël, and admirably illustrated by the strange landscapes of C. D. Friedrich. Similarly, the ideal of sculpture advocated in the academies of the 18th century was supplanted by more pictorial references, as can be seen when comparing the portrait of David Bonaparte crossing the Great St. Bernard (1800: Versailles), inspired by the statue of Peter the Great by E. M. Falconet (St. Peter the Great, 1800: Versailles). M. Falconet (St. Petersburg) with the work of Gros Bonaparte at the Arcole bridge (1797: Paris, Louvre), which, mediocre on a formal level, is animated by a freer use of color and a more nervous and subjective brushstroke.
The change crystallized in one event: the opening in Paris, in 1793, of the Central Museum of the Arts, which presented a considerable range of pictorial styles. The influence of Correggio on Prud’hon, that of Leonardo on Gérard, the Caravaggism of Géricault and the passion for Rubens that animated Gros and Delacroix at the same time have their source in the visits of these painters to the museum, whose effect proved, even in their eyes, more powerful and lasting than that of their trips to Italy, England or Flanders. Napoleon, too, contributed to a broader view of the world than that offered by the 18th century. His campaigns in the Middle East stimulated interest in Arab and Jewish civilizations, and painters such as Gros and Auguste began to collect oriental objects, jewelry and carpets, which passed into the pictorial language thanks to Ingres, Delacroix and Chassériau. The warlike spirit, which grew with Napoleon’s imperial ambitions, imposed itself on the consciousness of at least two great painters, Goya and Géricault, and was reflected in the works of minor painters, David Scott, Boissard de Boisdenier, Charlet, Raffet, Michalowski.
With the movement of armies and exchanges between different civilizations, the characteristic styles of each country were more appreciated. Géricault, visiting Great Britain in 1820, was struck by the superiority of English painting in navy, genre scenes and landscapes. Bonington, having settled in France while still in his teens in 1817, brought with him the English tradition of topographical watercolor by adapting it to the medium of oil, with a manner that was to influence not only Delacroix, but also Corot and Isabey. Lawrence and Constable, having participated in the Salons of 1824 and 1827, amazed the French for the originality of their hand, the brilliant effects of light, the freedom with respect to academicism and the use of a fluid and shiny impasto in the reds and greens.
Constable, above all, renewed a joyful and free feeling for nature, inaugurated in the 18th century by Fragonard and Gainsborough, but abandoned in the neoclassical era. Goya’s etchings, much admired in France, directly influenced the graphic work of Victor Hugo, Célestin Nanteuil and Delacroix. Similarly, a group of German painters, the Lucasbruders, realized the synthesis of their own national tradition and their Italian experiences by studying the Italian primitives (before Raphael), in an attempt to rediscover the moral and religious spirit of the Middle Ages. But romanticism also means a sense of modern life, an effort to understand and illustrate current events. Writers like Stendhal, painters like David, Gros and Géricault in France, Goya in Spain, refused to take refuge in the exotic past of myth and legend and remained close to the political and social upheavals of their time.
Fascinated by Napoleon and his exploits, witnessing the rise and fall of his ambitions, the splendors and miseries of his wars, they introduced into painting an element of personal commentary on the events, which in France survived in the work of Courbet, Daumier and Millet, thus passing directly into the realist movement. The Romantic painters, much more than their predecessors, were receptive to different inspirations and influences and less inclined to consider themselves the followers of an academic discipline. Individual reaction – to the contemporary event or to a particular scene – became the criterion par excellence, and painting itself was increasingly used as a means of expression. While Romantic painters may possess more than one of the aforementioned characteristics, all of them, with the exception of the lesser ones, differ profoundly from one another. Romanticism is above all a complex of personal reactions to social and metaphysical upheavals.
Limiting the study of the Romantic phenomenon to the years 1770-1840, three successive phases can be distinguished: the renewed interest in Shakespeare and Ossian beginning in 1770, the “Romantic” reaction aroused by the French Revolution of 1789 and the campaigns of the Empire, which constituted the central phase of this cultural attitude (Goya, Géricault, Gros, and the beginnings of Delacroix), and that of the period from about 1824, which corresponds to the maturity of Turner and Delacroix.
The painters of the pre-Romantic phase were victims of their neoclassical education, which was mainly devoted to studio study, to the study of ancient casts and to the very thorough study of Greek and Roman history. Füssli and Blake in Great Britain, Girodet in France began to deal with “wild” themes with melodramatic implications, but they were not able to deal with them in an appropriate and free style. Sculpture still exerted its tyrannical influence, as evidenced by Romney’s Shakespearean-inspired drawings (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum) or Girodet’s refined paintings (Endymion: Paris, Louvre).
Some rebellious temperaments, such as Blake or Girodet, found it easier to transcend tradition; but even genuinely Romantic spirits such as Friedrich continued to exploit marked drawing and a discreet palette. This phase partakes of a certain romanticism mainly because of the characteristic choices of subjects, which more often touch on irrational themes. All the themes were now discovered: but not the way of treating them, even though already before 1800 the value of color began to be appreciated. In reality, the invention of numerous themes that will be more widely used between 1820 and 1840 is due to pre-romanticism. The main change in the choice of subject concerns both the historical and the literary aspect. Shakespeare or Froissart were now preferred to Livy, Ossian to Ovid. In France, Shakespeare was to be at the center of the debate between Classics and Romantics from 1820 onwards.
The rediscovery of Shakespeare in the 18th century manifested itself, of course, in Britain. Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, composed of works commissioned to about thirty artists from 1786, encouraged many painters to show more imagination in costumes and attitudes, although few of them could stand comparison with John Runciman in his masterpiece King Lear in the Storm (Edinburgh, National Gallery), executed in 1767. In France, a parallel current developed with the initiative of the Count of Angiviller, who attempted to awaken national pride by commissioning both painters and sculptors to paint works dedicated to the heroes of French history, particularly St. Louis, Henry IV and Baiard.
Runciman’s King Lear can be compared to Vincent’s Arrest of President Molé (1779: Paris, Palais Bourbon) or Ménageot’s Death of Leonardo da Vinci (1781: Amboise town hall), a theme that was to be passed on to Ingres without change. The American Benjamin West, perhaps the most representative artist of this phase, drew his sources from ancient, modern and contemporary history, but his composition, very bold in form, is gloomy in color and lacking in merit in execution. Imagination fed the fantastic. The eighteenth century had been the period of black dramas, in the novel (think of the English Gothic novel), as in the theater; and the sincere representation of horror or terror invaded the works of numerous pre-Romanticists.
The result is striking, even when the effect is superficial and picturesque as in Joseph Vernet’s Nocturne on the Seashore (Louvre), or Sadat in Search of the Waters of Oblivion by John Martin (Southampton, Art Gallery). Sometimes, this aspect completely imposes itself on the imagination and gives the unconscious a predominant role, influencing at the same time the layout and the execution of the work: Füssli’s Nightmare (1782: Frankfurt, Goethe Museum), or Girodet’s Seven Against Thebes (Montpellier Museum). Such fantastical, black vision became completely detached from literary illustration in Goya and Géricault.
The period between 1800 and 1824 saw the advent of modern history painting, the establishment of a modern school of landscape and the end of the hegemony of sculpture in favor of that of painting. All of these changes are stark, but perhaps most striking are the great series of modern history paintings executed by David, Gros, and Géricault. By 1823, Stendhal considered David’s epic paintings, whose realism solicits the imagination, to be essentially romantic; they embodied the very spirit of the revolution, and were immediately intelligible to the “children of the revolution.” David, considered the greatest exponent of neoclassicism, took on the role of painter of modern history in 1793 with the Death of Marat (Brussels, Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts), in which the reference to ancient art (Caravaggio or the traditional Pietà) is put entirely at the service of a contemporary message. David’s Marat, a work whose mournful character bears the weight of the artist’s meditative idealism, dominated French art of the time. The legacy of this black vision of the epic was picked up by Gros (Battle of Eylau, 1808: Paris, Louvre), Géricault (The Raft of the Medusa: ibid.), Delacroix (Dante and Virgil, 1822: ibid.) and even Daumier and Courbet. During these years, French Romanticism is essentially a chronicle of revolution and empire.
It is also dominated by the character of Napoleon, who appears as a hero or anti-hero in not a few canvases. In David’s eyes, Bonaparte “crossing the Great St. Bernard” is the hero of a new era, with the aura of genius and prophet. For Gros, more impressionable, Napoleon had a messianic character, so to speak (The Plague Victims of Jaffa, 1804: ibid.). Géricault, still young, presented with Gros, without ever making it explicit, that the spirit of war is obscured by the reality of death, whatever its cause: he painted his Wounded cuirassier (1814: ibid.) as a nocturnal effect, with the same dark and eloquent color as David’s Marat, while his Raft of the Medusa, a gigantic representation of a contemporary shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, shows a multitude of naked bodies struggling in the same infernal darkness.
The format of such modern epics had already been worked out in England by John Singleton Copley, who between 1770 and 1780 had painted an extraordinary series of works on themes taken from modern history: Brook Watson and the Shark (1778: London, Christ’s Hospital), The Death of Chatham (1779-80: London, Tate Gallery.), and The Death of Major Peirson (1783: there). From these original modern compositions describing a contemporary event, we moved on to an art form capable of commentary to the point of denunciation and taking a stand. The formula was exalted by Goya, whose sensibility was so wounded by the humiliations inflicted on his country that he rejected all traditional rules of expression in favor of a brutal, almost caricatural and even expressionist description, which characterizes Dos de Mayo (1814: Madrid, Prado). It is not certain that this work was known to French artists, but there are striking similarities between Goya and some French Romantics.
Goya must have aroused the profound admiration of Delacroix and Baudelaire; the ghosts of his gloomy temperament (The Disasters of War, Proverbs) reveal the extent to which a painter, a witness to his own time, can transcend the limits of the conscious: this was accomplished with equal courage by Géricault in his portraits of madmen (probably executed around 1819). The search for a formal purity inspired above all by moral intentions follows closely these realizations, even though they are contemporary.
Flaxman’s engravings, based on the model of Greek vases, played an important role in Ingres’ training, as did the 15th-century paintings on display at the Musée Napoléon. The portrait of Mademoiselle Rivière (1805: Paris, Louvre) is imbued with an archaic gentleness, described as “Gothic” by his contemporaries, although Ingres did not attempt to become a painter of the Middle Ages or the High Renaissance. This was also the case with the Lucasbruders, a group of German artists who, under the guidance of Pforr and Overbeck, settled in 1810 in the monastery of Sant’Isidoro in Rome, on the Pincio Hill, and identified themselves with the early Florentine painters, whose works they strove to imitate almost painfully (frescoes of Casa Bartholdy, 1805-16).
Another innovation of the period was the rediscovery of a significant landscape style, freed from classicizing traditions as well as from eighteenth-century eclecticism. Here England triumphed above all, although in France Georges Michel should be mentioned, inspired by Rembrandt and Ruisdael, for his interpretation of nature. Moreover, in England, a vigorous provincial school, located in East Anglia and animated by Crome and Cotman, devoted itself to freely reviving the tradition of the Dutch landscape, outside any workshop formula; it gave life, in the 19th century, to one of the two main currents of English painting. Constable and Turner, the two great names in the history of the English landscape in general and of English romanticism in particular, represent two different visions of the world, which are not mutually exclusive. Constable remained an instinctive and self-taught artist, deeply tied to his environment and most inspired by those very regions of England where he had been happy: Suffolk, Salisbury, Brighton and Hampstead.
The absolute simplicity of his vision was totally opposed to the “sublime” tastes of the time, which he disapproved of. Constable drew closer to northern naturalism than to southern idealism, not without references to the pictorial explosions of Rubens (The Flatford Mill, 1817: London, National Gallery). His hand is sometimes rough, with brilliant surface effects, and he thrilled Delacroix when he exhibited Hay Cart (ibid.) at the Paris Salon in 1824. Constable’s passion for the natural world was most directly expressed in the studies or sketches, made outdoors, that he executed for his large canvases. From them, already completed in themselves, it releases a vitality that will not always keep his finished compositions. Turner represents in some ways the most complex personality of the “romantic” artist; trained as a watercolourist in the tradition of Cozens and Girtin, he exhibited his first oil paintings at the Royal Academy in 1797. His large-format works acquired a monumental character when he was influenced by Claude Lorrain; but Turner’s pictorial imagination transformed the original scheme into an unprecedented apotheosis, for the first time translated into terms of light and atmosphere.
The third phase of Romanticism-which could rightly be called the Romantic movement-is dominated by the conception of the artist as “genius” impersonated by Turner and Delacroixin their maturity. Turner and Delacroix were very different in tendencies and character, but they had some traits in common. Both maintained close ties with the masters of the seventeenth century and found powerful defenders, respectively, in Ruskin and Baudelaire. Both remained faithful to official institutions such as the Academy or the Salon. Both were at the origin of a fracture in the evolution of painting and contributed to its radical change.
Both, finally, pushed themselves to the limits of the possibilities of their pictorial language, and left neither pupils nor disciples. That said, the two characters embody the opposing conceptions of the romantic genius. Delacroix, susceptible, sophisticated, cultured, primarily Parisian; he remained attached to the academic ideal of history painting; his work is anthropocentric: he paints man in different historical, geographical, mythological or allegorical contexts. Turner, rugged, reserved, solitary and independent, uses human action only to punctuate his vision of nature: series of variations on themes by Claude Lorrain, or celebrations of the spontaneous forces of nature, storm, sunrise, speed, fire. Turner and Delacroix both had traditional training.
Delacroix was a pupil of Guérin and was influenced in his youth by Gros, Géricault and Bonington. The first work he presented to the public, Dante and Virgil (1822: Paris, Louvre), is close to Géricault and corresponds to the tradition of the tragic epic as David had defined it. His second main work on display, the Massacres of Chios (1824: ibid.), of classical construction and faithful to the conception of the modern historical subject set by Gros, nevertheless breaks completely with the past in its workmanship and treatment of color; it draws on a lightness, fluidity and beauty no longer known in France since the end of the 18th century. This change has been attributed to the influence of English painters such as Constable and Lawrence, whom Delacroix had been able to study at the Salon of 1824; it is more likely that he combined the transparency of Bonington with the generous vitality of Rubens, from whom he took many copies. His most Rubensian and romantic work, however, is Sardanapalo (1827: ibid.), a dazzling and curious mixture of pathos and sadism, which remain the artist’s two fundamental qualities. After this date, he abandoned the romantic model for classical inspiration and returned to the great traditions of painting of the seventeenth century.
Until the end of his life, however, he retained an interest in Romantic literature, exhibiting The Rape of Rebecca (ibid.) at the Salon of 1859, in other words well after the end of the Romantic movement. Rather than making the traditional trip to Italy, Delacroix traveled to England (1825), Morocco (1832), and later, for short periods, to Flanders and Holland. The Moroccan trip brought about a significant change in his style, freeing him from the tyrannical residues of the Mediterranean ideal and giving his color greater splendor and depth. The memories of this experience, which directly inspired masterpieces such as the Women of Algiers (1834: ibid.), are likewise deeply felt as they color even his most conventional endeavors, so much so that the gods and heroes of antiquity that adorn the libraries of the Bourbon Palace and the Luxembourg have a certain Moroccan air.
Marked by these memories, Delacroix was able to interpret traditional subjects such as Trajan’s Justice (1840: Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts) with power and freedom. His final career was engaged in large-scale complexes, commissioned by the government, for the decoration of the Parisian halls of the Bourbon Palace, the Luxembourg, the Louvre of the Hôtel de Ville: decorations whose culmination was the chapel of Saints-Anges in Saint-Sulpice, for which he was inspired by Raphael and Titian. He also wrote articles concerning other painters – in particular the one dedicated to Gros – which announce, in the sense of projection of personality, Baudelaire’s way; while his diary and his correspondence constitute an irreplaceable testimony of his evolution.
Turner’s training was just as traditional; but while Delacroix’s focused on history painting, Turner remained faithful to a more pictorial conception, with its references to nature in its fundamental aspects. The natural world was for him the scene of multiple impressions far more interesting than any human endeavor. Like Claude Lorrain, from whom he took his example, Turner employed characters and events as a simple pretext for landscapes that are sufficient unto themselves, visions of a man unintimidated by the power of his own receptive faculties.
Much of his work remains conventional, especially the collections of engravings, the result of his many wanderings around Britain, and the same is true of works such as Lake Buttermere (1797: London, Tate Gallery.) and the Calais Dam (1803: there), both inspired by eighteenth-century models and studies of Lorrain, as the Feast of the Harvest of Maçon (1803: Sheffield, Art Gallery).
An initial trip to Italy in 1819 had no immediate effect on the finished canvases Turner made during this period other than to expand the register of subjects; however, during this trip the practice of watercolor, according to Turner conducive to what he called his “impressions,” founded the essence of his future development. A work such as Levar del sole a Venezia visto dalla Giudecca (London, Bitish Museum) marks a total break with the topographical tradition of both the English watercolorists and Canaletto: it is entirely devoted to the harmony of sky and sea corresponding to a precise moment of the day, and contains few solid elements.
This elimination of forms as a point of reference for the landscape represents Turner’s most beautiful and daring aspect; it is the result of his receptiveness to natural changes and his ability to translate them with the sole help of painting. Turner stayed again in Venice in 1832, 1835 and 1840; these stays developed his interest in the interdependent properties of water and light. Later his oils, characterized by light, bright colors on a white background, obeying only the rhythm of the artist’s brush, gave the impression of gigantic watercolors, such as the Yacht approaching the shore (c. 1840: London, Tate Gallery). His genius in the treatment of light and color, together with his uninterrupted exaltation before nature, constitutes a unique phenomenon in the history of European art and represents the best apotheosis of Romantic consciousness in painting.