I may not know art, but I know what I like: Romantic Art

Let’s face it: most of us haven’t got a clue about art.  Such a short word, yet so complicated.  I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately (though I’m not sure why!) and so I decided to spend some time learning about art.  I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far.  Maybe it will be helpful to you as well!

The first thing to know is that art is like history: it’s divided into different “periods.”  In  the many parts of this series so far I’ve looked at art up to around 1800.   In this post I’m going to look at the artistic movement called Romanticism.  Romanticism flourished in the period 1800-1850, mostly in Europe and North  America.  The movement originated in Germany, then it spread to England, France and the rest of Europe.  The US had its own version of Romanticism, which was called the Hudson River School: the first truly American school of art.

The first thing you need to know about Romanticism is that it had nothing to do with romance or love.  It refers to strong emotions.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on “rational thinking”.  The Romantics rejected what they saw as the evils of the Industrial Revolution.   Steam engines and cotton mills symbolized that Industrial Revolution.  Industrialization transformed the economies of Western Europe and North America, driving them from dependence on agriculture to manufacturing.  However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything.  Their reaction against the ongoing industrialization became a comprehensive movement – Romanticism.  They looked beyond reason, and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination.  Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork.  It was a nostalgic yearning for a simpler life and an appreciation of nature.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.”

What are the characteristics or Romantic art?

  • Dramatic scenes (similar to Baroque art) but painted in visible brushstrokes.  This was a clear rejection of the perfection
  • A focus on nature – mystical landscapes with dark mysterious ambience; dark in both a literal and figurative sense.
  • Dramatic scenes of man or nature, occasionally with undertones of nature’s triumph over man.
  • The skies in Romantic paintings are gloomy or cloudy as a sign of imminent danger and fear of the unknown.  The sky is prominent and overwhelming, often taking over around half of the painting.
  • Horrific and gothic images, where faces express feelings such as intense pain, anguish, anger or fear.

So let’s look at some of my favorite works from this period.  (My absolute favorites are shown last!)

Wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1817.  Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830.  Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

I am a HUGE fan of the English painter John Constable.  Here are a couple of my favorite Constable works.

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821.  National Gallery, London, UK.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, John Constable, 1831.  Tate Gallery, London UK.

Wivenhoe Park, John Constable, 1816.  National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (USA).

Evening Landscape with an Aqueduct, Théodore Géricault, 1818.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York USA.

I really like the works of the Hudson River School.  Here are some works from that period of American painting.  The first two are by Thomas Cole, who is considered to be the founder of the Hudson River School.

The Course of Empire: The  Savage State, Thomas Cole, 1836.  The New-York Historical Society, New York USA.  This was the first in a series of four paintings by Cole. 

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, Thomas Cole, 1836.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York USA.

Niagara Falls, Frederic Edwin Church, 1857.  Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC USA.

Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1868.  Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC USA.

The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, J.M.W. Turner, 1839.  National Gallery, London UK.

Romanticism is much more than landscape paintings.  For me, the greatest works of the Romantic period came from William Blake, an English poet, painter and print maker.  He was almost completely ignored during his lifetime, yet I find his works to be incredible, unlike anything else produced during this period.  Here are a few of my favorite Blake works to end this post.  Enjoy!

The Temptation and Fall of Eve (Illustration to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”), William Blake, 1808.  Museum of Fine  Arts, Boston MA USA.

The House of Death, William Blake, 1805.  Tate Gallery, London, UK.

Nebuchadnezzar, William Blake, 1795.  Tate Gallery, London UK.

Europe: A Prophecy – The Ancient of Days, William Blake, 1794.  The British Museum, London UK.


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