Romanticism (1770-1850)


Romantic style in paintings was diverse, appealing to the emotions and tending toward the picturesque, nature, the Gothic, and, often, the macabre [suggesting the horror of death and decay]. By breaking the geometric compositional principles of classicism, romanticism moved toward fragmentation of design. The intent was to dramatize, to personalize, and to escape into imagination. Romantic painting reflected a striving for freedom from social and artistic rules and an intense introversion.

1793 "Death of Marat" David, Jacques Louis (1748-1825)

David [dah VEED] had developed his Neoclassical style in Rome during the years 1775-81. Upon his return to France, he quickly established humself as the leading Neoclassical painter, overshadowing all others by far, so that our conception of the movement is largely based on his accomplishments.

During the revolution itself David was a member of the Convention that sentenced Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to death. For twenty-five years he was a virtual dictator of the arts in France. Following his dicta, Rococo salons were stripped of their sensuous paintings and curvaceous furnishings, remodeled in Neoclassic style, and equipped with furniture patterned after Greek vase paintings and Pompeiian murals. Fashionable men and women adopted Roman names such as Portia and Brutus, styled their hair in the antique manner, and even costumed themselves in classical togas.

David's works, with their detailed, painstaking realism and appeal to reason, were conceived and executed as cries for revolution. In his greatest picture, The Death of Marat [muh RAH], David's deep emotion has made a masterpiece from a subject that would have embarrassed any lesser artist, for Marat, one of the political leaders of the Revolution, had been murdered in his bathtub. A painful skin condition required immersion, and he did his work there, with a wooden board serving as his desk. One day a young woman named Charlotte Corday burst in with a personal petition, and plunged a knife into his chest while he read it. David has composed the scene with a stark directness that is awe-inspiring. In this canvas, which was planned as a public memorial to the martyred hero, classical art coincides with devotional image and historical account. The slain figure probably derives from an antique source, and the artist has drawn on the Caravaggesque tradition of religious art.


1814 "Odalisque" Ingres, Jean-Auguste (1780-1867)

The neoclassical traditions of the eighteenth century continued into the nineteenth, particularly in France, and the pursuit of physical and intellectual perfection initiated by David was taken up by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres [agre].

Only nine years old when the revolution began, Ingres was never an enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon's self-proclaimed revolutionary ideals. He was, however, David's most talented pupil and an advocate of a Neoclassic style that had evolved from revolutionary art into state-endowed dogma.

The work of Ingres, and perhaps David as well, illustrates the confusing relationships and conflicts that surrounded the neoclassical and romantic traditions in painting. Contending that David's style was too heavily incised, Ingres developed a fluid drawing technique influenced by Pompeiian frescoes and patterned after the elegant linear figures of Greek vase paintings. Ingres professed to despise romanticism, and yet his proportions and subject exude romantic individualism and escape to the far away and long ago, to the exotic. His sensuous textures appear emotional, not intellectual. At the same time, his line is simple, his palette is cool, and his spatial effects are geometric. The linear rhythms of his painting are very precise and calculated and, therefore, classically intellectual in appeal.

Ingres' Grande Odalisque, or Harem Girl, has been called both neo-classical and romantic, and in many ways represents both. His Grande Odalesque is not a classical version of feminine beauty; it is, however, a superb example of the artist's unique mix of Neoclassic and Romantic ideas. The reclining-nude pose can be traced to Titian and the smoothly flowing contours of the sculpturesque body are coolly classical; but the subject is an odalisque, a harem slave girl who represents an exotic concept dear to the Romantics. The small head, elongated limbs, and languid pose are very mannered in the decorative style of Parmigianino.


1814-15 "The Third of May, 1808" Goya, Francisco de (1746-1828)


Francisco de Goya, the Spanish painter and printer, used his paintings to attack abuses of government both Spanish and French. His highly imaginative and nightmarish works reveal subjective emotionalism in humanity and nature, often at their malevolent worst.


Execution of the Citizens of Madrid, 3 May 1808 (1814) tells the story of an actual event. On 3 May 1808, the citizens of Madrid rebelled against the invading army of Napoleon. As a result, individuals were arbitrarily arrested and summarily executed. Goya was in Madrid at the time and later visited the site to make sketches of it to ensure the accuracy. He captured a dramatic and climactic moment in the story. His main concern, however, was not the accurate recording of fact, but the expression of empathetic horror for the psychological agonies of men facing execution.

It is impossible to escape the focal attraction of the man in white, about to die. The strong light/dark contrast forces the eye to the victim; only the lantern behind the soldiers keeps the composition in balance. However, Goya leads us beyond the death of the individuals, because these figures are not individuals--they are not realistically depicted. Instead, Goya makes a powerful social and emotional statement. Napoleon's soldiers are not even human types. Their faces are hidden, and their rigid, repeated forms become a line of subhuman automatons. Goya has no sympathy for the French soldiers as human beings in an ugly situation, perhaps only following orders. His subjectivity fills the canvas; his portrayal is as emotional as the irrationality he wished to condemn.


1839 "The Slave Ship" Turner, J.M.W. (1775-1851)

The Englishman J. M. W. Turner reflects subjectivity perhaps even beyond his romantic contemporaries and foreshadowed the dissolving image in twentieth-century painting. Turners works have been described as "airy vision painted with tinted steam" The Slave Ship visualizes a passage in James Thomson's poem The Seasons, which describes how sharks follow a slave ship in a storm, "Lured by the scent of steaming crowds of rank disease, and death." The poem was again based on an actual event, where the captain of a slave ship dumped his human cargo into the sea when disease broke out below decks. Turner's work demonstrates elements romanticism: He employs disjoint diagonals. which contribute to an overall fragmentation of the composition. His space is deeply three-dimension The turbulence of what is happening is reflected in the turbulence of painting technique. The sea and sky are transparent, and the brushstrokes reflect energetic spontaneity. Form and content are subordinate to expressive Intent—a sense of doom prevails.


1845 "Fur Traders on the Missouri" Bingham, George Caleb (1811-79)

Bingham pursued an aspect of American Romanticism. Though he was born in Virginia he moved to Missouri when he was eight, there to paint the fur traders, boatmen, and politicians in what was then raw frontier country. This was also Mark Twain country, and one can find many images in the artist's work that illustrate life on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as described in Twain's novels. Fur Traders on the Missouri communicates some of the mystery and mystique of life on the leading edge of a developing nation. Bingham saw these figures as exotic explorers of the American wilderness--the first title for the painting was "French Trader and Half-Breed Son." His use of primary colors (red, yellow, blue) for the figures is echoed in the landscape by paler hues throughout the composition. The two figures stare out at us as though they are momentarily frozen in time. Though the water is like a mirror we still have the impression of watery motion from right to left. This is clearly a Romantic work but there are classical overtones in the balanced design, luminous Iight, and meticulous purity of details.

 "POUSSINISTES" VS. "RUBENISTES." It is hardly surprising that the straitjacket system of the French Academy produced no significant artists. Toward the end of the century, the members of the Academy formed two warring factions over the issue of drawing versus color: the "Poussinistes" (or conservatives) against the Rubenistes. The conservatives defended Poussin's view that drawing, which appealed to the mind, was superior to color, which appealed to the senses. The Rubenistes advocated color, rather than drawing, as being more true to nature. They also pointed out that drawing, admittedly based on reason, appeals only to the expert few, whereas color appeals to everyone. This argument had revolutionary implications, for it proclaimed the lay person to be the ultimate judge of artistic values and challenged the Renaissance notion that painting, as a liberal art, could be appreciated only by the educated mind.

The basic disagreement was between color and line. Line and drawing were absolute values in representing things according to the Poussinists, color was merely accidental because it depended on light. Color was, of course, what fascinated Rubens and his followers. Rubenists painted the multicolored world as perceived they it, whereas the Poussinists constructed idealized forms of the world as it should be. Actually, the conflict was not just Rubenists versus Poussinists but the eternally opposing views of artists who were, in general, inclined toward romanticism as opposed to artists who were classically oriented. Romanticism in the nineteenth century is a stylistic period and is not to be confused with romantic or classical tendencies of artists in any period. When considered in very broad terms, the Renaissance was classically oriented, whereas the Baroque was inclined toward Romanticism except, of course, for Poussin. Classicists emphasize objectivity, rationality, balance, and control; romanticists stress subjectivity, nonrationality, and the restless expression of emotion. Leonardo, Raphael, Poussin, Haydn, and Mozart are classicists; Tintoretto, the later Michelangelo, El Greco, Rubens, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Delacroix are romanticists.