Romanticism – Art History Style

So it’s that time of year again when all the love-heart shaped chocolate boxes are out in full force and red roses feature in every shop window. Why not take a look at Romanticism in Art History – but stick with me here because not all is as it seems.

When you think of Romanticism in Art History, you may think of something a bit like this:

John Everett Millais, ‘A Huguenot on St Bartholomew’s Day’, 1852

Or perhaps this:

Antonio Canova, ‘Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss’, 1787. Louvre, Paris

But actually… that’s not exactly what ‘Romanticism’ means in Art History speak.

Romanticism is a somewhat vague and rather all-encompassing term that has been used to label the movement that pushed against the rationalism of the Enlightenment (if you remember, I briefly explained Enlightenment in my post ‘R.I.P. Art History?)

The (very) basics of ‘Romanticism’ in Art History are:

> Artistic movement mainly in Britain and France roughly 1750 – 1850

> Emphasis on imagination and emotion, acting against reason and order

> asserts originality of the artist, i.e. how well the artist can think independently and creatively

Please believe me when I say, however, that there are certainly more than fifty shades of grey when considering what constitutes a ‘Romantic’ painting.

One major theme, however, is nature. Uncontrollable, unpredictable and extreme (not necessarily words for your dating profile) were qualities found in nature which offered a suitable opposition to the rational, reasonable Enlightened thought.

So when we think of a ‘Romantic landscape’ it’s not so much a dreamy sunset but something more along the lines of:

Casper David Freidrich, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, 1818. Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

Or this:

French painter, ‘Stormy Coast Scene after a Shipwreck’, 1852. The Met, USA

Shipwrecks were popular scenes to paint for Romantic artists as were landscapes of ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’ nature complete with a ‘savage’, aka a hairy man with a bow and arrow who’s so tiny you’d hardly know he’s there. And that is the point – the insignificance of man against the sheer forces and magnificence of nature = Romanticism. It questions ‘self’ and man’s relation to the world.

Spot the savage in Thomas Cole’s ‘The Course of Empire – The Savage State’, 1836

Romanticism became preoccupied with the notion of ‘The Sublime’ which was voiced earlier in the 1700s. This referred to violent and terrifying images of nature, (whilst also being an adjective for a particularly delicious dessert). Not a red rose or soppy love poem in sight.

In portraits, Romantic painters didn’t explore wistful glances of star-crossed lovers across a crowded room, but probed into deep psychological and emotional states of mind. This even reached the animal kingdom, where artists would depict wild animals in the grips of extreme fear.

Gustav Courbet, ‘The Desparate Man’, 1843-45


Horse Frightened by a Lion ?exhibited 1763 by George Stubbs 1724-1806
So romantic… George Stubbs, ‘Horse frightened by a Lion’, 1760. Tate Britain, London

So really, Romanticism in Art History looked into the extremes in nature whilst also questioning man’s relation to it. Artists chose to paint literally awesome scenes of stormy seas or foreboding mountains. Paintings of animals often depict wild, untamable creatures often including stallions, lions and tigers and portraits delved deep into the sitter’s psyche. In rejecting the idea of reason above all things so championed in The Enlightenment, Romanticism looked to extremes of emotion and behaviour or, as Charles Baudelaire attempts to describe it in 1846:

“Romanticism … is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling.”

It would seem that the task of trying to accurately define ‘Romanticism’ has, ironically, a certain element of the Sublime in it, being a nigh impossible, formidable and rather daunting challenge. But you hopefully have some idea now of what it involves…

So, can paintings which are grouped into ‘Romanticism’ ever be romantic…?

In some ways yes and in some ways no (back to the vagueness I’m afraid).

If Romanticism is taken to mean something wild, bursting with energy and going hand-in-hand with nature, you could, say, have a pair of lovers in some overgrown wilderness in the corner of a larger painting depicting a dramatic volcano eruption. Or, you could have a pair of newly weds explore razor-sharp chalk cliffs on their honeymoon with a vertigo inducing view-point down to sea. In fact, there is one of those already:

Casper David Friedrich, ‘Chalk Cliffs on Rügen’, 1818. Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur.

You get my drift… hopefully.

So Romanticism in Art History is not so Romantic after all – or at least not as Romantic as we would expect it to be. Unless your other half is a fan of rugged landscapes, then they’re in for a treat!



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