Artworks and Artists of Romanticism
The Nightmare (1781)
Fuseli's strange and macabre painting depicts a ravished woman, draped across a divan with a small, hairy incubus sitting on top of her, staring out menacingly at the viewer. A mysterious black mare with white eyes and flaring nostrils appears behind her, entering the scene through lush, red curtains. We seem to be looking at the effects and the contents of the woman's dream at the same time.
Fuseli's ghastly scene was the first of its kind in the midst of The Age of Reason, and Fuseli became something of a transitional figure. While Fuseli held many of the same tenets as the Neoclassicists (notice the idealized depiction of the woman), he was intent on exploring the dark recesses of human psychology when most were concerned with scientific exploration of the objective world. When shown in 1782 at London's Royal Academy exhibition, the painting shocked and frightened visitors. Unlike the paintings the public was used to seeing, Fuseli's subject matter was not drawn from history or the bible, nor did it carry any moralizing intent. This new subject matter would have wide-ranging repercussions in the art world. Even though the woman is bathed in a bright light, Fuseli's composition suggests that light is unable to penetrate the darker realms of the human mind.
The relationship between the mare, the incubus, and the woman remains suggestive and not explicit, heightening the terrifying possibilities. Fuseli's combination of horror, sexuality, and death insured the image's notoriety as a defining example of Gothic horror, which inspired such writers as Mary Shelly and Edgar Allan Poe.
Oil on canvas - Detroit Institute of Art
The Ancient of Days from Europe a Prophecy copy B (1794)
The Ancient of Days served as the frontispiece to Blake's book, Europe a Prophecy (1794), which contained 18 engravings. This image depicts Urizen, a mythological figure first created by the poet in 1793 to represent the rule of reason and law and influenced by the image of God described in the Book of Proverbs as one who "set a compass upon the face of the earth." Depicted as an old man with flowing white beard and hair in an illuminated orb, surrounded by a circle of clouds, Urizen crouches, as his left hand extends a golden compass over the darkness below, creating and containing the universe. Blake combines classical anatomy with a bold and energetic composition to evoke a vision of divine creation.
Blake eschewed traditional Christianity and felt instead that imagination was "the body of God." His highly original and often mysterious poems and images were meant to convey the mystical visions he often experienced. Europe a Prophecy reflected his disappointment in the French Revolution that he felt had not resulted in true freedom but in a world full of suffering as reflected in England and France in the 1790s. Little known during his lifetime, Blake's works were rediscovered by the Pre-Raphaelites at the end of the 19th century, and as more artists continued to rediscover him in the 20th century, he has become one of the most influential of the Romantic artists.
Relief etching with hand coloring - Glasgow University Library, Glasgow Scotland
Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (1804)
This painting depicts Napoleon I, not yet the Emperor, visiting his ailing soldiers in 1799 in Jaffa, Syria, at the end of his Egyptian Campaign. His troops had violently sacked the city but were subsequently stricken in an outbreak of plague. Gros creates a dramatic tableau of light and shade with Napoleon in the center, as if on a stage. He stands in front of a Moorish arcade and touches the sores of one of his soldiers, while his staff officer holds his nose from the stench. In the foreground, sick and dying men, many naked, suffer on the ground in the shadows. A Syrian man on the left, along with his servant who carries a breadbasket, gives bread to the ill, and two men behind them carry a man out on a stretcher.
While Gros' teacher Jaques Louis David also portrayed Napoleon in all of his mythic glory, Gros, along with some of David's other students, injected a Baroque dynamism into their compositions to create a more dramatic effect than David's Neoclassicism offered. Gros' depiction of suffering and death, combined with heroism and patriotism within an exotic locale became hallmarks of many Romantic paintings.
The use of color and light highlights Napoleon's gesture, meant to convey his noble character in addition to likening him to Christ, who healed the sick. Napoleon commissioned the painting, hoping to silence the rumors that he had ordered fifty plague victims poisoned. The work was exhibited at the 1804 Salon de Paris, its appearance timed to occur between Napoleon's proclaiming himself as emperor and his coronation.
Oil on canvas - Louvre, Paris France
The Third of May 1808 (1814)
This groundbreaking work depicts the public execution of several Spaniards by Napoleonic troops. On the left, lit up against a hill, a man in a white shirt holds out his arms as he kneels and faces the firing squad. Several men cluster around him with facial expressions and body language expressing a tumult of emotion. A number of the dead lie on the ground beside them and, to their right, a group of people, all with their faces in their hands, knowing they will be next. On the right, the firing squad aims their rifles, forming a single faceless mass. A large square lantern stands between the two groups, dividing the scene between shadowy executioners and victims.
The painting draws upon the traditional religious motifs, as the man in the white shirt resembles a Christ-like figure, his arms extended in the shape of the cross, and a close-up of his hands reveals a mark in his right palm like the stigmata. Yet, the painting is revolutionary in its unheroic treatment, the flatness of its perspective, and its matte almost granular pigments. Additionally, its depiction of a contemporary event experienced by ordinary individuals bucked academic norms that favored timeless Neoclassical vignettes. Goya intended to both witness and commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon's army during the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, a war marked by extreme brutality. The painting's dark horizon and sky reflect the early morning hours in which the executions took place, but also convey a feeling of overwhelming darkness.
The art historian Kenneth Clark described it as, "the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention." Goya's revolutionary painting would be instrumental in the rise of Realism's frank depictions of everyday life, of Picasso's declarations against the horrors of war, and the Surrealists' exploration of dream-like subject matter.
Oil on canvas - Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain
La Grande Odalisque (1814)
This painting depicts a reclining nude, a member of a harem, holding a feathered fan amidst sumptuous textiles. Her hair is wrapped in a turban, and a hookah sits at her feet. She turns her head over her shoulder to peer out at the viewer.
Ingres was one of the best known of the Neoclassical painters, and while he continued to defend the style, this work reflects a Romantic tendency. The image recalls Titan's Venus of Urbino (1528) and echoes the pose of Jacque-Louis David's Portrait of Madame Récamier (1809), but a Mannerist influence is also apparent in the figure's anatomical distortions. Her head is a little too small, and her arms do not appear to be the same length. When the work was shown at the 1819 Salon, these distortions prompted critics to claim she had no bones, no structure, and too many vertebrae.
The work is a well-known example of Orientalism. By placing a European nude within the context of a Middle-Eastern harem, the subject could be given an exotic and openly erotic treatment. Subsequent scholars have suggested that because the woman is a concubine in a sultan's harem, the distortions of her figure are symbolic, meant to convey the sultan's erotic gaze upon her figure. As a result, the work points the way to Romanticism's emphasis on depicting a subject subjectively rather than objectively or according to an idealized standard of beauty. Ingres's use of color and his flattening of the figure would be important examples for 20th-century artists like Picasso and Matisse, who also eschewed classical ideals in their representations of individuals.
Oil on canvas - Louvre, Paris France
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818)
In this painting, an aristocratic man steps out upon a rocky crag as he surveys the landscape before him, with his back turned toward the viewer. Out of swirling clouds of fog, tall pinnacles of rocks loom, and a majestic peak on the left and a rock formation on the right fill the horizon. Many of Friedrich's landscapes depict a solitary figure in an overwhelming landscape that stands in for a Byronic hero, overlooking and dominating the view.
While Friedrich made plein air sketches in the mountains of Saxony and Bohemia in preparation for this painting, the landscape is essentially an imaginary one, a composite of specific views. The place of the individual in the natural world was an abiding theme of the Romantic painters. Here, the individual wanderer atop a precipice contemplating the world before him seems to suggest mastery over the landscape, but at the same time, the figure seems small and insignificant compared the sublime vista of mountains and sky that stretch out before him. Friedrich was a master of presenting the sublimity of nature in its infinite boundlessness and tempestuousness. Upon contemplation, the world, in its fog, ultimately remains unknowable.
Oil on canvas - Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg German
The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819)
Géricault depicts the desperate survivors of a shipwreck after weeks at sea on a wave-tossed raft beneath a stormy sky. At the front of the raft, a black man waves a shirt trying to flag down a ship barely visible on the horizon, while behind him others struggle forward raising their arms in hope of rescue. In the foreground, a disconsolate older man holds onto the nude corpse of his dead son, the body of a man hangs off the raft trailing in the water, and to the far left lies a partial corpse, severed at the waist.
The scene depicts the survivors of the wreck of the Medusa, a French Royal Navy frigate sent to colonize Senegal in 1816. The ship ran aground on a sandbank and began to sink, but there were not enough lifeboats. Some of the survivors built a makeshift raft to reach the African shore, but they were quickly lost at sea. Many died, and others resorted to violence and cannibalism. The artist did months of research, interviewing and sketching the survivors, dissecting cadavers in his studio, and recruiting friends to model, including the painter Delacroix.
Géricault's use of light and shadow as well as organizing the scene along two diagonals creates a dramatic and intense vision. Beginning with the bodies in the lower left, the viewer follows the eyes and gestures of the raft's inhabitants to a man, borne on the shoulders of his companions, waving a cloth - a sign of hope. From the shadows below the sail, one follows another diagonal to the bottom right to see a corpse, partially shrouded, slipping off the raft into the sea. This organization, coupled with the majestic and stormy sky speaks to the Romantic tastes for the terrible and the sublime.
Intended as a profound critique of a social and political system by depicting the tragic consequences and suffering of the marginal members of society, the painting is a pioneering example of protest art. The famous 19th-century art critic Jules Michelet (who coined the term The Renaissance) ascribed a broader view of Géricault's subject, suggesting that "our whole society is aboard the raft of the Medusa."
Oil on canvas - Louvre, Paris France
The Hay Wain (1821)
This rural landscape depicts a hay wain, a kind of cart, drawn by three horses crossing a river. On the left bank, a cottage, known as Willy Lott's Cottage for the tenant farmer who lived there, stands behind Flatford Mill, which was owned by Constable's father. Constable knew this area of the Suffolk countryside well and said, "I should paint my own places best, painting is but another word for feeling." He made countless en plein air sketches in which he engaged in near scientific observations of the weather and the effects of light.
In Constable's landscape, man does not stand back and observe nature but is instead intimately a part of nature, just as the trees and birds are. The figuring driving the cart is not out of scale with his environment. Constable depicted the oneness with nature that so many of the Romantic poets declared.
Constable found little acclaim in his home country of England because of his refusal to follow a traditional academic path and his insistence on pursuing the lowliest of genres: landscape painting. The French Romantics, however, took him up enthusiastically after seeing this work in the 1824 Paris Salon. His ability to capture the way fleeting atmosphere determines how we see the landscape inspired such artists as Eugène Delacroix. While The Hay Wain may not have been well-received by his countrymen at the time, in 2005 it was the voted second most popular painting in England.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London, England
Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830) (1830)
This famous and influential painting depicts the Paris uprising in July 1830. Delacroix, though, does not present an actual event but an allegory of revolution. A bare-chested woman, representing the idea of Liberty, wears a Phryggian cap, carries a bayonet in one hand and raises the tricolor flag in the other, encouraging the rebellious crowd forward on their path to victory. While her figure and the dress draped over her body evokes the Greek classical ideal, Delacroix includes her underarm hair, suggesting a real person and not just an ideal.
Other contemporary details and political symbols can be found in the portrayal of various classes of Parisian society. A boy, wearing a beret worn by students carries a cartridge pouch on his shoulder and his cavalry pistols, a factory worker brandishes a saber and wears sailor trousers with an apron, and a man wearing the waistcoat and top hat of fashionable urban society is perhaps a self-portrait of Delacroix. The wounded man who kneels at Liberty's feet and looks up at Liberty is a Parisian temporary worker. Each detail in the image carries political significance, as the beret with a white royalist and a red ribbon denotes the liberal faction, and a Cholet handkerchief, a symbol of a Royalist leader, is used to fasten a pistol to a man's abdomen. The right background is relatively empty, and though the towers of Notre Dame place the scene in Paris, parts of the urbanscape are purely imagined.
Delacroix said of the work, "I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her." He had witnessed the event, describing, "Three days amid gunfire and bullets, as there was fighting all around. A simple stroller like myself ran the same risk of stopping a bullet as the impromptu heroes who advanced on the enemy with pieces of iron fixed to broom handles." Delacroix used the dynamic pyramidal arrangement, chiaroscuro, and color to create a scene of clamorous drama that highlights heroism, death, and suffering, quintessential themes of the Romantic movement. Delacroix's bohemianism, his personal vision, and his refusal of academic norms, hallmarks of the Romantic attitude, made him a model for many modern artists.
Oil on canvas - Louvre, Paris France
The Oxbow, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (1836)
The American Thomas Cole depicts a view of the winding Connecticut River from Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. A heavily wooded promontory overlooks a flat plain marked by cultivated fields where the wide river meandered over a long period of time and formed an oxbow, or bend, in its flow, and hills rise in the background. The diagonal created by the promontory divides the scene into two triangles, juxtaposing the stormy and green wilderness on the left with the sunlit and cultivated plains on the right. In the lower right, a single human figure, the artist himself, is depicted at work. Cole thus presents the artist in harmony with nature.
Thomas Cole was among the most important and influential of the Hudson Valley School painters. While traveling in Europe from 1829-1832, the artist traced this view from Basil Hall's Forty Etchings Made with the Camera Lucida in North America in 1827 and 1828. Wanting to counter Hall's criticism of Americans as indifferent to their native landscape, Cole wanted to depict the uniqueness of the American landscape as "a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent." This Romantic concept found its way into future depictions of the American landscape by the likes of other painters and photographers, including Ansel Adams.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York New York
The Slave Ship (1840)
This painting depicts a seascape, the ocean a swirl of chaotic waves beneath a stormy sky that is lit up with red and yellow as if on fire. On the horizon, a ship with its sails unfurled appears to be headed directly into rough dark waters. Shackled human forms, some partially glimpsed, are scattered in the foreground like debris, as sharks and other fish circle and close in upon the flailing swimmers.
Turner painted this image after reading Thomas Clarkson's The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808) that recounted how the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 133 slaves thrown overboard so that he could collect the insurance payments on his human cargo. An ardent abolitionist, Turner hoped that the work would inspire Prince Albert to do more to combat slavery around the globe.
Turner captured the philosopher Edmond Burke's concept of the "sublime," the feeling one senses in the presence of nature's overwhelming grandeur and power. In this image, the human figures, and even the ship on the horizon, are minuscule, and the emphasis on the water and the sky conveys a sense of humanity overwhelmed. The blood red color of the sky and the black caps of the waves convey the emotional intensity of the natural world, and the vertical ray of light from the sun that divides the ocean in half seems almost an apocalyptic vision, the presence of a divine witness. Turner's quick brush strokes create a sense of frenzy and chaos, overpowering the barely visible struggling human forms. His work influenced Romanticism's depiction of nature as a dramatic and tumultuous struggle.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Massachusetts