The Art of Revolution: Romanticism

1. Revolutionary Horrors: Delacroix and Gericault

Eugene Delacroix: The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827-8 (13 x 16')

The painting was inspired by a poetic drama by (Lord) George Byron, Sardanapalus (1821), the story of an Assyrian king whose lifestyle led to the rebellion of the people he ruled.  Rather than let the rebels succeed, he ordered the destruction of his palace, servants, concubines, animals, every treasure he possessed.  Sardanapalus had outlawed violence and war, imposing pleasure and peace in their place.  But his sense of peace is a primal peace which consists of orgies and indulgence.  The indulgence of the senses eventually culminates in the indulgence of masochistic and sadistic fantasies.

The painting is revivalist in the sense that it uses a historical legend, although one which has been retold by a contemporary romantic poet.  Just as the neoclassical period used classical history to comment on the present, the romantic period also uses history to comment on the chaos produced by the French revolution.  But the history in this case is not classical and in general, the romantic period does not turn to classical history for its myths and narratives.  It is interesting that Delacroix did not call himself a romantic, and this particular painting, The Death of Sardanapalus, despite the horror and exoticism in it, does have some continuities with neoclassicism (through the narrative) but overall, it dramatically disrupts the stable compositions of neoclassical paintings.

Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa, 1819 (16' X 23'6")

Géricault’s Raft of the "Medusa" is both realist and romantic in execution and vision.  The incident was real and involved an accident in which a large French boat hit a reef off the coast of Africa.  The captain and officers used the lifeboats to save themselves and left the passengers to a raft which floundered in the sea for 13 days while the people on board died from starvation, battles among themselves, and the effects of the elements.  One of the first things we might notice in this painting is that almost all the figures are facing away from the viewer.  We actually stare down on the raft, a position which isolates the victims from the viewer.  The space is characteristic of romantic space – extending deep into the distance and along a dramatic diagonal path of recession, and it might remind you of some of the Baroque paintings we looked at.  It would certainly be reasonable to say that if the neoclassical period had more in common with the Renaissance, then the Romantic has more in common with the Baroque.  And in that sense, we are witnessing a recurring pattern in art history: a period of stability and order in art followed by its disruption, only to be followed again by the return of order.

Géricault’s intention with his painting, made clearer by his original title, "A Shipwreck Scene," was to create a parable about the struggle of humanity, a goal which becomes clear as you study the bodies and realize that they have more in common with the muscular idealized bodies in a painting by Michelangelo than with emaciated men who had died of starvation on a storm-tossed raft.  Géricault gives us a powerful painting but an ambiguous one: a painting with political relevance but an allegory of the fate of humanity, or what  we might recognize as realism but realism told with the brush of a romantic.  But it is this combination of an allegory with immediate relevance to events that had just happened that distinguishes between the baroque period and the romantic.  Although similar in their use of light and compositions, the baroque painting was not about the present day.  When Caravaggio, for example, used present-day clothing in the figures of the Calling of Matthew, his painting was nonetheless about a religious scene and not about contemporary life.

Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (8'6 X 10'8)

Delacroix has always been considered the leading representative of French romanticism. His art is closely associated with exalting the role of color, in much the same way that his baroque predecessors (the Rubenistes) did.  For subject matter, he was likely to turn to orientalized myths and other sources of exotic history, with two exceptions: Liberty Leading the People (1830), a romantic painting of the July revolution, and Scenes from the Massacre of Chios, a painting about the war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire .

Gericault’s raft seems to be the underlying composition of both Delacroix paintings on this page although Delacroix has repositioned the figures in both.  Liberty leading the People uses a composition which expands the pyramidal grouping of the Gericault painting, and contains suggestions of the dispersed composition of his own Death of Sardanapalus.  Liberty faces forward and the figures are more evenly arrayed around her than the figures in Gericault’s painting.  Color is a key to this painting: although browns and blacks appear to dominate, the colors of the French tricolor flag, red, blue, and white, recur throughout the painting in varying degrees of intensity. It is through the use of color that Delacroix makes this painting not only an allegory but a political statement. Before moving on to the great Spanish romantic artist, we should note that in all three examples so far, we have seen the combination of at least two contradictory style-ideas in one painting: neoclassical and fantasy in Sardanapalus, realism and allegory in both Liberty and Medusa. Romanticism does seem to be about the impossibility of taking a single stand, either in life or in the painting.

2. Goya: The Disasters of War, 1810-14

Disasters of War, #14 Disasters of War, #15
Disasters of War, #30 Disasters of War, #26

In The Disasters of War, a series of etchings on the subject of war and torture, Goya  focused on the atrocities committed by both sides in the Napoleonic wars and Spain’s uprisings. Goya did not take a position which supported his homeland – he highlighted the irrational and grotesque nature of humanity, much as he did in an earlier set of etchings, Los Caprichos.  This may have led to his decision not to publish the etchings in his lifetime, but the reason for this decision is not conclusively known.  These war etchings are believed to be a truer and more personal expression of his feelings about the war than his painting on the same theme, The Executions on the Third of May, 1808 (1814) but they both deal with the same period.  On May 2, Spanish rebels rose up against the French in Madrid.  On May 3 they were executed.  One of the striking differences between the etchings and the painting, apart from constraints imposed by the medium, is the way in which the etchings include almost no extraneous detail.  Just as the victims in the etchings cannot escape from the atrocities, the viewer's eyes have no where else to look.

Goya: Executions on The Third of May 1808 (1814, 8'8 x 11'3, oil on canvas)

The decision to paint an execution, rather than a battle or a victory, was unusual at the time but in keeping with the romantic tendency to choose images and themes related to pain.  The victims’ faces are depicted, while the executioners are seen from the back, becoming a mass of force.  Although all the figures are believable, Goya did not treat the human body with a great deal of attention to anatomic detail.  In the etchings as well as this painting, he emphasized the shape.  Even the central figure, illuminated by the light, is rendered more as shape than kinetic form, and in this case, the shape is intended to evoke a crucifixion.  The position of his body is echoed in the dead man lying in the front of the painting.  The incidents were real; the intent, however, is not a documentary or transparent rendering of the scene (something that comes later in the 19th century).  Goya has turned a contemporary event into a painting of universal or transcendent meaning.  The romanticism of the painting lies in the emphasis on pain and torture, the agitated brushwork (difficult to see in this reproduction), the dark colors with moments of  high contrast, and the creation of a scene which unites the present moment with a more universalized meaning.  The suggestion of universal meaning is a lingering connection to neoclassicism.  But the use of the cathedral as an echo of the sloping ground behind prisoners, creating a barrier which imprisons the viewer as well as the victim, finally denies the possibility of transcendence or escape.  That denial is more characteristic of realism.  Romanticism, characteristically, gives us contrasting conditions in the same work of art.  It is a movement between two movements (neoclassicism and realism) and as such, it often shows signs of both: what came before and what comes after.

Another characteristic of Romanticism is that its theatricality is more direct than that of neoclassicism.  More like the baroque, it implicates the viewer in a more immediate and horrific way than neoclassicism did.  We still remain largely outside the painting, but our role has changed from that of an impassive observer or spectator to someone who must look at things that shouldn't be seen.

3. Turner's Sublime Romanticism

Turner: The Slave Ship, 1840 Turner: Sun Setting Over a Lake, 1840

Turner, perhaps more than most of the artists of this period, unites the goals of the romantic and the sublime.  The element which connects both is the creation of uncertainty and ambiguity, particularly in light of a perceived threat.  This is an emotional experience which is felt more readily than it can be put into words.  In Turner’s paintings, the spaces and colors carry this sense of uncertain order.  But they do so in at least two ways: through the intangible or imperceptible narrative that we barely discern, and through his technique.  The fascination of his seascapes and landscapes is that despite the sense of swirling chaos created in so many of them and the vortex which pulls you into the hole at the center of the painting, the texture of the paint and the breakdown of colors into their component hues and tones work against that force which is pulling you into the depths.  Although these reproductions are small, consider how many variations of the yellow and orange tonalities you can see in the two paintings, especially in the painting of the setting sun.

Turner: The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying: Typhoon Coming On), 1840 

As we can see in The Slave Ship, Turner did turn to real subject matter, often of a national and political nature.  In this painting, Turner united a lifelong subject and obsession – the stormy sea and the violent image of sunset with an issue that was capable of arousing outrage.  Key to the narrative of this painting is the idea that the hubris and inhumanity contained in human beings is matched by nature which wreaks vengeance on mankind.  The practice of throwing slaves overboard if they were ill, in order to obtain insurance money for the loss of property, was known to Turner.  An abolitionist movement existed in Great Britain and had made headway on British soil but the slave trade continued to flourish in the colonies.  Turner gives us a scene in which, with difficulty, we can make out body parts of chained victims being preyed on by fish and vultures.  One of the bodies is that of a female and in a manner which may be characteristic of much romantic art, the painting in an obscure way unites titillation with repulsion (certainly, this was a feature of Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus).  This union is carried into the sea, by the strong movement of the water.  On the moral level, the legs and arms which can be made out in the foreground create a visual parallel to the masts of the ship in the distance, a ship which will likely suffer the same fate as the drowned slaves.  Nature, in this case, consumes all the rejected elements of humanity without differentiating between them.  Yet that bright light which becomes the focus of our eyes, riveting in its intensity and its centrality in the painting, suggests some type of moral redemption -- that next to the continuity of nature, injustice and inhumanity and hubris pale in their force, because the cruelty of man pales next to the power of nature.

4. The Romantic Landscape

Romanticism did not invent the idea of the sublime, although it characterizes a lot of Romantic art. It was also not unique to art -- some scientists, such as Newton, were described as sublime thinkers. As the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, the mixture of horror with distance could provoke a sublime experience.  In art, this translated into a preference for the macabre, the monumental, the occult and visions of the catastrophic.  But we should also consider the fact that some examples of the sublime do not contain macabre and horrific events - nature can also be sublime.  Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of a lone person (or two lone people) standing in front of an expanse of sea and sky communicate the sense of awe which is sublime without being about horror or physical pain.
Caspar David Friedrich: Monk by the Sea, 1808-10, 43" x 67"

John Constable, however, rarely painted the experience of the sublime.  Indeed, it is almost difficult to call him a romantic painter given his devotion to naturalistic detail.  Throughout much of his career, Constable was committed to the naturalistic landscape, producing large-scale sketches of his large paintings – an uncommon thing to do at that time – and making cloud studies and studies of the bark of trees and other natural elements with the goal of being faithful to the real world.  He also said as much in his writings: “In such an age as this, painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific, mechanical.”  Yet, at the same time, Constable returned to the same scenery again and again, places associated with his youth, with his father, with his “careless boyhood” as he put it:
“Still, I paint my own places best; painting is but another word for feeling, and I associate my ‘careless boyhood’ with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter... I am fond of being an egotist in whatever relates to painting.”  It is this second quotation which textbooks often use to mark Constable as a romantic painter, and perhaps it is true of his later paintings, in the 1820s, the paintings in which the scale becomes large and attentive detail becomes part of the accumulation of a much larger sense of wonder and personal feeling.

Constable: The Cornfield, 1826 (56" x 48") Constable: Dedham Vale, 1828 
(57" x 48")

Constable creates a texture of time in the Cornfield.  The dying tree in the foreground, the fertile fields in the distance, the young boy to the left, the older man working in the fields -- all unite to give us the spectrum of the ages from growth to death.  In addition to that path, there is one which moves from the more rugged and natural landscape in the foreground to the cultivated fields in the distance and the almost imperceptible cathedral in the far background.  This is a path from the natural world to the built environment, from the world untouched by human hands to the world that is built by human hands.  In this painting, then, man and nature coexist, not because of a theatrical story we might imagine in the landscape but because of the visual progressions and the way the two worlds are interwoven.  The natural world contains and shelters the human world because the cloudy sky is given as much detail and attention as the ground, creating a visual envelope which contains the sown fields and the people and the flock of sheep.  The amount of naturalistic detail prevents the painting from being picturesque; nor is it sublime, although it draws on elements of both.  What we are looking for in the romantic landscape is an almost musical quality of rhythm, an emotional quality which often conveys an understanding of the interactions between past, present and future, and an intimate or personal vision.

Romanticism is difficult to define because one of its characteristics is the emphasis on individuality.  Compared to neoclassicism, romantic art uses subject matter which is generally more emotional, dramatic, often exotic, and at times, drawn from the artist’s imagination.  Color and brushwork become central to the expression of the story and assume symbolic meaning, as in Delacroix’s painting of Liberty leading the People.  Another characteristic, which doesn't tell us what it looks like, is that romanticism was born during the heat of revolution.  If neoclassicism was an attempt to envision an ordered and stable world, romanticism responds to the instability of the world.  But the revolutions are not the same across Europe; in Great Britain, romanticism is initially a response to the Industrial revolution and later a response to the French revolution as well; in France, it is a direct response to the French revolution.  In Germany, where we find perhaps the most unadulterated form of Romanticism (in its music and literature, but rarely in its painting), it is a response to the revolution in life styles–in thought, in religion, in politics.

The question which follows is whether there is an American form of romanticism.  Many people do consider the American landscape painting tradition of the 19th century to be a form of the romantic sublime although it lacks the attraction to horror and violence that we find in French and Spanish, and some British, romantic art.

5. Romanticism and the American Landscape

Cole's painting The Oxbow shows him to be quite close to the moderately Romantic sensibility of Constable, using the landscape as the site of a personal sense of discovery, although the personal also functions as a metaphor for the social.
Cole: The Oxbow: The Connecticut River near Northampton, 1846

The conflict inscribed in this painting may represent more than a conflict between the savage wilderness and the cultivated land that we see in the distance; it may represent one which was particular to Cole.  The imagined landscapes of Cole's paintings may be symbolic of a psychological battle: a battle between a father and a son, a battle between a new school of painting and painting tradition, as both the "son" and new painting struggle to emerge and define themselves.  In this case, the passing storm is a sign of the psychological struggle to realize his personal vision, and the painting is a metaphorical battle of conquest, defeat, and reversal in order to achieve liberation.  Liberation for the artist is liberation from existing traditions. The wilderness foreground of the painting is reenvisioned as the distant golden valley.  This is the painting where Cole comes closest to the British artists he studied under and the painting where, like John Constable, he uses the landscape to make a personal statement and nationalist statement at the same time. His Course of the Empire series is easier to see as romantic because of its overlay of imagined history, but it is not characteristic of either Cole's larger body of work or most other American painters of the mid-19th century.

Frederick Allen Church: The Spiritual Sublime and a "higher sort of landscape"

Church:  Cotopaxi, 1862 Church:  Heart of the Andes, 1859

Church was one of the most successful painters in the 19th century, thought of as the leading American artist by Americans and in Europe, regarded as the successor to the leading European landscape artists.  His paintings eventually achieve a synthesis of a sense of the landscape as a spiritual cathedral of the imagination without denying the truth of naturalism or the presence of the human being. The Heart of the Andes and Cotopaxi are alike in this respect.  They are further alike in Church’s working methods.  Like Cole, he wanted to paint a “higher sort of landscape” by which he meant a landscape of moral meaning.  Unlike Cole, Church traveled through South America, recording in sketches everything he saw and later combining these sketches into imagined landscape.  What Cotopaxi achieves, which Heart of the Andes did not, is the creation of the spiritual through the interaction of color and light and their reflections in the sky and on water.  In the end, though, to the eyes of people living today, Church’s paintings, despite the high level of technical achievement they embody, are bombastic, too given to the rhetoric of a cosmic spiritual vision to communicate the innate qualities of an American landscape.


John Kensett: Lake George, 1869 Bierstadt: In the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, 1868

The luminist tradition is the one which is most closely related to the transcendentalist ideas of Emerson.  The luminist paintings are somewhat different from artists like Cole, Church and Bierstadt.  Although Church and Bierstadt create remarkable paintings of the way light falls on nature, the role of light in the luminist painting does seem to be more symbolic and mystical.  The clarity of these paintings is striking and very unlike anything which was developing in Europe at this time.  It is also more than just an interest in light: it is an attitude toward things in nature, a subjective rendering of the object in which the artist's feelings are transferred to the object so intensely that there actually is no sense of the artist.  Rather than saying that they seem to anticipate surrealism, as some books suggest, I would describe their style as a type of super- or hyper-realism, with a degree of intensity that makes the paintings seem almost impersonal. This is a poetry of things, in which the poet become almost anonymous. The landscape and nature become a smooth, mirror-like world/surface, clarified by the artist and seemingly rationalized.  These paintings create a very purified and planar effect at the same time that they appear to render nature accurately.  The sense of the brush stroke is nearly eliminated; there is a linear clarity in addition to the sense of planes--the planes recede into distance but there is no overlapping.