Romantic painting, which flourished in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Europe, was characterised by its search for the dramatic, the heroic, the unconventional and the mysterious. In its life-affirming mode it celebrated the feats of the individual mind and will. Gros’s General Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole (1797) depicts its conquering hero as a man of action, his elaborate sashes and unfurling flag expressing the extraordinariness, inner intensity and iron will of the hero. Nothing could be further from the earlier ancien régime concept of ‘subjects’ as (largely powerless) servants of the monarch and of the state.
Romantic painting celebrated individuality and enterprise and seemed to promise a significant break with the past. Due to the precarious developments of these revolutionary times, however, the ideal of the hero was always on a knife-edge, haunted by the fear of loss. Important state commissions such as Gros’s Napoleon Visiting the Field of the Battle of Eylau (1808) celebrated the victor’s heroic feats while at the same time drawing attention to the bloodshed and suffering of war. Would the new order really fulfil its promise? In its less life-affirming manifestations, Romantic painting was concerned with impossible or lost dreams and hidden desire.
As political turmoil in Europe gave way to a more stable, if bourgeois, state of affairs, artists inherited an interest in the individual mind that expressed itself through an increasing emphasis on inwardness. For painters and sculptors this posed a particular problem. How could one express the inner workings of the mind, inherently an invisible phenomenon, in a medium constituted by the visual? One possible way forward was to express the visual images conjured up by the imagination, particularly in dreams. While most eighteenth-century artists and theorists had conceived of the imagination as a creative synthesis of inherited tradition with newly observed sights in nature or reality (think, for example, of Joshua Reynolds’ endless variations on classical formulae in his society portraits), the Romantics saw the capacity of the imagination as boundless.
There was also an unprecedented emphasis on religious or spiritual vision and a general faith that the inner (rather than outwardly heroic) life could be given visible form. Just as events on the political stage had broken the mould, so the imagination could find endless new ways of seeing things and ‘see’ things previously unseen. Originality and unconventionality were highly prized, even if more conservative critics or members of the viewing public were not yet ready for this. The Enlightenment’s ideal of art as a school of morals gave way to a culture of liberation and was fully reawakened only much later, in the Victorian era. The world of the subconscious and supra-rational was in vogue, in the grimacing fairies of Fuseli’s Titania and Bottom (1780-90); the madmen and witches depicted by Goya and the vision of Hell in Blake’s Capaneus the Blasphemer.
Blake was part of an important strain of Romantic art that attempted to place the concerns of mortals within the larger scale of the divine. This was another example of the quest of Romanticism to reach beyond the plainly visual to the unseen. His Capaneus (guilty of over-reaching pride and ambition) is consumed by the flames of divine wrath, his solid mortal body on the point of dissolution.
Other artists explored ways of dissolving recognisable forms and shapes in order to transcend the normal limits of our vision, reason and experience. Caspar David Friedrich literally dissolved his landscapes in mist and fog so that they unleashed the creative powers of the viewer’s imagination. The effect is evident in his Monk by the Sea (1809-10), Abbey in the Oak Forest (1809-10) and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818). Turner immersed himself in the representation of evanescent light effects and swirling mists, to the point of near-annihilation of the visible. Constable represented rainbows, sunshine and storm clouds as motifs which illuminated paintings while obscuring fine detail. While earlier eighteenth-century artists had striven to respect classical ideals of order, proportion, balance and legibility, some Romantic artists celebrated obscurity. Friedrich’s landscapes were often symmetrical in effect while subverting this symmetry with a fog of uncertainty.
The clearly-outlined forms of Neo-classicism often gave way to looser brushwork that suggested rather than defined forms (although such changes were not uniform, as the work of Ingres demonstrates). Sketchiness, haziness and incompleteness became desirable and undermined the traditional emphasis on a precise and uniform ‘finish’ or paint surface advocated by the academies. The content and possible meanings of paintings became less clearly signalled, as viewers were thrown back on their own subjective resources.
This loss of certainty was related to a changing response to the Enlightenment’s concept of the sublime. Theorised by Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), the sublime was defined as a state of mind provoked by certain qualities in the objects and phenomena we observe: this state of mind was terror. Stimulants of the sublime included objects of great size that threatened our capacity to take them in all at once; objects or living creatures of great power and extreme darkness and obscurity. The Enlightenment mindset had welcomed this opportunity to catalogue and define yet another aspect of our mental capacities and generally regarded the sublime as a source of aesthetic delight (it could please and thrill us as long as we were not in any real danger when contemplating it) and human pride: our minds were challenged by it but were also inspired to raise themselves to new heights of perception.
A perfect example of the Enlightenment sublime can be seen in the detailed watercolours of Caspar Wolf, with their neatly framed, if massive, Alpine caverns and waterfalls. The Romantics were less optimistic about our capacity to rise to the challenge of the sublime and often saw it as a threat of annihilation. Friedrich’s precipices seem to position the viewer in unstable, uncertain viewpoints; Turner’s waterfalls and abysses threaten to engulf us completely. In Romantic paintings such features are more likely to appear to burst the frame and appear less subject to rational or human control. (In fact, of course, such effects were often carefully stage-managed.)
Romantic art helped to form our modern conception of what it means to be an artist. We now take it for granted that the artist is someone of rich, unlimited creativity and exceptional individuality. So accustomed are we to this notion that it can take precedence over the need to assess an artist’s work by means of any ‘objective’ or more widely shared criteria. To some present-day observers this cheapens art by excusing all in the name of originality. It is perhaps worth recalling, however, that many Romantic artists were gifted draftsmen skilled in producing the fine lines required of a Neo-classical composition or a drawing from nature. Turner was a skilled technician of colour pigments and effects. Delacroix, painter of a dramatic orgy of death and sex in his The Death of Sardanapalus (1827-8), had a strong allegiance to classical traditions of painting bequeathed by Renaissance art.
The ‘liberation’ of Romantic artists was more than an undisciplined descent into self-indulgence. It was fuelled, to a considerable degree, by the demands of a public anxious for colour and escapism in an age which produced violent revolution, entrepreneurial industrialism and the rise of a middle class existence recognisable today and challenged, more recently, in the ‘liberated’ sixties.