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(c. 1810 - c. 1840)

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is a European and American movement extending from about 1800 to 1850. Romanticism cannot be identified as a single style, technique, or attitude, but Romantic painting is generally characterized by a highly imaginative and subjective approach, emotional intensity, and a dream-like or visionary quality. Whereas Classical and Neo-Classical art is calm and restrained in feeling, and clear and complete in expression, Romantic art characteristically strives to express by suggestion states of feeling too intense, mystical, or elusive to be clearly defined. Thus, the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann declared "infinite longing" to be the essence of Romanticism. In their choice of subject matter, artists of the Romantic Movement showed an affinity with nature, especially its wild and mysterious aspects, and for exotic, melancholy and melodramatic subjects likely to evoke awe or passion.  

18th-Century Background
The word "Romantic" first became current in 18th-century English and originally meant "romance-like", i.e. resembling the strange and fanciful character of medieval romances. The word came to be associated with the emerging taste for wild scenery, "sublime" prospects, and ruins, a tendency reflected in the increasing emphasis in aesthetic theory on the sublime as opposed to the beautiful. The British writer and statesman Edmund Burke, for instance, identified beauty with delicacy and harmony, and the sublime with vastness, obscurity, and a capacity to inspire terror. Also during the 18th century, feeling began to be considered more important than reason both in literature and in ethics, an attitude epitomized in the work of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 

English and German Romantic poetry appeared in the 1790s, and by the end of the century the shift away from reason towards feeling and imagination began to be reflected in the visual arts, for instance in the visionary illustrations of the English poet and painter William Blake, in the brooding, sometimes nightmarish pictures of his friend, the Swiss-English painter Henry Fuseli, and in the sombre etchings of monsters and demons by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. 

  • France 1981.  Francisco Goya: "La Lettre d'Amour" 

France 1981. Romanticist Art. Francisco Goya. La Lettre d'Amour.

In France the formative stage of Romanticism coincided with the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), and the first French Romantic painters found their inspiration in contemporary events. Antoine-Jean Gros began the transition from Neo-Classicism to Romanticism by moving away from the sober style of his teacher, Jacques-Louis David, to a more colourful and emotional style, influenced by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, which he developed in a series of battle paintings glorifying Napoleon. 

The main figure in French Romanticism was Théodore Géricault, who carried further the dramatic, colouristic tendencies of Gros's style and who shifted the emphasis of battle paintings from heroism to suffering and endurance. In his Wounded Cuirassier (1814) a soldier limps off the field as rising smoke and descending clouds seem to impinge on his figure. The powerful brushstrokes and conflicting light and dark tones heighten the sense of his isolation and vulnerability, which for Géricault and many other Romantics constituted the essential human condition.

France 1962. Romanticist Painting. Theodore Géricault. First Day Cover.

France 1963. Romanticist Painting. Eugene Delacroix. Jacog's Fight with the Angel.

Géricault's immediate successor was the greatest French Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix, in his Massacre at Chios (1824). Delacroix often took his subjects from literature, but he aimed at transcending literary or didactic significance by using colour to create an effect of pure energy and emotion that he compared to music. 

Rejecting the Neo-Classical emphasis on form and outline, he used half-tones derived not from darkening a colour but from juxtaposing that colour and its complement. The resulting effect of energetic vibration was intensified by his long, nervous brushstrokes. 

His Death of Sardanapalus (1827), inspired by a work by the English Romantic poet Lord Byron, is precisely detailed, but the action is so violent and the composition so dynamic that the effect is one of chaos engulfing the immobile and indifferent figure of the dying king. Read more about Delacroix on this site 

  • France 1963.  Eugene Delacroix: "Jacob's Fight with the Angel".  

German Romantic painting, like German Romantic poetry and philosophy, was inspired by a conception of nature as a manifestation of the divine. This led to a school of symbolic landscape painting, initiated by the mystical and allegorical paintings of Philipp Otto Runge. Its greatest exponent, and the greatest German Romantic painter, was Caspar David Friedrich, whose meditative landscapes, painted in a lucid and meticulous style, hover between a subtle mystical feeling and a sense of melancholy, solitude, and estrangement. His Romantic pessimism is most directly expressed in Polar Sea (1824); the remains of a wrecked ship are barely visible beneath a pyramid of ice slabs that seems a monument to the triumph of nature over human aspiration.

Another school of German Romantic painting was formed by the Nazarenes, a group of artists who attempted to recover the style and spirit of medieval religious art; its leading figure was Johann Friedrich Overbeck. Notable among later artists in the German Romantic tradition was the Austrian Moritz von Schwind, whose subjects were drawn from Germanic mythology and fairy tales.  

England and Ireland
In England, as in Germany, landscapes suffused with Romantic feeling became the chief expression of Romantic painting but the English artists were more innovative in style and technique. Samuel Palmer painted landscapes distinguished by an innocent simplicity of style and a visionary religious feeling derived from Blake. 

John Constable, turning away from the wild natural scenery associated with many Romantic poets and painters, infused quiet English landscapes with profound feeling. 

The first major artist to work in the open air, he achieved a freshness of vision through the use of luminous colours and bold, thick brushwork. J. M. W. Turner achieved the most radical pictorial vision of any Romantic artist. Beginning with landscapes reminiscent of the 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain, he became, in such later works as Snow Storm: Steam Boat Off a Harbour's Mouth (1842), almost entirely concerned with atmospheric effects of light and colour, mixing clouds, mist, snow, and sea into a vortex in which all distinct objects are dissolved.  

  • Great Britain 1968.  Painting by John Constable:  "The Hay Wagon". 

Great Britain 1968. Romanticist Painting. John Constable. The Hay Wagon.

Great Britain 1975. Romanticist Painting. J.M.W. Stamp #1 in commemorative set. Great Britain 1975. Romanticist Painting. J.M.W. Stamp #2 in commemorative set. Great Britain 1975. Romanticist Painting. J.M.W. Stamp #3 in commemorative set. Great Britain 1975. Romanticist Painting. J.M.W. Stamp #4 in commemorative set.

An interesting painter of this period from The Republic of Ireland is William Mulready (1786-1863). He was the son of a leather breeches maker. He married Elizabeth Varley, a landscape painter and sister of the landscape and architectural watercolourist John Varley. However, they later separated. They had four sons. The eldest, Paul Augustus (1805-1864), was the father of the painter Augustus Edwin Mulready. William (1805-1878) and Michael (1807-1889) were also painters. Mulready studied at the Royal Academy, and initially began to paint historical genre and landscapes but then turned to genre scenes inspired by David Wilkie and Dutch seventeenth century masters such as Adriaen van Ostade and Pieter de Hooch, e.g. which won him critical acclaim. Many of his later works concern the subject of childhood and education. Two Mulready-stamps have been issued world wide, one in commemoration of his 200th birth anniversary, and one in connection with a series of Love Stamps issued by Eire. 

Eire 1986. Romanticism. William Mulready's 200th birth anniversary.

  • Eire 1986. Commemorating William Mulready's 200th birth anniversary. 

  • Eire 1989. The Sonnet by William Mulready. 

Eire 1989. Romanticism. The Sonnet, by William Mulready.

Later he adopted a white ground and more luminous palette, creating a precedent for the technique of the later Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1848, the year of the founding of the PRB, a retrospective exhibition of the work of Mulready was held at the Society of Arts. He also taught, painted theatrical scenery and worked as an illustrator. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, British Institution and Society of British Artists between 1804 and 1862. In 1815 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, becoming a full member in the following year. Being recognized as the designer of Sir Rowland Hill's first stamped envelope, Mulready is of particular interest to philately. 

The United States 
The major manifestation of American Romantic painting was the Hudson River School, which found its inspiration in the rugged wilderness of the north-east United States. Washington Allston, the first American landscapist, introduced Romanticism to the United States by filling his poetic landscapes with subjective feeling. The leading figure of the Hudson River School was the English-born painter Thomas Cole, whose depictions of primeval forests and towering peaks convey a sense of moral grandeur. Cole's pupil Frederick Church adapted the Hudson River style to South American, European, and Palestinian landscapes. 

Late Romanticism 
Towards the middle of the 19th century, Romantic painting began to move away from the intensity of the original movement. Among the outstanding achievements of late Romanticism are the quiet, atmospheric landscapes of the French Barbizon School, which included Camille Corot and Théodore Rousseau. In England, after 1850, the Pre-Raphaelites revived the medievalizing mission of the German Nazarenes. 

France 1996. Romanticist Painting. Camille Corot. The Bridge of Narni. Monaco 1996. Romanticist Painting. Camille Corot. Self-portrait. France 1977. Romanticist Painting. Camille Corot. The Bridge in Mantes.

The influence of Romanticism on subsequent painting has been pervasive. A line can be traced from Constable through the Barbizon School to Impressionism, but a more direct descendant of Romanticism was the Symbolist Movement, which in various ways intensified or refined the Romantic Movement's characteristics of subjectivity, imagination, and strange, dream-like imagery. In the 20th century Expressionism and Surrealism have carried these tendencies still further. In a sense, however, virtually all modern art can be said to derive from Romanticism, for modern assumptions about the primacy of artistic freedom, originality, and self-expression in art were originally conceived by the Romantics in opposition to traditional classical principles of art. 

Sources and links: 

Painters and artists from the Romantic period, listed in alphabetical order. Those marked with an asterisk are represented on this page. 

  • Blake, William (British painter)

  • Constable, John (British painter) *

  • Corot, Camille (French painter) *

  • Daumier, Honoré (French painter and sculptor)

  • Delacroix, Eugene (French painter)

  • Gericault, Théodore (French painter) *

  • Goya, Francisco (Spanish painter) 

  • Lundbye, Johan Thomas (Danish painter) 

  • Millet, Jean-Francois (French painter) 

  • Mulready, William (Irish painter) *

  • Skovgaard, Peter Christian (Danish painter)

  • Stubbs, George (British painter)

  • Turner, Joseph Mallord William (British painter) *

  • Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French sculptor) 

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