19th Century Art: Five Romantic Paintings that Built Nations

Romantic paintings capture and immortalize the chaos and tumult of life. In the turbulent 19th century, art hailed new political developments of emerging European nations and celebrated nationalist emancipation.

Mar 21, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History
modern romania romantic paintings
February 11th, 1866 – The Modern Romania by Gheorghe Tattarescu, 1866; with Exhibition of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1828 by Wincenty Kasprzycki, 1828


Few periods in European history caused such significant social and cultural change as one single year – 1848. Later called the Spring of Nations, the year 1848 heralded nationalist revolutions all over the continent. It marked the peak of Romanticism, defining European 19th-century art and politics. Turning to an imaginary past, Romanticism brought previously ignored legacies to the fore. If classicism sought to recreate and imitate the austere beauty of the Roman Empire and ancient Greece, Romanticism drew inspiration from the overlooked European legends and folk traditions. It was through romantic paintings that people discovered their glorious past and saw glimpses of a bright future.


The Allure of Nationalism In Romantic Paintings

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Exhibition of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1828 by Wincenty Kasprzycki, 1828, in the National Museum, Warsaw, via Google Arts & Culture 


The idea of a ‘nation’ is relatively new: it is a Romantic notion coined by German philosophers in the 19th century and not a legacy of the past. While political Romanticism focused on national emancipation – a unity of seemingly unrelated people bound together by a shared language and culture, 19th-century art reflected the same idea in music, literature, and painting. Among all the mediums available to artists, painting offered the best means to address such fluid notions as national spirit and history. At a time when many Europeans were illiterate and barely interested in national pasts, historical paintings bridged the gap between nationalism and indifference. 


19th-century art slowly and steadily took the path of national emancipation. Smaller nations, squeezed between powerful empires, were especially susceptible to these new trends. Romantic paintings, thus, replaced history with an idealized representation of political dreams. Artists depicted national ancestors in their versions of traditional costumes, highlighting their heroism and paying little attention to authenticity. Historical paintings (often monumental in size) were the 19th-century versions of modern movie posters – bright, intense, appealing, and often similar. The following five masterpieces tell the same story of European Romantic nationalism from five different nations, whose views on history and future did not coincide. However, it seems that their shared Romantic paintings complimented each other well. 


1. The Conquest Of The Motherland By Mihály Munkácsy

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The Conquest by Mihály Munkácsy, 1893, in the Munkácsy Room, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest


When Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900) died, his funeral alone drew half of Budapest into the streets. Ironically, the last Hungarian Romantic artist died on the cusp of the 20th century, leaving a series of masterpieces behind. Among the many Munkácsy’s works that tackled historical subjects, one stands out as the most replicated of his Romantic paintings – Honfoglalás or the Conquest of the Motherland

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Munkácsy’s turn to the defining episode in the history of the Hungarian nation is not accidental. What could be more dramatic and more significant to a Romantic painter than the arrival of the Magyars in Central Europe at the beginning of the 10th century? Settling in the lowlands of the Carpathian Basin, the Hungarian tribes allegedly made a bargain with Svatopluk I. Tricking the Slavic ruler into granting their leader Árpád soil, grass, and water, the Hungarians “bought” the land from the Slavs. 


In an anachronistic fashion, Munkácsy’s Romantic painting is filled with figures assembled on the edge of a forest, their attire bearing no resemblance to the actual historical robes worn by either the local Slavs or the Hungarian newcomers in the 10th century. Similarly, Árpád’s majestic white horse is an artistic representation of his vigor, strength, and importance. Historically, much smaller sturdier horse breeds were prevalent at the time in Eastern Europe. The brilliance of Munkácsy’s colors as well as his attention to details imbues the picture with a contemporary spirit. The hairstyles and clothes reflect Romantic Hungarian fashions, including the glorious mustaches sported by every man in Árpád’s entourage. Creating the painting for the building of the Hungarian parliament, Munkácsy finished his work in 1893, forever capturing the legend that tells more about the idea of a nation than about the past. 


2. The Arrival Of Croats To The Adriatic Sea By Oton Iveković

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The Arrival of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea by Oton Iveković, 1905, in the Klovićevi dvori Gallery, Zagreb


In their desire to depict nation-defining moments, Hungarian Romantic artists did not depart far from the Slavs, who Árpád allegedly tricked. An eerily similar plot captured another Romantic mind. This time, the painter was none other than the Croatian lover of folklore Oton Iveković (1869-1939). 


Trained in academic realism, Iveković developed his skills in Vienna and Zagreb. Obsessed with the Slavic history of his motherland, Iveković imagined the Arrival of Croats as his own reflection on the topic. He disregarded each of the Croatian “migration theories,” concentrating on national representation instead. As a result, Iveković’s Romantic painting revives the fading image of the Croatian medieval kingdom, capturing the legendary arrival of the seven siblings to the sea. The robes of the characters as well as the unnaturally bright scenery resemble a theatrical decoration for a good reason. Iveković, after all, was a costume designer, whose historical paintings were often sold as postcards, catering to all the layers of the population. 


Unlike his other colleagues, Iveković used allegories sparingly, concentrating on raw emotions and delivering a straight-forward message: on the jagged cliffs overlooking the blue ribbon of the sea, the future Croatian nation made its first steps to statehood – a political dream realized in a painting. Even today, Iveković’s historical canvases feature prominently in history textbooks and popular culture.


3. The Legacy Of Libuše And Přemysl By František Ženíšek


In 1891, František Ženíšek (1849-1916), a Czech nationalist and a Romantic painter, created a significant work dealing with half-mythical encounters and national legends. He, like many of his fellow-Romantics, turned to his national history or, to be more precise, to his Romantic idea about the mysterious past of the Czech people. 


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The Legacy of Libuše and Přemysl, the Ploughman by František Žemišek, 1891, via the National Gallery, Prague


According to an old legend, Libuše was the youngest daughter of a mythical ruler who controlled the Bohemian region. Although chosen by her father as his successor, Libuše faced opposition from the men in her tribe, who demanded that she should marry.  Instead of choosing a nobleman from her tribe, she fell in love with a simple farmer, Přemysl.


With her unique gift of a seer, Libuše instructed the noblemen to find the farmer whom she had seen in her vision and to bring him to the palace. Přemysl became a leader and a founder of the Bohemian royal dynasty that would rule the country for centuries to come. Libuše prophesied the founding of Prague, the rise of the Czech nation, and the sufferings it would eventually endure.


The story of the seer-queen fascinated a whole generation of young Czech nationalists. When Bedřich Smetana composed music for the first national opera Libuše, other artists followed suit. Ženíšek, in his turn, addressed this story about love, prophecies, and nationalism in his Romantic painting The Legacy of Libuše and Přemysl, the Ploughman. 


A Christ-like figure with spread arms and a humble demeanor, the legendary founder of the first Czech dynasty of kings, encounters Libuše on the edge of a field. It is this defining episode in the history of the Czech nation that eventually led to the Czech national revival. Libuše, who bows before the ploughman, asking his hand in marriage, is as much a character from legends as she is an actress performing a role in Smetana’s opera.


4. Rejtan By Jan Matejko


To the East, in Poland, Romantic nationalism took a tragic turn. While other Slavs focused on the glorious events from their legends, many Polish Romantic artists lamented the loss of their once-powerful state. 


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Rejtan, Fall of Poland by Jan Matejko, 1866, in the Royal Castle, Warsaw


Partitioned by three European Powers, a united Poland became a dream expressed in the many masterpieces of 19th-century art. Rejtan: The Fall of Poland by Jan Matejko (1838-1893) tells this story of a past tragedy in a puzzle of a painting.


Created in 1866, when Matejko was just 28-years old, the Romantic painting depicts a desperate protest of Tadeusz Rejtan, a deputy of the Sejm (lower house of the parliament) who witnessed the first partition of Poland in 1773. In contrast to the lavishly dressed crowd from his left, Rejtan is lying splayed on the floor, his elbow positioned on the crimson drapery and his shirt torn, revealing his chest. Above him, a grand portrait dominates the interior, featuring one of the architects of the partition – the Empress of Russia Catherine the Great


While Rejtan is baring the way and preventing other members of the Sejm from leaving, they watch him with a mixture of anguish, guilt, and shame. The tragedy of the scene is deepened by the knowledge that this was only the first of the three partitions that erased Poland from the map of Europe until the end of World War I. 


Matejko painted real historical figures rather than half-mythical heroes of legend, whose traces are difficult to follow. However, even in this seemingly historical painting, nationalist Romanticism is present in the heightened emotions of the figures, in the dramatic pose of Rejtan himself, and in the strangely theatrical representation of the event that had defined Poland’s tragic fate. Considered controversial by his contemporaries and criticized for presenting not the fall, but the sale of Poland, Jan Matejko’s Rejtan is nowadays considered one of the most famous Polish artworks. 


5. The Modern Romania By Gheorghe Tattarescu 

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February 11th, 1866 – The Modern Romania by Gheorghe Tattarescu, 1866, in the Muzeul Memorial Gheorghe Tattarescu, Bucharest


South-East of Poland, another nation celebrated its revival in the blossoming renaissance of nationalist art. Romania, formed in 1859, commemorated its independence from the Ottomans, and its national unification in art with a piece that depicts the much-anticipated national awakening. A Romanian artist turned revolutionary expressed his hopes for the future of his state in a Romantic painting titled February 11th, 1866 – The Modern Romania


Gheorghe Tattarescu (1818-1894), one of the most versatile of the Romanian intellectuals of the mid-19th century, followed Jacques-Louis David and his depiction of the French Revolution as an example. Educated in Italy, brought up in Moldavia, and trained to paint icons by his uncle, Tattarescu is a unique example of a Romantic artist coming from a post-Byzantine Orthodox cultural circle. Combining neo-Classicism and Romanticism, Tattarescu managed to convey the message of a hopeful revival. The woman representing Romania holds the new national flag that billows behind her. Torn chains dangle from her ankles and wrists, as she soars into the sky. In the background, the sun is rising over small churches and craggy ravines. 


Tattarescu’s picture falls in-between Delacroix’s emotional storms and David’s neo-classicist calmness. Yet, it is still a theatrical representation of a national drama imposed upon a vision of the future. Like Delacroix’s Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, it is yet another artistic story about a nation rising from the proverbial ashes.


Romantic Paintings As Nation-Building 19th-Century Art

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Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi by Eugène Delacroix, 1826, via Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux


By the end of the 19th century, historical paintings lost their popularity. World War I, the dissolution of European empires, and the formation of newly independent states brought other artistic trends to the fore. However, Romantic paintings remained in popular memory. The works of Munkácsy, Iveković, Žemišek, Matejko, Tattarescu, and many similar 19th-century artists continue to shape the collective imagination up to this day. Often found in textbooks, reproductions of these works have shaped generations of people for better or worse.


Romantic art always focuses on visions rather than realities, projects rather than accepted facts. In a series of Romantic paintings, one can trace the high aspirations of nationalists, who were often at odds with each other and each other’s historical narratives. In one of his articles, Alexander Kiossev, a Bulgarian historian, pointed out that “European identity belongs to the future, it is a project rather than a ‘legacy’ of the past.” Perhaps, nothing reflects that thin line between a vision of the past and a dream of the future better than 19th-century art.

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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.