Romanticist Art for Dummies: A Beginner’s Guide

Romanticism was a cultural movement that echoed throughout Europe from the late eighteenth century. Romanticist art captured the ideas of this period by their contemplations on human emotion.

Nov 28, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt, BA English Literature
romanticist art
Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich, 1818; with Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, 1830


The Romanticism movement occurred during a historical period beginning from the late eighteenth century (sometimes dated as 1783-89, the period of the U.S. and the French Revolution) and going on to influence much of modern culture. When we ask, “What is Romanticist art,” we are enquiring into a time in history with complex and conflicting ideas that offered artists a new and exciting ground for their artwork.


Introduction To Romanticist Art

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Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich, 1818, via Hamburger Kunsthalle


The typical characteristic, however, of Romanticist art is a focus on human emotion, about portraying the complexity, and passions, of human feelings; intuition, imagination, and notions of the self. Many Romantics praised the subtle gradations of human emotion above the facility for rationality; this is a traditional way of looking at Romanticism. This focus on the human interior was an important stepping stone towards the modern age and gave new freedom to painting in terms of subject and style.


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The Hay Wain by John Constable, 1821, via the National Gallery, London


The Romanticism movement was not confined to a single country, meaning that Romanticist art and ideas were interpreted and expressed in different ways. For example, as we will see, Romanticist art in France begun with ideas of emotional passion, liberty and equality; German Romanticist art delves into introspection, solitude, and imagination; British Romanticist art sought a new spiritual relationship with nature.


What Is Romanticism? Romanticist Art Versus Neo-Classical

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The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, 1785, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


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The famous poet and Art critic, Charles Baudelaire, found Romanticist art difficult to define. This was due to the sheer variety of subject matter and style that could be labeled under ‘Romanticist art.’ Rather cleverly, Baudelaire supplied the notion that it comes down to how the artist feels in the conception of their art. Baudelaire wrote this statement in the mid-nineteenth century when the Romanticism movement had been on course for over 50 years. However, when the production of Romanticist art began, this idea of an artist’s feeling or the sole effort to depict passionate emotion was new.


The fashion of the mid-eighteenth-century European painting was primarily Neo-Classical. As the name suggests, this style was harkening back to the Classical style which had been the dominant form of painting in the Renaissance. It was fascinated by a rational, mathematical, representation of space through lines and forms; it was about accurate depictions of men and women, especially in scenes taken from Classical literature. Painters were seen as draughtsmen, technically planning out their paintings.


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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1782, via Tate, London


Neo-Classicism was a form of art that paid respect to the past; the Neo-Classicists were not interested in invention but to carry on a tradition. This is where we find Romanticist art; painters and thinkers began to feel confined in the rationality of Neo-Classicism. Painters started to focus on scenes of intense emotion; imaginative scenes reflecting human psychology; landscapes that were brooding, ominous, and wonderful. It was felt that society had gone bust if it were built entirely on rationality, in fact, it was in direct conflict with an essential feature of lived experience: being instinctual, irrational, and passionate.


The Human Soul And Romanticism

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, 1830, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


We have seen, then, that Romanticist art is difficult to boil down to a skeletal structure; the inner self of an artist will be different from the next and therefore a variety of subjects and styles will be created. Take the French Romanticist artist, Eugene Delacroix.


He painted scenes of intense passion, such as ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ and ‘The Death of Sardanapalus.’ These paintings depict passionate movement and feeling. This is reinforced by Delacroix’s vibrant use of color and his chaotic canvas; gone are the rigid forms of Neo-Classicism. Delacroix creatively invented new stylistic elements to bring to life, for the viewer, a passionate display.


If we now turn to the Romantic German painter Caspar Friedrich, His painting, ‘Winter Landscape’; it highlights the individual brooding spirit of Romanticism. The view of bare nature creating a contemplative mood; an essence of life. The tree is open to the viewer, but the steeple is clouded in the obscure fog. Friedrich was a master of this aloof, brooding, existential feeling, and his imaginative response to this Romantic idea provided a symbol for the movement; he was exploring the intuitive moments of human life with all its obscurity.


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Winter Landscape by Caspar Friedrich, 1811, via the National Gallery, London


Another side of the Romantic imagination sought to explore the darker sides of human psychology. In the case of Gericault, he took to portraiture of the ‘insane,’ or ‘monomania.’ These were studies of characters who had obsessions, obsessions which led to delusional behavior. It was a first to see titles of paintings such as, ‘portrait of a child snatcher.’ The interest lay in the inner life of these people, the irrational.


Nature In Romanticist Art

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Salisbury Cathedral and Leadenhall from the River Avon by John Constable, 1820, via the National Gallery, London


Landscape painting was brought under the Romantic gaze in which it became personalized; it sought to mirror feelings or to produce powerful emotions in the viewer. The former was a technique called ‘Pathetic Fallacy,’ and the latter ‘The Sublime.’ Pathetic fallacy was commonly used to show the extremes of emotion, for example, stormy weather as a symbol of a stormy mind. The sublime was written about as a feeling of overwhelming terror; a feeling of unity; a stunning sense of awe.


Nature served to capture the inner feeling of man, and it also taught him to look beyond himself, feeling connected to something larger than himself. This is evident from the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth or Coleridge. This strain in the Romanticism movement tended towards the spiritual; we saw this in Friedrich’s paintings, but it is also evident in the poet and painter, William Blake.

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Snowstorm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps by J.M.W. Turner, 1812, via Tate, London


Nature offered a direct opposite to the growing industrial city. Industrialization was polluting the environment and began to restrict men’s and women’s lives to arduous work. Land was being cordoned off to build factories and it seemed, to the Romanticists, that life was becoming stale; it is what a society built on the rationality of profit and loss emerged as that so repulsed the Romantic mind.


British Romanticism welcomed back nature as a dear friend. John Constable painted warming scenes of landscape, seeking to draw attention to the rustic lifestyle of Britain. His rival, J.M.W. Turner, was another prolific painter of nature. Turner, however, was interested in experimentation. He painted vast scenes filled with vibrant color and confusion to try and evoke, in the viewer, a feeling of nature.


To come back to the idea of the Sublime, which played its part in bringing the individual back in touch with nature, we see painters such as Phillip James de Loutherberg and John Martin. These painters imagined vast imposing landscapes with tiny, inconsequential, figures. These images incorporated the sublime to evoke feelings of awe and to reduce the individual against the power of nature.


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The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum by John Martin, 1822, via Tate, London


Politics Informing The Romanticism Movement


Romanticist art was influenced, and arguably formed, by the turbulent political events of the late eighteenth century, namely, the U.S. and French Revolutions. Societal customs were changing to notions of freedom and equality. These themes became a part of the Romanticist’s imagination, particularly in France.


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The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault, 1818, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


The revolutions began to be equated with the action of a natural human right to be free, not oppressed by a hierarchy. The artistic change from Neo-Classical to Romanticist art symbolises this feeling well. Neo-Classical was artificial, structured, based off an old tradition; the Romanticism movement was new, dynamic, encompassing new ideas, and evoking the individual spirit of humanity.


As we can expect, the individual painter would have different ways of portraying this new cultural movement. We saw in France the dynamic compositions of Delacroix. In Spain, Francesco Goya painted emotionally charged scenes with evident brushstrokes to show the immediacy of the scene. Goya’s impressionistic scenes draws the viewer’s attention to the suffering individuals of war, not the powerful figures we might see in Delacroix; it is a new attention to individual freedom.


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The Third of May,1808 in Madrid, or “The Executions,” by Francisco Goya, 1814, via Museo del Prado, Madrid


In England, the poet-painter William Blake imagined something quite out of the ordinary. He painted symbolic scenes of mankind’s innate freedom. These were often accompanied by his poetry to reinforce his meaning. Blake created a new style to embody what he was trying to convey. His paintings are done in tranquil, airy colors that give his images the feel of a dreamscape, and indeed, they come close to that mysterious realm. Blake was purposively rebelling against Neo-Classicism and the institutionalized method of painting to create a painting style that sought to elicit emotional understanding from his viewers.


Beyond Romanticist Art

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Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The European Romanticism movement would be superseded by the mid-nineteenth century, although arguably, it never left. It would go on to inform artists of the example that they set. Romanticist art taught the artist new freedoms in experimentation with form and style; for the artists to interrogate their own imagination despite tradition.


The subtle approach to nature would have influences on later artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Even into the Modernist period of art, we see the same Romantic notion of the city as a place of anonymity and angst. Romanticist art gave the artist a new license which they used to impress their visions and ideas of beauty onto the world; the artist took on a new role as an individual with the power to create.


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By Fraser HibbittBA English LiteratureI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.