Romanticism was an artistic movement that gained momentum in the early nineteenth century, reaching its peak in the mid-century. Its predecessor, Neoclassical art, had an emphasis on idealism and restraint, valuing logic and order during what was referred to as the period of ‘Enlightenment’, however the discontentment of this thinking resulted in the desire to see literature and art which focused on emotion, self-reflexivity, and the natural world; thus Romanticism emerged.
The pioneers of the Romanticism period were said to have originated in Germany where emotion and intuition was lauded over rationality, but the aftermath of the French Revolution and their cultural and ideological supporters helped to bring the movement into prominence in Western civilization. Perhaps one of the most famous paintings that illustrates the emotive power that energised the Revolutionist sentiment is Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, which commemorates the July Revolution in 1830. The evocative piece depicts a woman standing over the fallen bodies of comrades whilst leading a group to the barricades and perfectly embodies the heart of the movement.
Théodore Géricault was another artist whose work was conceived from the movement around 1820 with his seminal piece The Raft of the Medusa depicting the notion of individual heroism and suffering that was to become a common characteristic of the Romanticism period. It comes as no surprise that the predilection for physical and psychological extremes was born from a period where political discourse catered to the elite classes, and economic inequality created deep fractures within French society.
Delacroix once said “nature is a dictionary; one draws words from it”, a quote that acts as a segue into the area of the movement that concerns itself with the natural world. British painter John William Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus (1903) illustrates his passion for nature and powerful women of mythological origin, portraying Echo and Narcissus from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. Waterhouse was known for his Pre-Raphaelite inclinations, which is apparent in this piece with its intense colour palette and the mimesis of nature.
This deep appreciation for the beauty of the outdoors is also reflected in the large volume of works that concentrated on seascapes, in particular ones that illustrated shipwrecks on stormy waters. Joseph Mallord William Turner was one such artist who produced a series of works that focused on the sea; his piece The Shipwreck (1805) conjures the affective mood of catastrophe and hints at the link between the romantic and the tragic. Perhaps allegorical for the turbulence of the human condition, the representation of both calm and tumultuous seas are just as relevant in contemporary art as it was during the nineteenth century.
The Romanticism period had reached its peak after the events of the Revolution, and in mid/late nineteenth century France, the Realist movement began to take hold. This saw French artists moving away from emotionally intense imagery and rhetoric, and towards more everyday landscapes and subjects in a naturalistic style. Though as we have seen with works by Waterhouse and John Constable, the Romanticism movement still held significance to many artists, which can be owed to the fact that civil unrest, inequality, and a desire for transcendentalism remains throughout the various socio-political epochs.