The Evolution of Art in Romanticism

by Helen Fitzgerald

The cultural movement known as Romanticism was inspired by the same social and emotional fervors that led to the French revolution. It epitomized individuality, emotion over order, imagination over reason. Anything mysterious, like the occult or remote locations, anything having to do with the human psyche and subjects like nature and medievalism fascinated them. The strange and bizarre mingled with the idealized and romantic; most of all, passion predominated.

Nature

The prominent themes of the time were landscapes, or scenes involving a struggle between man and nature, in which nature was often shown to be more powerful. Shipwrecks were a common subject, the most famous being "The Raft of the Medusa," by Théodore Gericault. Other artists, such as English painter John Constable, painted the countryside in an idyllic manner that was not only correct but placed an emphasis on the feelings of the painter, with the longing for the seeming innocence of such scenes.

Portraits

When it came to painting people, Romantic artists veered away from the portrait as a simple means to depict someone's likeness, to a means of depicting mood and personality. Dark subjects such as suffering and insanity were broached in paintings of psychiatric patients. Portraits of children gained more attention than previously; they were recognized as individuals and valid studies in and of themselves. The most sought-after portrait painter of the time was Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Animals

Other aspects of nature and emotion appeared in paintings of animals, particularly wild animals. Famous menageries --- zoos --- resided in London and Paris; their creatures appeared in sketches by artists like Antoine-Louis Barye and Edwin Landseer. Others focused on the energy and beauty of horses. "The Start of the Race of the Riderless Horses" by Horace Vernet depicted frantic, plunging horses at the Roman Carnival. "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps," a famous painting by Jacques Louis David, has him posed on a rearing horse.

Literature and Geography

Many artists took as their subjects themes from literature or the Bible. Examples include "Salome," who danced for the head of John the Baptist, painted by Henri Regnault; "Portia" of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," by Sir John Everett Millais; and Eugene Delacroix's "Abduction of Rebecca" based on Sir Walter Scott's novel "Ivanhoe." Sir Walter Scott was a great influence in bringing the medieval into fashion. Oriental subjects were also highly sought; artists such as Delacroix and Chassériau traveled to north Africa specifically to draw.

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