Romanticism in Art
Definition, Characteristics, History, Romantic Painters.

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1830)
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
By the German Romantic painter
Caspar David Friedrich.

For painters working in the style of
Romanticism, see: Romantic Artists.

Romantic Art Style (c.1770-1920)


What is Romanticism?
German Romanticism
Spanish Romanticism
French Romanticism
English Romanticism
Impact and Legacy
Greatest Romantic Paintings

The Lady of Shalott (1888)
Tate Collection, London.
By John William Waterhouse.

What is Romanticism? - Characteristics

Despite the early efforts of pioneers like El Greco (Domenikos Theotocopoulos) (1541-1614), Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) and Claude Lorrain (1604-82), the style we know as Romanticism did not gather momentum until the end of the 18th century when the heroic element in Neoclassicism was given a central role in painting. This heroic element combined with revolutionary idealism to produce an emotive Romantic style, which emerged in the wake of the French Revolution as a reaction against the restrained academic art of the arts establishment. The tenets of romanticism included: a return to nature - exemplified by an emphasis on spontaneous plein-air painting - a belief in the goodness of humanity, the promotion of justice for all, and a strong belief in the senses and emotions, rather than reason and intellect. Romantic painters and sculptors tended to express an emotional personal response to life, in contrast to the restraint and universal values advocated by Neoclassical art. 19th Century architects, too, sought to express a sense of Romanticism in their building designs: see, for instance, Victorian architecture (1840-1900).

The Nightmare (1781)
Henry Fuseli.
Detroit Institute of Arts.
A masterpiece of surreal

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the Top 300 oils, watercolours
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

For chronology and dates
see: History of Art Timeline.

Among the greatest Romantic painters were Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), JMW Turner (1775-1851), John Constable (1776-1837), Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-63). Romantic art did not displace the Neoclassical style, but rather functioned as a counterbalance to the latter's severity and rigidity. Although Romanticism declined about 1830, its influence continued long after. NOTE: To see the role that Romantic painting played in the evolution of 19th century art, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).


After the French Revolution of 1789, a significant social change occurred within a single generation. Europe was shaken by political crises, revolutions and wars. When leaders met at the Congress of Vienna (1815) to reorganise European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars, it became clear that the peoples' hopes for 'liberty, equality and fraternity' had not been realized. However, during the course of those agitated 25 years, new ideas and attitudes had taken hold in the minds of men.

Respect for the individual, the responsible human being, which was already a key element in Neoclassical painting, had given rise to a new but related phenomenon - emotional intuition. Thus cool, rational Neoclassicism was now confronted with emotion and the individual imagination which sprang from it. Instead of praising the stoicism and intellectual discipline of the individual (Neoclassicism), artists now also began to celebrate the emotional intuition and perception of the individual (Romanticism). Thus at the beginning of the 19th century, a variety of styles began to emerge - each shaped by national characteristics - all falling under the heading of 'Romanticism'.

The movement began in Germany where it was motivated largely by a sense of world weariness ("Weltschmerz"), a feeling of isolation and a yearning for nature. Later, Romantic tendencies also appeared in English and French painting.

NOTE: For other important historical stylistic trends like Romanticism, see Art Movements and Schools (from about 100 BCE).


German Romanticism (1800-1850)

In Germany, the young generation of artists reacted to the changing times by a process of introspection: they retreated into the world of the emotions - inspired by a sentimental yearning for times past, such as the Medieval era, which was now seen as a time in which men had lived in harmony with themselves and the world. In this context, the painting Gothic Cathedral by the Water by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was just as important as the works of the 'Nazarenes' - Friedrich Overbeck, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Franz Pforr - who took their lead from the pictorial traditions of the Italian Early Renaissance and the German art of the age of Albrecht Durer. In their recollection of the past, Romantic artists were very close to Neoclassicism, except that their historicism was critical of the rationalist attitude of Neoclassicism. To put it simply, Neoclassical artists looked to the past in support of their preference for responsible, rational-minded individuals, while Romantics looked to the past to justify their non-rational emotional intuition.

The Romantic movement promoted 'creative intuition and imagination' as the basis of all art. Thus the work of art became an expression of a 'voice from within', as the leading Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) put it. But this new subjectivity (unlike that of the contemporary age) did not entail neglect of the study of nature, or painting craftsmanship. On the contrary: Romantic artists retained the academic traditions of their art, indeed their painterly qualities still represent a highpoint of Western art.

The preferred genre among Romanticists was landscape painting. Nature was seen as the mirror of the soul, while in politically restricted Germany it was also regarded as a symbol of freedom and boundlessness. Thus the iconography of Romantic art includes solitary figures set in the countryside, gazing longingly into the distance, as well as vanitas motifs such as dead trees and overgrown ruins, symbolizing the transience and finite nature of life. Similar vanitas painting motifs had occurred previously in Baroque art: indeed Romantic painters borrowed the painterly treatment of light, with its tenebrist effects of light and shade, directly from the Baroque masters. In Romanticism, the painter casts his subjective eye on the objective world, and shows us a picture filtered through his sensibility.

By the time the European Restoration was set in motion by the Carlsbad Resolutions (1819), and the persecution of the demagogues commenced, the appetite for German Romanticism had already faded, and rebellion had been replaced by resignation and disappointment. The emancipatory aspirations of German Romanticism were set aside in favour of those of the Restoration. In the face of such political conservatism, the artist-citizen withdrew into his private idyll, ushering in the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) of Late Romanticism, exemplified by the works of Moritz von Schwind (1804-71), Adrian Ludwig Richter (1803-1884), and Carl Spitzweg (1805-85). Spitzweg was perhaps the outstanding representative of the Biedermeier style: narrative, anecdotal family scenes were among his favourite pictorial themes, although his cheerful and peaceful paintings have a deeper meaning. Behind his innocent prettiness, he is satirizing the materialism of the German bourgeoisie. See also: German Art, 19th Century.

Spanish Romanticism (1810-30)

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was the undisputed leader of the Romantic art movement in Spain, demonstrating a natural flair for works of irrationality, imagination, fantasy and terror. By 1789, he was firmly established as official painter to the Spanish Royal court. Unfortunately, about 1793, he was afflicted by some kind of serious illness, which left him deaf and caused him to become withdrawn. During his convalescence (1793–1794), he executed a set of 14 small paintings on tin, known as Fantasy and Invention, which mark a complete change of style, depicting a dramatic world of fantasy and nightmare. In 1799, he published a set of 80 etchings entitled Los Caprichos commenting on a range of human behaviours in the manner of William Hogarth. In 1812-15, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War, he completed a set of aquatint prints called The Disasters of War depicting scenes from the battlefield, in a disturbing and macabre fashion. The prints remained unpublished until 1863. In 1814, in commemoration of the Spanish insurrection against French troops at the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, and the shooting of unarmed Spaniards suspected of complicity, Goya produced one of his greatest masterpieces - The Third of May, 1808 (1814, Prado, Madrid). Another masterpiece is The Colossus (1808-12, Prado, Madrid). After 1815 Goya became increasingly withdrawn. His series of 14 pictures known as the Black Paintings (1820-23), including Saturn Devouring His Son (1821, Prado, Madrid), offer an extraordinary insight into his world of personal fantasy and imagination.

French Romanticism (1815-50)

In France, as in much of Europe, the Napoleonic Wars ended in exile for Napoleon and a reactionary wave of Restoration policies. The French republic once again became a monarchy. In fine art terms, all this led to a huge boost for Romanticism, hitherto restrained by the domination of Neoclassicists such as the political painter Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) and other ruling members of the French Academy who had reigned unchallenged. Broader in outlook than their German counterparts, French Romantic artists did not restrict themselves to landscape and the occasional genre painting, but also explored portrait art and history painting.

Another strand of 19th-century Romanticism explored by French artists was Orientalist painting, typically of genre scenes in North Africa. Among the finest exponents were the academician Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) as well as the more maverick Eugene Delacroix.

The first major Romantic painter in France was Jaques-Louis David's top pupil - Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). The chronicler of Napoleon's campaigns and an accomplished portraitist, Gros was associated with the academic style of painting, although he also had a significant influence on both Gericault and Delacroix.

Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) was an important pioneer of the Romantic art movement in France. His masterpiece Raft of the Medusa (1819, Louvre) was the scandal of the 1820 Paris Salon. No painter until then had depicted horror so graphically. The impact of the painting was all the more effective for being based on a true-life disaster. Gericault's powerfully arranged composition forcefully undermined the calculated, intellectual painting of academic Neoclassicism. The three-dimensionality of the figures, allied to the meticulous arrangement of the raft, with its symbolic hopelessness. This symbolic portrayal of a shipwreck (of popular political aspirations) gives the painting the same drama that marked the works of Baroque Old Masters like Rubens and Velazquez. Gericault also adopted a Romantic approach to his famous portraits of asylum inmates.

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), who later became the leader of French Romanticism, followed in Gericault's footsteps after the latter's early demise, painting pictures whose vivid colours and impetuous brushwork were designed to stimulate the emotions and stir the soul. In doing this he deliberately rekindled the centuries-old argument about the primacy of drawing or colour composition. Delacroix countered what he considered to be 'Neoclasssical dullness' - exemplified, as far as he was concerned, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and the conservative French Academy - with dynamic motion, and a colour-based composition not unlike that of Titian or Rubens. His masterpiece in the Romantic style is Liberty Leading the People (1830, Louvre), painted on the occasion of the 1830 Revolution.

Delacroix was also an avid student of colour in painting, in particular the interaction of colour and light. He discovered that "flesh only has its true colour in the open air, and particularly in the sun. If a man holds his head to the window, it is quite different from within the room; herein lies the stupidity of studio studies, which strive to reproduce the wrong colour". One important result of his studies was the discovery that nuances of colour can be produced by mixing complementary primary colours - a fact which was taken up with great interest by the Impressionists. As it was, Delacroix himself was heavily influenced by John Constable, the great English landscape artist, who also had a huge impact on the painters of the 'Barbizon school', near Fontainebleu, who devoted themselves to plein-air painting in the 1830s.

Other French artists who worked in the tradition of Romanticism include: Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823), Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824), Francois Gerard (1770-1837), George Michel (1763-1843), Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). An unusual case is the classical history painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), who specialized in melodramatic historical scenes typically featuring English royalty, such as the Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833, National Gallery, London). Immensely popular during his life, he made a fortune from selling engravings of his pictures.

In America, the Romantic history-painting tradition of Delacroix was maintained by the German-American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-68) whose masterpiece is Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Romanticism in England (c.1820-1850)

John Constable (1776-1837) belonged to an English tradition of Romanticism that rejected compositions marked by a heightened idealisation of nature, such as those of Caspar David Friedrich, in favour of the naturalism of 17th century Dutch Baroque art, and also that of Claude Lorrain (1604-82). This tradition sought a balance between (on the one hand) a deep sensitivity to nature and (on the other) advances in the science of painting and drawing. The latter were exemplified by the systematic sky and cloud studies of the 1820s which characterized the work of Constable. Precise observation of nature led him to disregard the conventional importance of line, and construct his works from free patches of colour.

This emancipation of colour is particularly characteristic of the painting of William Turner (1775-1851). For Turner, arguably the greatest of all English painters of Romanticism, observation of nature is merely one element in the realisation of his own pictorial ambitions. The mood of his paintings is created less by what he painted than by how he painted, especially how he employed colour and his paint-brush. Many of his canvases are painted with rapid slashes. Thick impasto alternates with delicate alla prima painting, tonal painting with strong contrasts of light and dark. It often takes a while for the depicted object to emerge from this whirling impression of colour and material. Thus for instance in his painting Snowstorm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842, Tate, London), Turner did not try to depict the driving snow and lashing wind, but rather translated them into the language of painting. In this, Turner is an important precursor of modern abstract painting. More immediately, his art had a huge impact on the Impressionists, who, unlike Romantic painters, were realists - they were not interested in visions of light that heightened expressiveness but in real light effects in nature. This movement towards realism appeared around 1850. At this point, a widening gulf opened up between emotion and reality. The Romantics, including groups like the Pre-Raphaelites, focused on emotion, fantasy and artistically created worlds - a style very much in tune with the era of Victorian art (1840-1900) - an excellent example being the highly popular sentimental portraits of dogs by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73). By comparison, the Realists adhered to a more naturalistic idiom, encompassing such diverse styles as French Realism (with socially-aware themes) and Impressionism.

Other English Romantic painters include William Blake (1757-1827) and John Martin (1789-1854).


Impact of Romanticism

The Romantic style of painting stimulated the emergence of numerous schools, such as: the Barbizon school of plein-air landscapes, the Norwich school of landscape painters; the Nazarenes, a group of Catholic German and Austrian painters; Symbolism (eg. Arnold Bocklin 1827-1901) and the Aestheticism movement.

The most influential exponents of English figurative romanticism during the Victorian Age were the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, co-founded by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), noted for The Annunciation and other works. Other artists associated with the movement included: John Everett Millais (1829-96) best-known for his romantic painting Ophelia, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) the eminent painter, stained glass and tapestry designer for William Morris & Co, and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) who created the famous painting of The Lady of Shalott.

Another important group of Romantic painters was The Hudson River School of landscape painting, active during the period 1825-1875. Begun by Thomas Doughty whose peaceful compositions greatly influenced later artists of the school, other members included Thomas Cole (dramatic and vivid landscapes) Asher B Durand, Frederick Edwin Church, JF Kensett, SFB Morse, Henry Inman, and Jasper Cropsey. A sub-group of Hudson River artists introduced the style of Luminism, active 1850-75. Luminist landscapes - exemplified by those of Frederic E Church, Albert Bierstadt, and the Missouri frontier painter George Caleb Bingham (1811-79) - were characterized by intense, often dramatic light effects, a style visible also in the hauntingly beautiful works of Whistler, such as Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green, Valparaiso (1866) and Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea (1871).

Greatest Romantic Paintings

Works of Romanticism hang in many of the best art museums around the world. Here is a short selected list of works.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841)
Gothic Cathedral By the Water (1813) Staatliche Muzeen zu Berlin.
John Constable (1776-1837)
The Hay Wain (1821) National Gallery, London.
JMW Turner (1775-1851)
The Fighting Temeraire (1838) National Gallery, London.
The Slave Ship (1840) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842) Tate, London.
Rain, Steam, Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844) NG, London.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Winter Landscape (c.1811) National Gallery, London.
Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1824) Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
The Third of May, 1808 (1814) Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Saturn Devouring One of His Children (1821) Prado, Madrid.
William Blake (1757-1827)
The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (1795) Tate Britain, London.
Satan Arousing the Rebellious Angels (1800) Victoria and Albert Museum.
Theodore Gericault (1791-1824)
The Raft of the Medusa (1819) Louvre, Paris.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-68)
Washington Crossing the Delaware River (1848) Metropolitan Museum, NY.
Eugene Delacroix (1798-63)
The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) Musee du Louvre.
Liberty Leading the People (1830) Musee du Louvre.
John Martin (1789-1854)
The Great Day of his Wrath (1853) Tate, London.
Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875)
Memory of Mortefontaine (1864) Louvre, Paris.
Ville d'Avray (1867) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901)
Mary Magdalene Grieving over the Body of Christ (1867) Kunstmuseum, Basel.


In Paris during the early 1920s, a group of figurative painters appeared whose brooding paintings quickly became labelled Neo-Romantic. Among them were the Russian born trio of Eugene Berman and his brother Leonid, and Pavel Tchelitchew. However, in British fine art at least, the term Neo-Romantic denotes the imaginative quasi-abstract style of landscape created by Paul Nash (1889-1946) and Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and others during the late 1930s and 1940s. Inspired in part by the visionary landscapes of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, Neo-Romantic pictures often included figures, was typically sombre in mood, but sometimes displayed a striking intensity. Other important Neo-Romantics included Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Ivon Hitchens, John Minton, John Piper, Keith Vaughan.

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