Romanticism: A Matter of Emotion

As a reaction to the restrictions of urban sprawl and industrialism, and a growing disillusion with the Enlightenment era values, Romanticism (or the Romantic era) began in the latter part of the 18th century. A crusade against the aristocratic social and political norms of the times; Romantics embraced the strong emotions and authenticity that embodied the movement. Art took on a much greater emotional quality, emphasizing terror, dread, elation and awe; often embracing the exotic or unfamiliar and giving the imagination greater control.

Romanticism was first demonstrated in landscape paintings. Artists like David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner turned the typical landscape painting into an historical narrative of life. The emotional subject matter seen in their work, often expressed a human struggle or victorious feat, adding much more meaning than what you would expect to see in a landscape-style painting.

Liberty Leading the People (1830)

Liberty Leading the People (1830)
Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix created passionate war scenes reflecting current events or haunting images from historical atrocities. His Liberty Leading the People (1830) is probably one of the best known works of Romantic art. It portrays a woman (representing Liberty) carrying the French Revolution flag in one hand and a bayonet in the other, leading the French troops into battle. His statement, “And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her”, suggests his emotional struggle with not being able to participate in the fight to free his country.

The Third of May 1808 (1814)

The Third of May 1808 (1814)
Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya, probably the greatest painter of the Romantic era, exemplified the Romantic era values in his paintings using gruesome subject matter taken from his imaginative visions of the Peninsula War between Spain and France (1808 – 1814). His The Third of May 1808 (1814) painting, with its frightening depiction of the hazards of war and his use of thick, impasto brushstrokes convey the emotional upheaval so apparent in Romantic works of art.

The Shipwreck (1772),

The Shipwreck (1772)
Claude Joseph Vernet

Works like The Shipwreck (1772), by Claude Joseph Vernet, illustrate frenzied seascapes where sailors battle to rescue their ship from certain doom. Again the use of bold strokes, dark, expressive color and a terrifying narrative are ideal examples of Romantic art. This use of nature and its devastating potential for changeability provided the Romantics with an alternative to the much too controlled world of the Enlightenment era.

For more information on Romanticism, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art.