The difficulty experienced in reaching a definition for romanticism that embraces both its complex development and regional particularities seems insoluble. Romanticism can be understood primarily as the acceptance and, finally, the exaltation of those elements that are characteristic of human consciousness and behavior: melancholy, irrationality, doubt, individual eccentricity, excessive egocentricity, despair, dissatisfaction with the repetitive mechanism of so-called “normal” life, the desire to reunite with the forces of nature to the point of being absorbed by them. These are elements that, during the two or three generations that preceded the Romantic movement proper, had not enjoyed any moral or social sanction.
That the eighteenth-century spirit contained similar elements is beyond doubt, but in them were not found, according to the writings of the time, nothing but negative values, so that the excellent description of the “evil of the century” that provides us with the French physician and philosopher La Mettrie (1709-51) in De la folie concludes by considering it a symptom of mental disorders. Although the first theorizing took place in Germany, Romanticism as a phenomenon had effects of wider resonance in France, where the directive norms of social behavior were stronger; so strong, that even a sense of unease, of guilt indeed, is concealed in almost all French romantics, up to Victor Hugo.
David’s commentary on Girodet’s work Ossian Welcomes the French Generals (1801: Château de la Malmaison), contains a certain disapproval and even disappointment, as if he discovered the artist in the act of indulging in some anti-social manifestation. Delacroix himself did not give his personal moral endorsement to this new form of art, although his work illustrates it in all its evolution. Romanticism therefore implied a certain isolation from the social and anthropocentric values that had guided human behavior and consciousness, or at least the moral attitudes of the 18th century.
One can also discover a certain reversal of the traditional concept of piety as a burning need for new metaphysical and emotional experience – a positive value for the development of consciousness and not a moral regression to seductive appearances. Romanticism was not only a means of getting to know different customs and different attitudes towards the past as well as the present, but it also developed a new humanitarianism, an idealism that emphasized integrity, adherence to a faith, the attitude of self-sacrifice, the desire to “live one’s life” according to one’s deepest instincts and not according to the laws of society, perhaps at the price of defeat. This liberation of desire from established fashions and norms brought about singular changes in behavior, ranging from individual eccentricities to social experiences of fraternity, Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite.
The most vulnerable spirits plunged into a sort of despair, the famous “evil of the century”, before the idea of an unrestrained free will, deprived of the help of a pre-established discipline; others instead clung to the present with renewed ardor and engaged in attempts at political reform in order to achieve purer forms of government. These two apparently contradictory reactions characterize the appearance of Romanticism in the history of European thought and sensibility. Similar attitudes are reflected more or less directly in the art of the Romantic period and especially in painting. Fundamentally, Romanticism consists in the rejection of classical principles and discipline in favor of a regenerative return to something older and at the same time freer, more personal and at the same time more exotic.
The classical renaissance of the 18th century, generated by the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii, was not unrelated to a nostalgic feeling of the past for which other forms of expression were recovered. At the same time, in France and England there was a revival of interest in the national past which was still close at hand, leading to a change in decoration and accessories and the appearance of a “troubadour style”, attitudes which had been present in both countries since 1770: in France, the series of statues commemorating great French men, commissioned by the Count of Angiviller, favoured this trend; in England, the poems of Milton and the works of Shakespeare played the same stimulating role with Füssli, West, Romney and Runciman. Geographically, we can say that the Mediterranean plastic ideal, embodied by the Greek or Roman hero, was gradually replaced by a taste for the Nordic civilizations, Germanic, English, Scandinavian and Scottish.
The study of their literature (especially the purported poems of Ossian) helped develop a taste for medieval, hazy, melancholy, and picturesque settings. There was then a renewed interest in Christianity and Gothic Europe, developed through the influence of the writings of Chateaubriand and Madame de Staël, and admirably illustrated by the strange landscapes of C. D. Friedrich. Similarly, the ideal of sculpture advocated in the academies of the 18th century was supplanted by more pictorial references, as can be seen when comparing the portrait of David Bonaparte crossing the Great St. Bernard (1800: Versailles), inspired by the statue of Peter the Great by E. M. Falconet (St. Peter the Great, 1800: Versailles). M. Falconet (St. Petersburg) with the work of Gros Bonaparte at the Arcole bridge (1797: Paris, Louvre), which, mediocre on a formal level, is animated by a freer use of color and a more nervous and subjective brushstroke.
The change crystallized in one event: the opening in Paris, in 1793, of the Central Museum of the Arts, which presented a considerable range of pictorial styles. The influence of Correggio on Prud’hon, that of Leonardo on Gérard, the Caravaggism of Géricault and the passion for Rubens that animated Gros and Delacroix at the same time have their source in the visits of these painters to the museum, whose effect proved, even in their eyes, more powerful and lasting than that of their trips to Italy, England or Flanders. Napoleon, too, contributed to a broader view of the world than that offered by the 18th century. His campaigns in the Middle East stimulated interest in Arab and Jewish civilizations, and painters such as Gros and Auguste began to collect oriental objects, jewelry and carpets, which passed into the pictorial language thanks to Ingres, Delacroix and Chassériau. The warlike spirit, which grew with Napoleon’s imperial ambitions, imposed itself on the consciousness of at least two great painters, Goya and Géricault, and was reflected in the works of minor painters, David Scott, Boissard de Boisdenier, Charlet, Raffet, Michalowski.
With the movement of armies and exchanges between different civilizations, the characteristic styles of each country were more appreciated. Géricault, visiting Great Britain in 1820, was struck by the superiority of English painting in navy, genre scenes and landscapes. Bonington, having settled in France while still in his teens in 1817, brought with him the English tradition of topographical watercolor by adapting it to the medium of oil, with a manner that was to influence not only Delacroix, but also Corot and Isabey. Lawrence and Constable, having participated in the Salons of 1824 and 1827, amazed the French for the originality of their hand, the brilliant effects of light, the freedom with respect to academicism and the use of a fluid and shiny impasto in the reds and greens.
Constable, above all, renewed a joyful and free feeling for nature, inaugurated in the 18th century by Fragonard and Gainsborough, but abandoned in the neoclassical era. Goya’s etchings, much admired in France, directly influenced the graphic work of Victor Hugo, Célestin Nanteuil and Delacroix. Similarly, a group of German painters, the Lucasbruders, realized the synthesis of their own national tradition and their Italian experiences by studying the Italian primitives (before Raphael), in an attempt to rediscover the moral and religious spirit of the Middle Ages. But romanticism also means a sense of modern life, an effort to understand and illustrate current events. Writers like Stendhal, painters like David, Gros and Géricault in France, Goya in Spain, refused to take refuge in the exotic past of myth and legend and remained close to the political and social upheavals of their time.
Fascinated by Napoleon and his exploits, witnessing the rise and fall of his ambitions, the splendors and miseries of his wars, they introduced into painting an element of personal commentary on the events, which in France survived in the work of Courbet, Daumier and Millet, thus passing directly into the realist movement. The Romantic painters, much more than their predecessors, were receptive to different inspirations and influences and less inclined to consider themselves the followers of an academic discipline. Individual reaction – to the contemporary event or to a particular scene – became the criterion par excellence, and painting itself was increasingly used as a means of expression. While Romantic painters may possess more than one of the aforementioned characteristics, all of them, with the exception of the lesser ones, differ profoundly from one another. Romanticism is above all a complex of personal reactions to social and metaphysical upheavals.
Limiting the study of the Romantic phenomenon to the years 1770-1840, three successive phases can be distinguished: the renewed interest in Shakespeare and Ossian beginning in 1770, the “Romantic” reaction aroused by the French Revolution of 1789 and the campaigns of the Empire, which constituted the central phase of this cultural attitude (Goya, Géricault, Gros, and the beginnings of Delacroix), and that of the period from about 1824, which corresponds to the maturity of Turner and Delacroix.