Reply To: Romanticism

  • Encyclios

    May 10, 2023 at 3:47 PM

    Historical notes: 1770-1800

    The painters of the pre-Romantic phase were victims of their neoclassical education, which was mainly devoted to studio study, to the study of ancient casts and to the very thorough study of Greek and Roman history. Füssli and Blake in Great Britain, Girodet in France began to deal with “wild” themes with melodramatic implications, but they were not able to deal with them in an appropriate and free style. Sculpture still exerted its tyrannical influence, as evidenced by Romney’s Shakespearean-inspired drawings (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum) or Girodet’s refined paintings (Endymion: Paris, Louvre).

    Some rebellious temperaments, such as Blake or Girodet, found it easier to transcend tradition; but even genuinely Romantic spirits such as Friedrich continued to exploit marked drawing and a discreet palette. This phase partakes of a certain romanticism mainly because of the characteristic choices of subjects, which more often touch on irrational themes. All the themes were now discovered: but not the way of treating them, even though already before 1800 the value of color began to be appreciated. In reality, the invention of numerous themes that will be more widely used between 1820 and 1840 is due to pre-romanticism. The main change in the choice of subject concerns both the historical and the literary aspect. Shakespeare or Froissart were now preferred to Livy, Ossian to Ovid. In France, Shakespeare was to be at the center of the debate between Classics and Romantics from 1820 onwards.

    The rediscovery of Shakespeare in the 18th century manifested itself, of course, in Britain. Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, composed of works commissioned to about thirty artists from 1786, encouraged many painters to show more imagination in costumes and attitudes, although few of them could stand comparison with John Runciman in his masterpiece King Lear in the Storm (Edinburgh, National Gallery), executed in 1767. In France, a parallel current developed with the initiative of the Count of Angiviller, who attempted to awaken national pride by commissioning both painters and sculptors to paint works dedicated to the heroes of French history, particularly St. Louis, Henry IV and Baiard.

    Runciman’s King Lear can be compared to Vincent’s Arrest of President Molé (1779: Paris, Palais Bourbon) or Ménageot’s Death of Leonardo da Vinci (1781: Amboise town hall), a theme that was to be passed on to Ingres without change. The American Benjamin West, perhaps the most representative artist of this phase, drew his sources from ancient, modern and contemporary history, but his composition, very bold in form, is gloomy in color and lacking in merit in execution. Imagination fed the fantastic. The eighteenth century had been the period of black dramas, in the novel (think of the English Gothic novel), as in the theater; and the sincere representation of horror or terror invaded the works of numerous pre-Romanticists.

    The result is striking, even when the effect is superficial and picturesque as in Joseph Vernet’s Nocturne on the Seashore (Louvre), or Sadat in Search of the Waters of Oblivion by John Martin (Southampton, Art Gallery). Sometimes, this aspect completely imposes itself on the imagination and gives the unconscious a predominant role, influencing at the same time the layout and the execution of the work: Füssli’s Nightmare (1782: Frankfurt, Goethe Museum), or Girodet’s Seven Against Thebes (Montpellier Museum). Such fantastical, black vision became completely detached from literary illustration in Goya and Géricault.