Reply To: Romanticism

  • Encyclios

    May 10, 2023 at 3:47 PM

    Historical notes: 1800-1824

    The period between 1800 and 1824 saw the advent of modern history painting, the establishment of a modern school of landscape and the end of the hegemony of sculpture in favor of that of painting. All of these changes are stark, but perhaps most striking are the great series of modern history paintings executed by David, Gros, and Géricault. By 1823, Stendhal considered David’s epic paintings, whose realism solicits the imagination, to be essentially romantic; they embodied the very spirit of the revolution, and were immediately intelligible to the “children of the revolution.” David, considered the greatest exponent of neoclassicism, took on the role of painter of modern history in 1793 with the Death of Marat (Brussels, Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts), in which the reference to ancient art (Caravaggio or the traditional Pietà) is put entirely at the service of a contemporary message. David’s Marat, a work whose mournful character bears the weight of the artist’s meditative idealism, dominated French art of the time. The legacy of this black vision of the epic was picked up by Gros (Battle of Eylau, 1808: Paris, Louvre), Géricault (The Raft of the Medusa: ibid.), Delacroix (Dante and Virgil, 1822: ibid.) and even Daumier and Courbet. During these years, French Romanticism is essentially a chronicle of revolution and empire.

    It is also dominated by the character of Napoleon, who appears as a hero or anti-hero in not a few canvases. In David’s eyes, Bonaparte “crossing the Great St. Bernard” is the hero of a new era, with the aura of genius and prophet. For Gros, more impressionable, Napoleon had a messianic character, so to speak (The Plague Victims of Jaffa, 1804: ibid.). Géricault, still young, presented with Gros, without ever making it explicit, that the spirit of war is obscured by the reality of death, whatever its cause: he painted his Wounded cuirassier (1814: ibid.) as a nocturnal effect, with the same dark and eloquent color as David’s Marat, while his Raft of the Medusa, a gigantic representation of a contemporary shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, shows a multitude of naked bodies struggling in the same infernal darkness.

    The format of such modern epics had already been worked out in England by John Singleton Copley, who between 1770 and 1780 had painted an extraordinary series of works on themes taken from modern history: Brook Watson and the Shark (1778: London, Christ’s Hospital), The Death of Chatham (1779-80: London, Tate Gallery.), and The Death of Major Peirson (1783: there). From these original modern compositions describing a contemporary event, we moved on to an art form capable of commentary to the point of denunciation and taking a stand. The formula was exalted by Goya, whose sensibility was so wounded by the humiliations inflicted on his country that he rejected all traditional rules of expression in favor of a brutal, almost caricatural and even expressionist description, which characterizes Dos de Mayo (1814: Madrid, Prado). It is not certain that this work was known to French artists, but there are striking similarities between Goya and some French Romantics.

    Goya must have aroused the profound admiration of Delacroix and Baudelaire; the ghosts of his gloomy temperament (The Disasters of War, Proverbs) reveal the extent to which a painter, a witness to his own time, can transcend the limits of the conscious: this was accomplished with equal courage by Géricault in his portraits of madmen (probably executed around 1819). The search for a formal purity inspired above all by moral intentions follows closely these realizations, even though they are contemporary.

    Flaxman’s engravings, based on the model of Greek vases, played an important role in Ingres’ training, as did the 15th-century paintings on display at the Musée Napoléon. The portrait of Mademoiselle Rivière (1805: Paris, Louvre) is imbued with an archaic gentleness, described as “Gothic” by his contemporaries, although Ingres did not attempt to become a painter of the Middle Ages or the High Renaissance. This was also the case with the Lucasbruders, a group of German artists who, under the guidance of Pforr and Overbeck, settled in 1810 in the monastery of Sant’Isidoro in Rome, on the Pincio Hill, and identified themselves with the early Florentine painters, whose works they strove to imitate almost painfully (frescoes of Casa Bartholdy, 1805-16).

    Another innovation of the period was the rediscovery of a significant landscape style, freed from classicizing traditions as well as from eighteenth-century eclecticism. Here England triumphed above all, although in France Georges Michel should be mentioned, inspired by Rembrandt and Ruisdael, for his interpretation of nature. Moreover, in England, a vigorous provincial school, located in East Anglia and animated by Crome and Cotman, devoted itself to freely reviving the tradition of the Dutch landscape, outside any workshop formula; it gave life, in the 19th century, to one of the two main currents of English painting. Constable and Turner, the two great names in the history of the English landscape in general and of English romanticism in particular, represent two different visions of the world, which are not mutually exclusive. Constable remained an instinctive and self-taught artist, deeply tied to his environment and most inspired by those very regions of England where he had been happy: Suffolk, Salisbury, Brighton and Hampstead.

    The absolute simplicity of his vision was totally opposed to the “sublime” tastes of the time, which he disapproved of. Constable drew closer to northern naturalism than to southern idealism, not without references to the pictorial explosions of Rubens (The Flatford Mill, 1817: London, National Gallery). His hand is sometimes rough, with brilliant surface effects, and he thrilled Delacroix when he exhibited Hay Cart (ibid.) at the Paris Salon in 1824. Constable’s passion for the natural world was most directly expressed in the studies or sketches, made outdoors, that he executed for his large canvases. From them, already completed in themselves, it releases a vitality that will not always keep his finished compositions. Turner represents in some ways the most complex personality of the “romantic” artist; trained as a watercolourist in the tradition of Cozens and Girtin, he exhibited his first oil paintings at the Royal Academy in 1797. His large-format works acquired a monumental character when he was influenced by Claude Lorrain; but Turner’s pictorial imagination transformed the original scheme into an unprecedented apotheosis, for the first time translated into terms of light and atmosphere.