Reply To: Romanticism
EncycliosOrganizerMay 10, 2023 at 3:48 PM
Historical notes: 1824-1840
The third phase of Romanticism-which could rightly be called the Romantic movement-is dominated by the conception of the artist as “genius” impersonated by Turner and Delacroixin their maturity. Turner and Delacroix were very different in tendencies and character, but they had some traits in common. Both maintained close ties with the masters of the seventeenth century and found powerful defenders, respectively, in Ruskin and Baudelaire. Both remained faithful to official institutions such as the Academy or the Salon. Both were at the origin of a fracture in the evolution of painting and contributed to its radical change.
Both, finally, pushed themselves to the limits of the possibilities of their pictorial language, and left neither pupils nor disciples. That said, the two characters embody the opposing conceptions of the romantic genius. Delacroix, susceptible, sophisticated, cultured, primarily Parisian; he remained attached to the academic ideal of history painting; his work is anthropocentric: he paints man in different historical, geographical, mythological or allegorical contexts. Turner, rugged, reserved, solitary and independent, uses human action only to punctuate his vision of nature: series of variations on themes by Claude Lorrain, or celebrations of the spontaneous forces of nature, storm, sunrise, speed, fire. Turner and Delacroix both had traditional training.
Delacroix was a pupil of Guérin and was influenced in his youth by Gros, Géricault and Bonington. The first work he presented to the public, Dante and Virgil (1822: Paris, Louvre), is close to Géricault and corresponds to the tradition of the tragic epic as David had defined it. His second main work on display, the Massacres of Chios (1824: ibid.), of classical construction and faithful to the conception of the modern historical subject set by Gros, nevertheless breaks completely with the past in its workmanship and treatment of color; it draws on a lightness, fluidity and beauty no longer known in France since the end of the 18th century. This change has been attributed to the influence of English painters such as Constable and Lawrence, whom Delacroix had been able to study at the Salon of 1824; it is more likely that he combined the transparency of Bonington with the generous vitality of Rubens, from whom he took many copies. His most Rubensian and romantic work, however, is Sardanapalo (1827: ibid.), a dazzling and curious mixture of pathos and sadism, which remain the artist’s two fundamental qualities. After this date, he abandoned the romantic model for classical inspiration and returned to the great traditions of painting of the seventeenth century.
Until the end of his life, however, he retained an interest in Romantic literature, exhibiting The Rape of Rebecca (ibid.) at the Salon of 1859, in other words well after the end of the Romantic movement. Rather than making the traditional trip to Italy, Delacroix traveled to England (1825), Morocco (1832), and later, for short periods, to Flanders and Holland. The Moroccan trip brought about a significant change in his style, freeing him from the tyrannical residues of the Mediterranean ideal and giving his color greater splendor and depth. The memories of this experience, which directly inspired masterpieces such as the Women of Algiers (1834: ibid.), are likewise deeply felt as they color even his most conventional endeavors, so much so that the gods and heroes of antiquity that adorn the libraries of the Bourbon Palace and the Luxembourg have a certain Moroccan air.
Marked by these memories, Delacroix was able to interpret traditional subjects such as Trajan’s Justice (1840: Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts) with power and freedom. His final career was engaged in large-scale complexes, commissioned by the government, for the decoration of the Parisian halls of the Bourbon Palace, the Luxembourg, the Louvre of the Hôtel de Ville: decorations whose culmination was the chapel of Saints-Anges in Saint-Sulpice, for which he was inspired by Raphael and Titian. He also wrote articles concerning other painters – in particular the one dedicated to Gros – which announce, in the sense of projection of personality, Baudelaire’s way; while his diary and his correspondence constitute an irreplaceable testimony of his evolution.
Turner’s training was just as traditional; but while Delacroix’s focused on history painting, Turner remained faithful to a more pictorial conception, with its references to nature in its fundamental aspects. The natural world was for him the scene of multiple impressions far more interesting than any human endeavor. Like Claude Lorrain, from whom he took his example, Turner employed characters and events as a simple pretext for landscapes that are sufficient unto themselves, visions of a man unintimidated by the power of his own receptive faculties.
Much of his work remains conventional, especially the collections of engravings, the result of his many wanderings around Britain, and the same is true of works such as Lake Buttermere (1797: London, Tate Gallery.) and the Calais Dam (1803: there), both inspired by eighteenth-century models and studies of Lorrain, as the Feast of the Harvest of Maçon (1803: Sheffield, Art Gallery).
An initial trip to Italy in 1819 had no immediate effect on the finished canvases Turner made during this period other than to expand the register of subjects; however, during this trip the practice of watercolor, according to Turner conducive to what he called his “impressions,” founded the essence of his future development. A work such as Levar del sole a Venezia visto dalla Giudecca (London, Bitish Museum) marks a total break with the topographical tradition of both the English watercolorists and Canaletto: it is entirely devoted to the harmony of sky and sea corresponding to a precise moment of the day, and contains few solid elements.
This elimination of forms as a point of reference for the landscape represents Turner’s most beautiful and daring aspect; it is the result of his receptiveness to natural changes and his ability to translate them with the sole help of painting. Turner stayed again in Venice in 1832, 1835 and 1840; these stays developed his interest in the interdependent properties of water and light. Later his oils, characterized by light, bright colors on a white background, obeying only the rhythm of the artist’s brush, gave the impression of gigantic watercolors, such as the Yacht approaching the shore (c. 1840: London, Tate Gallery). His genius in the treatment of light and color, together with his uninterrupted exaltation before nature, constitutes a unique phenomenon in the history of European art and represents the best apotheosis of Romantic consciousness in painting.