As is fairly common with stylistic rubrics, the word “Romanticism” was not developed to describe the visual arts but was first used in relation to new literary and musical schools in the beginning of the 19th century. Art came under this heading only later. Think of the Romantic literature and musical compositions of the early 19th century: the poetry of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and William Wordsworth and the scores of Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Frédéric Chopin—these Romantic poets and musicians associated with visual artists. A good example of this is the friendship between composer and pianist Chopin and painter Eugène Delacroix. Romantic artists were concerned with the spectrum and intensity of human emotion.
Romantic music expressed the powerful drama of human emotion: anger and passion, but also quiet passages of pleasure and joy. So too, the French painter Eugène Delacroix and the Spanish artist Francisco Goya broke with the cool, cerebral idealism of Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres‘ neoclassicism. They sought instead to respond to the cataclysmic upheavals that characterized their era with line, color, and brushwork that was more physically direct and emotionally expressive.
Romanticism is a complex, international movement with many facets. It represents, in part:
- A rejection of the classical style and a search for new sources of inspiration, including the medieval, Gothic, Romanesque and an exploration of exotic, non-western themes.
- An emphasis on passion over reason; a denunciation of the logic and rationality associated with classicism in favor of an exploration and expression of the full spectrum of human emotion.
- An interest in subject matter previously held to be taboo, including madness, disease, violence and the darker side of human nature.
- The promotion of individualism, both in subject matter and in the artistic autonomy of the artists themselves.
- Nationalism and opposition to political tyranny and oppression (this was fueled by the expansion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire throughout Europe).
- An awe of nature, which could be portrayed as a source of danger, the sublime or the spiritual.
The Romantic style places an emphasis on the expressive use of color and, in some cases, brushwork to convey emotion.
In the decades following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo (1815) a new movement called Romanticism began to flourish in France. If you read about Romanticism in general, you will find that it was a pan-European movement that had its roots in England in the mid-eighteenth century. Initially associated with literature and music, it was in part a response to the rationality of the Enlightenment and the transformation of everyday life brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Like most forms of Romantic art, nineteenth-century French Romanticism defies easy definitions. Artists explored diverse subjects and worked in varied styles, so there is no single form of French Romanticism.
Even when Charles Baudelaire wrote about French Romanticism in the middle of the nineteenth century, he found it difficult to define concretely. Writing in his Salon of 1846, he affirmed that,
Romanticism lies neither in the subjects that an artist chooses nor in his exact copying of truth, but in the way he feels…. Romanticism and modern art are one and the same thing, in other words: intimacy, spirituality, color, yearning for the infinite, expressed by all the means the arts possess.
In 1810, Germaine de Staël introduced the new Romantic movement to France when she published Germany (De l’Allemagne). Her book explored the concept that while Italian art might draw from its roots in the rational, orderly Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) heritage of the Mediterranean, the northern European countries were quite different. She held that her native culture of Germany—and perhaps France—was not Classical but Gothic and therefore privileged emotion, spirituality, and naturalness over Classical reason. Another French writer Stendhal (Henri Beyle) had a different take on Romanticism. Like Baudelaire later in the century, Stendhal equated Romanticism with modernity. In 1817 he published his History of Painting in Italy and called for a modern art that would reflect the “turbulent passions” of the new century. The book influenced many younger artists in France and was so well-known that the conservative critic Étienne Jean Delécluze mockingly called it “the Koran of the so-called Romantic artists.”
The first marker of a French Romantic painting may be the facture, meaning the way the paint is handled or laid on to the canvas. Viewed as a means of making the presence of the artist’s thoughts and emotions apparent, French Romantic paintings are often characterized by loose, flowing brushstrokes and brilliant colors in a manner that was often equated with the painterly style of the Baroque artist Rubens. In sculpture artists often used exaggerated, almost operatic, poses and groupings that implied great emotion. This approach to art, interpreted as a direct expression of the artist’s persona—or “genius”—reflected the French Romantic emphasis on unregulated passions. The artists employed a widely varied group of subjects including the natural world, the irrational realm of instinct and emotion, the exotic world of the “Orient” and contemporary politics.
The theme of man and nature found its way into Romantic art across Europe and is a particularly prominent component of the Romantic approach While often interpreted as a political painting, Théodore Géricault’s remarkable Raft of the Medusa (1819) confronted its audience with a scene of struggle against the sea. In the ultimate shipwreck scene, the veneer of civilization is stripped away as the victims fight to survive on the open sea.
The canvas is massive, measuring just over sixteen by twenty-three feet, so large that Géricault had to rent a studio big enough to house it as he worked. Standing in front of the painting, we see a raft, built of scrap lumber, rocking on the ocean waves. The eye is first drawn to the intertwined figures moving up the canvas to the right, bodies extended together as their arms gesture upward in a strong diagonal. At the top of the group, a Black man waves a piece of red and white fabric, signaling to a tiny ship deep in the background, as does a lighter skinned figure below him. All of the living people depicted in this striking pyramidal composition eagerly seek rescue, but among them are the dead and dying.
At the bottom left are those who have lost hope and the already dead. A grey-haired, bearded man, clad in a red head-covering, sits on the raft with his head resting on his right hand. His left hand grasps the torso of a pale young man, presumably his dead son, whose limp, alabaster body remains precariously extended on the edge of the raft.
Bodies on the verge of slipping beneath the water populate the lower portion of the painting. To the left of the father-and-son pair, we see the top half of a man arching back while his lower body, presumably, floats below. To the right of the father and son, lies a dark-haired figure, modeled by the artist Delacroix, lying face-down with his lower arm extended over a piece of wood. Next to him a pale corpse garbed in a white, with his legs caught in the wood of the raft, lies on his back with his head lost in the water of the ocean. The murky amber and green tone of the painting with strong contrasts of light and dark remind us that this is ultimately a scene of death. The father and son are near the base of another, larger triangle, that reaches up to the top of the mast with its billowing sail and down the rope on the other side of the composition.
Tier 3: Concept—Raft of the Medusa
Learning to look and think deeply about artwork ultimately reveals the concept or meaning that the work transmits. This is a highly subjective but nonetheless very meaningful interaction between the work and the viewer. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 3: Concept.
Géricault's Raft of the Medusa is an emotionally charged scene that initially responded to a factual account of sea life. A close look at the work's use and reception, however, may reveal added layers of meaning not immediately apparent.
When the work was exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1819, the public would have recognized the subject. It had been in the news just a few years before and quickly grew into a political scandal. In July 1816, a French naval ship, Medusa, was on its way to Senegal carrying the new governor of the colony, his family, and some other government officials and others. The government officials came to secure French possession of the colony and to assure the continuation of the covert slave trade, even though France had officially abolished the practice. Another group aboard the Medusa was composed of reformers and abolitionists who hoped to eliminate the practice of slavery in Senegal by engaging the local Senegalese and the French colonists in the development of an agricultural cooperative that would make the colony self-sustaining.
The captain of the Medusa, who had received command of the ship through royal patronage, accidentally ran the ship aground on a sandbar off the coast of West Africa. The ship’s carpenter could not repair the Medusa and the decision was made to put the governor, his family and other high-ranking passengers into the six lifeboats. The remaining 150 passengers found themselves packed onto a raft made by the carpenter from the masts of the Medusa.
The group on the raft included lower-ranking military men, colonists, and sailors of European and African descent. The overcrowded makeshift raft, just 65 x 23 feet, was lashed to the lifeboats, but it impeded their progress so the more elite passengers in the boats took axes and cut the lines to the raft, casting it adrift. Of the 150 people aboard the raft, 15 were rescued by the Argus—the ship that we can barely see at the back of the canvas—and only 10 ultimately survived to tell the tale of cannibalism, murder, and other horrors aboard the raft.
There had never been a painting like Raft of the Medusa. It was on the grand scale of French history painting (think, for example, of Jacques Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii ) but instead of ideal forms and a moralizing story from history, Géricault offered the Salon audience a thoroughly modern, Romantic depiction of death and suffering based on a contemporary event that was in the news. To create his painting, Géricault investigated everything about the story of the raft and talked with many of the survivors. He then brought all of the research together to create a radical painting that responded to the conservative tradition of history paintings.
Gericault first learned about the disaster in the Paris newspapers. Then two of the survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Henri Savigny, and the engineer, Alexandre Corréard, published accounts of their experiences on the raft. Géricault interviewed them both and worked with other survivors as well. The painter went to the French coast to study the movement of ships on the water. He examined images of the raft’s design and the Medusa’s carpenter, who had built the raft, gave Géricault a miniature copy of it. Géricault began drawing the bodies of the living and the dead, then working out the scene in watercolor and oil sketches trying to figure out what the show the viewers and just how to do it. The process required over 100 studies that moved through each episode of the story.
Gericault settled on a moment of, seemingly, false hope when those on the raft saw a ship, the Argus, and frantically tried to signal for rescue. The Argus passed them by but returned two hours later to rescue those who remained on the raft. In many ways the painting conformed to the expectations of the Salon, whose audience was accustomed to traditional history paintings. The canvas’s size signaled that it was following that tradition as did the highly organized composition based on two intersecting pyramidal forms that emphasized the unity of action.
The viewers also recognized the poses of the figures. The view of the back of the man at the top of the triangle of figures signaling to the Argus, for example, was based on the famous Belvedere Torso, a fragment of a Classical sculpture depicting muscular nude male figure known by all artists in Europe. The older man grasping the body of his son recalled the Ugolino and his children, a story from the Renaissance writer Dante that inspired many artists. For many, the heightened emotion and tense figures called back to Michelangelo who inspired both academic and Romantic artists of the period.
Despite these more traditional elements, Géricault challenged everything about the conservative approach to art in Raft of the Medusa. The unified moment of a history painting, that should teach a lesson of moral virtue, is instead a scene of horror. The suffering figures then turn their backs on the viewer in a dark, dramatic light, reminiscent of Caravaggio. In a history painting like Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii, for example, the painter presents the men and women directly to the viewer with a clear, even light, that makes it possible to see everything. In Raft of the Medusa, most of the living men depicted turn their backs on the viewer and the bodies that extend toward us are corpses. The carefully composed groups of figures and allusions to past art do not mitigate the impact of the dead bodies depicted on the raft and the futility of their loss.
The figure based on the Belvedere Torso waving the red and white scarf challenged expectations as well. Instead of using a man whose light skin would mirror the white marble then associated with Classical sculpture, Géricault employed Joseph, a well-known model of Haitian descent (known to us only by his first name), whose dark skin challenged that expectation. The inclusion of a number of Black figures, modeled by Joseph, served to remind viewers that the voyage of the Medusa was embedded in colonization and the slave trade.
No one who wrote about the painting in 1819 was unmoved. Conservative critics and writers were appalled and accused Géricault of creating a disgusting, repulsive mistake. More progressive writers who supported the modern, Romantic approach marveled at the artist’s shocking painting that caused them to tremble and admire the scene of the horrific events on the raft. When he ran through Paris after seeing Raft of the Medusa, completed in Géricault’s studio, young Delacroix experienced that same shock. He had seen something completely new that challenged every expectation for history painting and experienced an entirely kind of painting on a grand scale.
Artists confronted their audiences with scenes of struggle against nature either by metaphor or direct reference. In these scenes, the artists tend to strip away the veneer of civilization to expose the vulnerability of human existence to the impartial and merciless force of nature. One metaphorical application of this approach is the depiction of humans as not solely rational beings but, like animals, governed by instinct and emotion. Théodore Géricault's portraits of the insane, for instance, depict subjects outside the protective borders of civilized society to capture the struggle rarely documented in visual works, such as in his Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy.
Today, French Romanticism remains difficult to define because it is so diverse. Baudelaire’s comments from the Salon of 1846 may still apply: “romanticism lies neither in the subjects that an artist chooses nor in his exact copying of truth, but in the way he feels.”
In 1807, Napoleon, bent on conquering the world, brought Spain’s king, Charles IV, into alliance with him in order to conquer Portugal. Napoleon’s troops poured into Spain, supposedly just passing through. But Napoleon’s real intentions soon became clear: the alliance was a trick. The French were taking over. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, was the new king of Spain.
On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Their blood literally ran through the streets of Madrid. Even though Goya had shown French sympathies in the past, the slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war made a profound impression on the artist. He commemorated both days of this gruesome uprising in paintings. Although Goya’s Second of May is a tour de force of twisting bodies and charging horses, his The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid is acclaimed as one of the great paintings of all time, and has even been called the world’s first modern painting.
This depiction of warfare was a drastic departure from convention. In 18th century art, battle and death were represented as bloodless affairs with little emotional impact. Even the great French Romanticists were more concerned with producing a beautiful canvas in the tradition of history paintings, showing the hero in the heroic act, than with creating emotional impact. Goya’s painting, by contrast, presents us with an anti-hero, imbued with true pathos that had not been seen since, perhaps, the ancient Roman sculpture of The Dying Gaul. Goya’s central figure is not perishing heroically in battle, but rather being killed on the side of the road like an animal. Both the landscape and the dress of the men are nondescript, making the painting timeless. This is certainly why the work remains emotionally charged today.
Future artists also admired The Third of May 1808 in Madrid, and both Manet and Picasso used it for inspiration in their own portrayals of political murders (Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and Picasso’s Massacre in Korea). Along with Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s The Third of May 1808 in Madrid remains one of the most chilling images ever created of the atrocities of war, and it is difficult to imagine how much more powerful it must have been in the pre-photographic era, before people were bombarded with images of warfare in the media. A powerful anti-war statement, Goya is not only criticizing the nations that wage war on one another, but is also admonishing us, the viewers, for being complicit in acts of violence, which occur not between abstract entities like “countries,” but between human beings standing a few feet away from one another.
Tier 3: Concept—The Third of May 1808 in Madrid
Learning to look and think deeply about artwork ultimately reveals the concept or meaning that the work transmits. This is a highly subjective but nonetheless very meaningful interaction between the work and the viewer. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 3: Concept.
Goya's, The Third of May 1808 in Madrid is an emotionally charged scene that shocks the viewer into the vulnerabilities of the reality of the world around them. A close look at the symbolism and emotions depicted in this work may suggest one plausible meaning.
We see row of French soldiers aiming their guns at a Spanish man, who stretches out his arms in submission both to the men and to his fate. A country hill behind him takes the place of an executioner’s wall. A pile of dead bodies lies at his feet, streaming blood. To his other side, a line of Spanish rebels stretches endlessly into the landscape. They cover their eyes to avoid watching the death that they know awaits them. The city and civilization are far behind them. Even a monk, bowed in prayer, will soon be among the dead.
Goya’s painting has been lauded for its brilliant transformation of Christian iconography and its poignant portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man. The central figure of the painting, who is clearly a poor laborer, takes the place of the crucified Christ; he is sacrificing himself for the good of his nation. The lantern that sits between him and the firing squad is the only source of light in the painting and dazzlingly illuminates his body, bathing him in what can be perceived as spiritual light. His expressive face, which shows an emotion of anguish that is more sad than terrified, echoes Christ’s prayer on the cross:
Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.
Close inspection of the victim’s right hand also shows stigmata, referencing the marks made on Christ’s body during the Crucifixion.
The man’s pose not only equates him with Christ, but also acts as an assertion of his humanity. The French soldiers, by contrast, become mechanical or insect-like. They merge into one faceless, many-legged creature incapable of feeling human emotion. Nothing is going to stop them from murdering this man. The deep recession into space seems to imply that this type of brutality will never end.
There are different methods that art historians use to get at meaning in a historical sense. What did the work of art mean to the artist? What did it mean to the culture for which it was originally made, and how did that meaning change up to the present moment? One of the first things you can do when you approach a work of art is to begin describing it. Normally we walk past the work of art quickly, but if you stay with it and interrogate it, just on what art historians call its formal properties, you can learn a lot. Formal properties refers just to the physical object itself, and formal analysis is really based on a simple act that is looking closely. Another thing you can start thinking about is the subject matter; the content of the work of art. Is it telling a story from mythology, from history, from the Bible? And then when it comes to modern art, sometimes that's a little more difficult because sometimes there is no overt story. And then the last and, perhaps, even most important way that art historians try to understand a work of art is to think about the context in which that work of art was originally embedded. What was the world like when this work of art was made? What was it made for. Who asked to have it made? What was happening politically, economically, socially at that moment?
So let's begin with Goya's 3rd of May 1808. Now, when I walk up to a painting, very often the first thing I'll try to do is understand the painting formally. So what decisions did the artist make? Well, for one thing, the arts decided to make a large painting. That says something about the artist's ambition for the work of art. And it's important to note that this is oil paint on canvas. Substantial works of art were oil on canvas. This is not watercolour. It's not a sketch. The next thing that I notice is the extreme contrast of light and dark, and the way that the artist has almost divided the canvas into these zones of light and dark. So scale, material, and value—that is the use of light and dark—are all formal qualities. But so is composition. Think about it as stage direction. Where is the artist placing his actors? What is their relationship to the landscape? What is their relationship to one another? What is the artist asking me to look at? What is he drawing my eye to? And clearly, in this painting, it's that figure in white with his hands outstretched above him.
Goya makes it very clear that we're looking at that man who's about to be shot. Those guns are pointing right to him. But the composition also reinforces that by the artist placing that figure against a hillside so that he is entrapped there. Our eye is led down to the gunman by the horizon of the hill, and then our eye shoots back to the left, right back to that bright white shirt. The gunmen form a receding diagonal line, creating an illusion of depth. When we talk about paintings, we're looking at works of art that are flat, and one of the key questions we can ask is: is the artist creating an Illusion of space on that flat surface? And one of the ways that Goya is doing that is by using this diagonal line that appears to recede into space. He also reinforces depth in a number of other ways. He does it with light. The brightest elements are forward. Things become dimmer as we move back. The level of detail diminishes as we move into the distance.
And finally, the artist also uses scale. So the buildings in the distance are small in comparison to the men in the foreground. But he's also using light and dark as modeling or chiaroscuro to create a sense that the forms, the figures in this case, are themselves three-dimensional, and you can see that really well, for instance, in the man's right hand. There you can see the fleshy quality of his thumb, where there's a white highlight, and you can see shadow that is used to trace the contours of that thumb. And so you have this grounding in space, this volume, and all of these are formal elements.
And if we want to stay on this topic of creating an illusion of space, an artist can also do that by using foreshortening—that is creating the illusion that forms are coming directly out towards us, or receding back into the space of the painting. A great example of that is the dead figure in the foreground who's fallen toward us after being shot, his arms outstretched; and you can see his body move back into space. So the artist has distorted the body, made it too short, but we see that accurately in the illusionistic depth that the artist has created.
We see that Goya is using a lot of earth tones: browns and golds, and it's nighttime. You talked about the radical contrast between light and darkness, and the real reduction of colour in this painting helps to reinforce that. Another important thing to think about is the brushwork. Now seeing the hand of the artist pushing paint across the canvas is possible because of oil paint. The energy of the brushwork can activate the surface of the canvas and give it a sense of power and motion. For example if we look at the white shirt, the brushstrokes are not careful. It looks sketchy. It looks quick, and it gives us a sense the man has just raised his arms, that that shirt is actually still in motion. Look at the facial features of the man. His eyebrows are raised up almost too much, but because the brushwork is so loose, we forgive that. It becomes a kind of gesture.
That speaks of yet another decision the artist is making. The simplified forms of the face. The simplified forms of the neck, and then the hair. The artists is not spending a huge amount of time finishing this, making it perfect. And there's a really different quality that results from that kind of brushy sense of spontaneity. For me, that visible brushwork makes me feel the presence of the artist in front of the canvas. There is a sense of immediacy, as opposed to an artist who might create a very finished line, which we might see, for instance, in the neoclassical tradition, where the figures seem sculptural and they seem timeless. This is very much of a particular moment, and how appropriate this is of a particular day: the 3rd of May 1808. We have a man about to be shot. Figures on the ground in front of him who have just been murdered. And I see another figure holding his head, who's next in this line of fire.
Goya has taken this static flat object, this oil painting, and he has suggested depth and the passage of time. We could also notice that the figure in white and many of the other figures, we see their faces. They're human. We have empathy for them; whereas the soldiers are lined up with their backs toward us, and we have the sense of a machine-like firing squad confronting these deeply human figures. We've now entered into the subject matter, into the content of the painting. Well it's hard to keep those things entirely separate, because as we're talking about the formal elements, we can see figures who are victims and figures who are the perpetrators of the violence.
So what is the painting about? The narrative and what's actually being conveyed in terms of the unfolding of an action? Subject matter can be very closely tied to the historical context, and this is a perfect example. Napoleon Bonaparte is on the throne in France and is asserting his power throughout Europe, including Spain. Now Napoleon, through some complex machinations, is able to march into Spain, is able to depose the king of Spain, Charles the fourth, and is ultimately able to make his brother the king of Spain. But the people of Spain don't take this sitting down. There's a popular uprising against the French occupation of Spain. And that event is just the day before, May 2nd 1808, and in retribution, the French then take a series of innocent people from the city of Madrid, line them up outside of the city, and shoot them. And that's what this painting commemorates: a group of innocent Spanish people being brutally murdered by Napoleon's Army. Goya has given us an innocent figure with his arms raised in a position that is reminiscent of Christ on the cross; an innocent martyr brutally murdered.
The formal elements are here in support of Goya's position regarding this event. This is one of the great examples of Romanticism: this moment in literature, in music, and in painting when emotional expression came to the fore; when painting was no longer about abstract ideas, but very much about a kind of emotional response and a more individualized response. Here we have someone being killed for no good reason; the Brutal facts of how inhumane human beings can be to one another. And one of the ways that he conveys that message that is that content is through the use of symbolism.
Goya has appropriated a historical symbolic language. If we look, for instance, at the man in the white shirt, he is a martyr–a martyr to Spain—and in fact, his arms are raised up as if he's hanging from the cross; and if we look very closely, we can see small indentations in his palms that are a reference to the holes that Christ received on the cross, known as the Stigmata. So Goya is using this historical tradition in painting for the representation of this modern event, and painting that event from this subjective modern viewpoint. This isn't about a message from the State or the Pope or a person in position of power. This is very much Goya's point of view, and that speaks to the economic environment in which this painting was made. This was not a painting that was made for a patron. Somebody did not commission this painting.
But this was a painting that Goya felt was important to paint, and so he did. It is so clearly about the horrors and the brutality of war. The painting and our understanding of it is so much more enriched by understanding its original historical context, and the meaning that it had for the artist and for his world in the early 19th century.
The emphasis on the individual, on emotional content, and one current events of the time that came to characterize Romantic paintings of the time found a more solid foundation in English poetry than it did in the visual arts. Like the rest of Europe, England struggled to face the public and private challenges and anxieties of the industrial revolution, which was fundamentally transforming the traditional foundation of society. Whereas urban centers throughout Europe had been a place of social and cultural development, the advance of technology encouraged these centers to embrace developing factories and mass employment of the middle class. Many felt a nostalgia for the dying agrarian lifestyle and painters, like John Constable, captured their impressions and feelings on canvas. Though his work seems to avoid the raw intensity of the Romantic paintings of other countries, it captures an intensity and longing that is at the heart of the Romantic aim, particularly as a response to the horrors of the aftermath of the French Revolution.
We're in the National Gallery in London looking at one of John Constable's six-footers. The six-footers are a series of paintings that are six feet wide and this was an unusual size for landscape paintings in the early 19th century. The date of his painting is 1821. The original title was Landscape Noon, but it's now known universally as The Hay Wain, and I think it's hard for us to retrieve how radical it was to put forward as your subject at this scale, nature.
Landscape painting was one of the lowliest subjects according to the Royal Academy here in London because it was the idea of painting something that was right in front of you. Just like painting a portrait of something right in front of you. So important history subjects, religious subjects, they were often quite large, and less important subjects, landscape, still lifes they were painted on smaller canvases.
So Constable is being ambitious here, which might seem funny because the subject seems so very mundane. What we're looking at is a view of the Stour River where Constable grew up and a hay wain, a cart moving through that river with a woman in the background doing some washing, a dog barking, some farmers working in the field in the background, the clouds passing in the sky at noon. So what is Constable heroicizing with the scale of this canvas? Constable's father was a landowner and Constable came from a well-to-do family in rural Suffolk in England. This is a moment when the land in the countryside is fraught. When they're at very severe economic stresses and unemployment among the workers.
In the early Industrial Revolution, machines were perceived to be taking employment away. There was great poverty, but we see none of that here. Landscapes are expected to be classical and beautiful to show us something idealized, but Constable is refusing to idealize here. If Constable is looking back to any art history, he's looking back to the Dutch, to artists like Ruisdael. Look at the amount of this canvas that's given over to the sky. Constable had studied meteorology which was a new subject. And that specificity of Dutch painting, capturing a time of day. The title of this painting is Noon. Specifics that are very much opposite of the idealizing tradition that was recommended by the Academy. And in that way there is a subtle political undercurrent, however, we're not close to the workers, we don't actually see their faces.
The farmers in the background have become one with nature. There's no sense of the landscape of nature being something that's fraught at this moment. The artist was creating a new kind of beauty. Finding beauty even in the most lowly. That was an expression of his personal experience. And I think that's what makes this romantic when we talk about the style of Romanticism in England, we're thinking about a kind of art that is personal, that is emotional. And we have this lovely quote from Constable about this.
He said, writing to a friend,
“The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brick work. I love such things. As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight. Still, I should paint my own places best. Painting is with me but another word for feeling and I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the store. These scenes made me a painter and I am grateful, that is, I'd often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil.”
So you can think about this painting as Constable loving this landscape so much, being so intimately familiar with it. But even as this painting is about his personal subjective experience, his memories, it's also a painting that is fixed in a very particular historical moment because of industrialization and because of the growth of cities. Nature has taken on a meaning because it is now removed from people's everyday experiences. At least those that would have seen this painting in the Royal Academy in London. There's certainly real nostalgia here.
The six-footers were well received but the criticism that always comes through is the lack of finish, which was so different from the prevailing traditions in the Academy at this time. Where everything had to be smoothly painted, where you were not supposed to see the hands of the artist. Constable was deliberate in creating a rough surface that he felt captured the variety of textures of nature that he was seeing. We can feel the paint moving across the surface in the currents of the water, for example. And the movement of those billowing clouds, but in some ways the painting is also very traditional, for instance in its composition. We're led in from the lower right and we arc slowly acrossthe foreground towards the left and then circle back to the broadly-lit fields and then up into the clouds. And so it is a fiction that Constable is giving us. This may appear to be a snapshot of a view on the river but this is actually something very carefully composed in the artist's studio in the city of London from oil sketches that the artist had done outside, it's a distillation of his memory, of his experience, and of his skill.
Questions to Consider
- How does the size of this painting change the way the viewer interacts with this work?
- How does the context (what is happening at the time of the painting's production) interact with the content of this work to create meaning?
It seems strange now but for a while the art world turned its back on the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Aside from being cursed with the label of Hitler’s favorite artist, for much of the twentieth century the Impressionists, with their loose, painterly style, were held to be the fathers of modern art. Friedrich’s work in comparison was considered too meticulous, too precise, too finely detailed to warrant serious critical attention. Over the last few decades though the tide of opinion has turned. Now it is generally accepted that both in his technical brilliance and theoretically in his views of what the purpose of art should be, Friedrich was as radical as they come.
Like Constable, Friedrich drew on the natural world around him, often returning to the same area again and again. Unlike the English painter’s more scientific or naturalist approach, though, Friedrich condensed the image so as to communicate an exact emotion. As he put it, “a painter should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within himself.” It is this inward reaching project, using color and form to reveal emotional truths, that singles him out as one of the greatest and most innovative painters of his age: a true Romantic.
Exhibited in the Academy in Berlin in 1810, Abbey in the Oak Forest depicts the reminants of a church and a procession of monks through the church graveyard to commune in the sacred space that has been reclaimed through time by nature.
We're in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and we're looking at Caspar David Friedrich's "Abbey in the Oakwood." It is a large painting, and it was one of a pair that included "The Monk by the Sea." This is a very somber image, and it really is a perfect example of the way Friedrich used landscape in order to represent issues of human life and of the divine. In this painting, we see the ruins of an abbey, an old abbey, and a procession of figures entering this ruined abbey carrying a coffin. And so immediately we have a sense of the passage of time, of the transience of human existence. We're also looking at, it seems, the dead of winter. And perhaps it's sunset. If you look at the remnant of architecture that's left, first of all, this very forlorn sense from the ruins themselves. But you see this old lancet window that's fallen into disrepair. No glass remains. Then you have a real sense of the grandeur of the original space, but now what's left is just the futility of human experience, the futility of human effort. And what we see is that nature is eternal, but what man creates is transient.
You have the monks themselves going through their ancient ritual of burial. But you see that the cemetery that surrounds them in the snow is not well tended, is haphazard, and seems to be itself falling into disrepair. The abbey refers back to the medieval tradition, but that's now fallen away. Older than that are the oak trees, which might have represented for Friedrich the Druidic traditions, the pre-Christian traditions. These truly ancient oaks, gnarled and terrifying in their silhouettes, but that speak of a tradition as witnesses that are even older than Christianity, and then beyond that the crescent moon and the sky. When you were speaking, that's the nature that I was looking at, that is permanent, that is trans-historical, that moves beyond even the growth and death of the trees, certainly of the architecture of man's efforts.
The moon having a sense of the cosmos even beyond the seasons of the Earth. And so you have this sense of human time. You have this sense of nature's time. And then you have this sense of the time of God's space. And in fact, if there's any optimism in this image, it is that moon. It is the faintest crescent, and it might wane even more and become a new moon, but then it will regenerate. And there is this possibility for rebirth. You mentioned that it's the dead of winter, but spring will come. And so even if it seems quite distant now in this sort of bleak twilight, there is the sense that there will be renewal.
So we may have a suggestion of resurrection in the cycles of the moon. We have the crosses that are part of the cemetery. We have the cross that forms part of the ruin of the abbey and that suggestion of resurrection. I think what's so interesting about Friedrich is that he's imbuing a landscape with this very, very serious meaning, almost the way that in the past, people had looked to the iconography of Christian paintings. Friedrich is looking for a modern language with which to express these trans-historical human feelings contemplating our role in the universe, and trying to make sense of all of those layers of time that you referred to before.
Friedrich is finding a new way of representing these eternal issues. And it makes sense that he would have to, because this is now the beginning of the 19th century. Friedrich is now living in a rational culture, and the idea of using the iconography of the Renaissance or even of the Baroque would feel implausible. It wouldn't make sense. And so Friedrich, this artist who was trained in Copenhagen, who grew up in Greifswald, which was then part of Sweden on the southern coast of the Baltic, is looking towards the very extreme, cold, northern landscape as a way of expressing these ideas of the eternal.
On Romanticism: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A beginner’s guide to Romanticism," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed August 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/a-beginners-guide-to-romanticism/. On French Romanticism: Dr. Claire Black McCoy, "Romanticism in France," in Smarthistory, September 1, 2018, accessed August 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/romanticism-in-france/. On Géricault: Dr. Claire Black McCoy, "Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa," in Smarthistory, May 27, 2021, accessed August 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/theodore-gericault-raft-of-the-medusa/ and Ben Pollitt, "Théodore Géricault, Portraits of the Insane," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed August 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/gericault-portraits-of-the-insane/. On Goya: Christine Zappella, "Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/goya-third-of-may-1808/.
On Constable: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "John Constable, The Hay Wain," in Smarthistory, May 30, 2018, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/hay-wain/. On Friedrich: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey in the Oak Forest," in Smarthistory, November 29, 2015, accessed August 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/caspar-david-friedrich-abbey-in-the-oak-forest/ and Ben Pollitt, "Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed August 14, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/friedrich-monk-by-the-sea/.