Romanticism explained

Romanticism linked William Blake, J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, but what exactly was it?
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William Blake, Pity (1795)
William Blake, Pity (1795)

Artistic movements are huge bags in which to group artists, but often those artists make vastly different work. Jackson Pollock's spontaneous, paint-splattered canvasses, for example, look little like the dense paintings of his contemporary Mark Rothko, and yet both were labelled Abstract Expressionists. The Italian painter Carracci's bright, exuberant, heroic works are a far cry from the dark, sinister and honest paintings of the brawler Caravaggio, yet both are labelled Baroque. The same applies to nearly all artistic movements, but it's particularly noticeable in Romanticism.

 

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wreck of the Hope (1840)
Caspar David Friedrich, The Wreck of the Hope (1840)

Washington Allston, William Blake, John Constable, Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner were all Romantics, a movement that flourished in northern Europe and the USA during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and which, because of its varied manifestations, is almost impossible to define.

At a base level, the Romantic artists are linked through their shared dismissal of intellectual disciplines. Collectively, they placed importance on the imagination and individual expression, and their paintings often depict grand emotions such as fear, desolation, victory, and true love. 

 

J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842)
J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842)

Take Friedrich's wintery works, for example, which drew out the spiritual nature of landscape and which show nature at its most lonely, desperate and melancholy. Or Blake's striking symbolic paintings, which seamlessly link reality with the artist's incredible imagination. Both are Romantics – Blake, also a poet, was doubly so – and yet their work remains wholly individual to each.

Blake died in 1827, Friedrich in 1840, and Romanticism by the mid-nineteenth century, but the movement's tendencies survived into the twentieth. Expressionism and Neo-Expressinonsism both owe a debt to the famous artistic strain. No doubt countless movements of the future will benefit from the moment, too.

Read more about Romanticism and the artists involved in the movement in The Art Book, out now.


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