Romanticism paintings first appeared in early nineteenth-century Europe. They define a movement in art and literature characterized by an interest in the human mind and individual emotions.
Some of the most beautiful and enigmatic oil paintings of love are found in Romantic art.
But who were the Romantic artists, and what inspired their work?
Today, we explore this fascinating art movement. From Caspar David Friedrich paintings to Delacroix Liberty Leading the People, here is your essential introduction to Romanticism in art.
The Romanticism art movement grew in Britain and France during the early nineteenth century. It exploded in popularity in the mid-century, remaining influential until the late 1800s.
It is a notoriously tricky genre to define romantic art. Indeed, the French poet Charles Baudelaire said it couldn’t be explained “in choice of subject” or “in exact truth”. So instead, Baudelaire defined Romantic paintings as a “way of feeling”.
Today, scholars define Romantic art according to its overarching ideas and approach. These famous oil paintings encompass individual imagination, subjective emotion, irrationality, and a return to nature.
Given the difficulties defining Romantic art, no specific characteristics make a painting “Romantic”. Nonetheless, oil paintings likely focus on emotions, feelings, and mystery. In addition, the subject matter varies widely, with Romantic artists depicting landscapes oil paintings, seascape art, religious paintings, human tragedy, and portraits.
Romanticism era paintings evolved due to several shifts in artistic and social attitudes. First, the dominant Classical tradition (often pushed by institutions such as the French Academy and the Royal Academy in London) faded.
From around 1780, an innovative approach emerged to emotion, spontaneity, and freedom. These ideas opposed the Enlightenment’s focus on rationality, logic, and industry. In place of Classical restraint, Romantic art embraced solitude and meditation, devotion to beauty, and connections with the natural world.
At the heart of the European industrial revolution, British artists embraced the Romanticism Art Movement.
Painters such as John Constable and JMW Turner revolutionized depictions of nature.
Constable challenged traditional art hierarchy, elevating his humble countryside home to large, high-status artworks. JMW Turner emphasizes human helplessness and insignificance in the face of the power of nature in his famous landscape paintings. The atmospheric Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm (held by the Art Institute Chicago) is just one example of his extraordinary work.
Comparably, visionary artists such as William Blake focused on man’s relationship with spirituality and the universe.
In Germany, Caspar David Friedrich similarly focused on landscape painting, driving the genre to new Romantic extremes. His artworks often included single figures (or individual features like lone crosses or trees) set against huge, foreboding landscapes.
Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog is one of our most popular oil painting reproductions and is included in our top 100 famous paintings.
While French Romanticism art developed slowly (due to the hold of Neoclassical approaches), it took off from the late 1810s onwards. Artists such as Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix brought Romantic practices into the present day. Indeed, both Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People made strong social and political statements.
Art Historians also label Francisco Goya as one of the last great Romantic painters.
The five main characteristics of Romantic art include:
● Small, close brushstrokes combined with brilliant, complementary colors.
● Strong emotions and feelings as well as a celebration of individual imagination.
● An awe and appreciation of nature, alongside feelings of the “sublime.”
● Social themes such as revolution, republicanism, and democracy.
● An interest in psychology alongside the celebration of women and childhood innocence.
Here are five examples of Romanticism in art from the movement’s leading painters.
Among Caspar David Friedrich paintings, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog is one of the artist’s most iconic creations. The picture shows a young explorer standing confidently on a rocky outcrop.
We view the man from behind (left to wonder about his thoughts) as he gazes at a vast sea of fog. As such, this Romantic artwork focuses on inner emotions and the landscape itself.
The Hay Wain by John Constable, is still one of the artist’s most famous creations. Constable loved painting rural landscapes of scenes around his childhood home.
In this oil painting, field workers return from a day’s work. They aren’t separate from nature but form an integral part of the environment around them. As oversized wall art, The Haywain caused considerable controversy on its first unveiling in London.
Nonetheless, the French art establishment adored Constable’s approach. King Charles X of France awarded Constable a Gold Medal at the Paris Salon for the work.
Painted in 1830, Delacroix Liberty Leading The People is a true masterpiece of Romantic art. It epitomizes the French approach to Romanticism, combining skillful Realism and political sentiment.
The painting commemorates the people’s July Revolution of 1830, which overthrew the French King Charles X. It references key Romantic themes of freedom, equality, and revolutionary fervor.
The central woman (with her breasts fully exposed) has similarities with classical Greek nudes. Yet, despite this, Delacroix represents her as a modern, individual female. Indeed, her fierce emotions and underarm hair show her as a “real” person rather than a classical ideal.
Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, is an iconic artwork of British Romanticism. It represents a ship (the 98-gun HMS Temeraire) towed up the Thames by a small tugboat. As one of the last surviving vessels from the Battle of Trafalgar, the ship sailed toward a fate of scrap parts.
The ghost-like beauty of the old warship contrasts with the blackened tugboat churning through the otherwise still river. Among JMW Turner paintings, it’s a uniquely emotional and poignant celebration of past bravery and times gone by.
Paintings by John William Waterhouse are particularly striking examples of Romanticism. Associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Waterhouse often worked with mythological and fantastical subjects.
Mermaid by John William Waterhouse is a highly unusual artwork. Inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Mermaid, it shows her as a beautiful yet dark enchantress.
As tragic figures, Mermaids could not survive in the human world and fated to a life of isolation and melancholy. On its first exhibition in 1901, The Art Journal praised Waterhouse’s depiction of the woman. The publication described her “wistful-sad look” with the “chill of the sea” lying forever on her heart.
Discover famous paintings of romantic art. This art movement encompasses some of the most beautiful and powerful artworks.
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