4.4: Romanticism and Painting

The Influence of the French Revolution

Though influenced by other artistic and intellectual movements, the ideologies and events of the French Revolution created the primary context from which both Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment emerged. Upholding the ideals of the Revolution, Romanticism was a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and also a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individualists and artists, whose pioneering examples would elevate society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art.

The Passion of the German Sturm und Drang Movement

Romanticism was also inspired by the German Sturm und Drang movement (Storm and Stress), which prized intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism. This proto-romantic movement was centered on literature and music, but also influenced the visual arts. The movement emphasized individual subjectivity. Extremes of emotion were given free expression in reaction to the perceived constraints of rationalism imposed by the Enlightenment and associated aesthetic movements.

Sturm und Drang in the visual arts can be witnessed in paintings of storms and shipwrecks showing the terror and irrational destruction wrought by nature. These pre-romantic works were fashionable in Germany from the 1760s on through the 1780s, illustrating a public audience for emotionally charged artwork. Additionally, disturbing visions and portrayals of nightmares were gaining an audience in Germany as evidenced by Goethe’s possession and admiration of paintings by Fuseli, which were said to be capable of “giving the viewer a good fright.” Notable artists included Joseph Vernet, Caspar Wolf, Philip James de Loutherbourg, and Henry Fuseli.

Dramatic scene of a shipwreck on a rocky shore. Dark clouds fill the sky and men are on the shore, helping one another to safety.

The Shipwreck by Claude Joseph Vernet, 1759: Vernet participated in the proto-Romantic Sturm und Drang movement.

The Industrial Revolution also had an influence on Romanticism, which was in part an escape from modern realities of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism. Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, “Realism” was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism.

Painting in the Romantic Period

While the arrival of Romanticism in French art was delayed by the hold of Neoclassicism on the academies, it became increasingly popular during the Napoleonic period. Its initial form was the history paintings that acted as propaganda for the new regime. The key generation of French Romantics born between 1795–1805, in the words of Alfred de Vigny, had been “conceived between battles, attended school to the rolling of drums.” The French Revolution (1789–1799) followed by the Napoleonic Wars until 1815, meant that war, and the attending political and social turmoil that went along with them, served as the background for Romanticism.

History Painting

Since the Renaissance, history painting was considered among the highest and most difficult forms of art. History painting is defined by its subject matter rather than artistic style. History paintings usually depict a moment in a narrative story rather than a specific and static subject. In the Romantic period, history painting was extremely popular and increasingly came to refer to the depiction of historical scenes, rather than those from religion or mythology.

French Romanticism

This generation of the French school developed personal Romantic styles while still concentrating on history painting with a political message. Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa of 1821 remains the greatest achievement of the Romantic history painting, which in its day had a powerful anti-government message.

This painting portrays the moment when the remaining 15 survivors of the wreck of the Medusa view a ship approaching from a distance. The men are rendered as broken and in utter despair. An African crew member waves his handkerchief to draw the ship's attention.

The Raft of the Medusa by Jean Louis Theodore Gericault, 1818–21: This painting is regarded as one of the greatest Romantic era paintings.


Profoundly respectful of the past, Ingres assumed the role of a guardian of academic orthodoxy against the ascendant Romantic style represented by his nemesis Eugène Delacroix. He described himself as a “conservator of good doctrine, and not an innovator.” Nevertheless, modern opinion has tended to regard Ingres and the other Neoclassicists of his era as embodying the Romantic spirit of his time, while his expressive distortions of form and space make him an important precursor of modern art.

This painting shows an episode from Homer's Iliad, in which Achilles refuses to listen to the envoys sent by Agamemnon to convince him back into the Trojan War.

Achilles Receiving the Envoys of Agamemnon by Ingres, 1801: Ingres, though firmly committed to Neoclassical values, is seen as expressing the Romantic spirit of the times.


Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) had great success at the Salon with works like The Barque of Dante (1822), The Massacre at Chios (1824) and Death of Sardanapalus (1827). Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) remains, with The Medusa, one of the best known works of French Romantic painting. Both of these works reflected current events and appealed to public sentiment.

A woman personifying the concept and the Goddess of Liberty leads the people forward over a barricade and the bodies of the fallen, holding the flag of the French Revolution in one hand and brandishing a bayonetted musket with the other.

Liberty Leading the People, by Delacroix, 1830: The history paintings of Eugene Delacroix epitomized the Romantic period.

Spanish Romanticism


Spanish painter Francisco Goya is today generally regarded as the greatest painter of the Romantic period. However, in many ways he remained wedded to the classicism and realism of his training. More than any other artist of the period, Goya exemplified the Romantic expression of the artist’s feelings and his personal imaginative world. He also shared with many of the Romantic painters a more free handling of paint, emphasized in the new prominence of the brushstroke and impasto, which tended to be repressed in neoclassicism under a self-effacing finish. Goya’s work is renowned for its expressive line, color, and brushwork as well as its distinct subversive commentary.

Painting depicts a woman dressed in dark clothing and a head scarf sitting and gazing downwards.

The Milkmaid of Bordeaux by Goya, ca. 1825–1827: Though he worked in a variety of styles, Goya is remembered as perhaps the greatest painter of the Romantic period.

German Romanticism

Compared to English Romanticism, German Romanticism developed relatively late, and, in the early years, coincided with Weimar Classicism (1772–1805). In contrast to the seriousness of French and English Romanticism, the German variety of Romanticism notably valued wit, humor, and beauty.

The early German romantics strove to create a new synthesis of art, philosophy, and science, largely by viewing the Middle Ages as a simpler period of integrated culture; however, the German romantics became aware of the tenuousness of the cultural unity they sought. Late-stage German Romanticism emphasized the tension between the daily world and the irrational and supernatural projections of creative genius. Key painters in the German Romantic tradition include Joseph Anton Koch, Adrian Ludwig Richter, Otto Reinhold Jacobi, and Philipp Otto Runge among others.

Two children are pulling a baby in a wagon next to a white picket fence. The baby and one of the children stares at the viewer. The other child looks back at the baby.

The Hulsenbeck Children by Phillip Otto Runge, oil on canvas: Runge was a well-known German Romantic painter.

Landscape Painting in the Romantic Period

Landscape painting in Europe and America greatly increased in prominence during the 18th and particularly the 19th century.

Dutch and English Landscape Painting

Landscape painting depicts natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, in which the main subject is typically a wide view and the elements are arranged into a coherent composition. During the Dutch Golden Age of painting of the 17th century, this type of painting greatly increased in popularity, and many artists specialized in the genre. In particular, painters of this era were known for developing extremely subtle, realist techniques of depicting light and weather. The popularity of landscape painting in this region, during this time, was in part a reflection of the virtual disappearance of religious art in the Netherlands, which was then a Calvinist society. In the 18th and 19th centuries, religious painting declined across all of Europe, and the movement of Romanticism spread, both of which provided important historical ingredients for landscape painting to ascend to a more prominent place in art.

In England, landscapes had initially only been painted as the backgrounds for portraits, and typically portrayed the parks or estates of a landowner. This changed as a result of Anthony van Dyck, who, along with other Flemish artists living in England, began a national tradition. In the 18th century, watercolor painting, mostly of landscapes, became an English specialty. The nation had both a buoyant market for professional works of this variety, and a large number of amateur painters. By the beginning of the 19th century, the most highly regarded English artists were all, for the most part, dedicated landscapists, including John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, and Samuel Palmer.

This painting depicts as its central feature three horses pulling what in fact appears to be a wooden wain or large farm cart across the river. A cottage is visible on the far left.

The Hay Wain by John Constable, 1821: Constable was a popular English Romantic Painter.

French Landscape Painting

French painters were slower to develop an interest in landscapes, but in 1824, the Salon de Paris exhibited the works of John Constable, an extremely talented English landscape painter. His rural scenes influenced some of the younger French artists of the time, moving them to abandon formalism and to draw inspiration directly from nature. During the revolutions of 1848, artists gathered in Barbizon to follow Constable’s ideas, making nature the subject of their paintings. They formed what is referred to as the Barbizon School.

During the late 1860s, the Barbizon painters attracted the attention of a younger generation of French artists studying in Paris. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille among others, practiced plein air painting and developed what would later be called Impressionism, an extremely influential movement.

In Europe, as John Ruskin noted, and Sir Kenneth Clark confirmed, landscape painting was the “chief artistic creation of the 19th century,” and “the dominant art.” As a result, in the times that followed, it became common for people to “assume that the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape was a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity.”

Nationalism in Landscape Painting

Nationalism has been implicated in the popularity of 17th century Dutch landscapes, and in the 19th century, when other nations, such as England and France, attempted to develop distinctive national schools of their own. Painters involved in these movements often attempted to express the unique nature of the landscape of their homeland.

The Hudson River School

In the United States, a similar movement, called the Hudson River School, emerged in the 19th century and quickly became one of the most distinctive worldwide purveyors of landscape pieces. American painters in this movement created works of mammoth scale in an attempt to capture the epic size and scope of the landscapes that inspired them. The work of Thomas Cole, the school’s generally acknowledged founder, seemed to emanate from a similar philosophical position as that of European landscape artists. Both championed, from a position of secular faith, the spiritual benefits that could be gained from contemplating nature. Some of the later Hudson River School artists, such as Albert Bierstadt, created less comforting works that placed a greater emphasis (with a great deal of Romantic exaggeration) on the raw, terrifying power of nature.

In the foreground is a dark wilderness with shattered tree trunks on rugged cliffs with violent rain clouds on the left. That moves to a light-filled and peaceful, cultivated landscape on the right, which borders the tranquility of the bending Connecticut River.

The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, 1836: Thomas Cole was a founding member of the pioneering Hudson School, the most influential landscape art movement in 19th century America.