Romanticism began at the end of the XVII century, partially as a response to Illuminist rationalism that began the Neo-Classicism, and lasted until mid XVIII century. This movement is seen as an influence on modern ideas about artists and their creativity, galvanizing visual arts, literature and music in the Western hemisphere. With a junction of philosophical, political, social and artistic conditions, creativity without bonds and individual imagination came to the forefront. The Romanticized ideas spread all around Europe and even influenced American art as well.
German philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, Karl Schlegel, and Georg Hegel, are counted responsible for molding the Romanticist spirit. They came with a concept of the artist’s interior world, and even though it was considered visionary and fantasy-like, it was the main content of the Romantic sphere. This concept is what nourished the first works of the Romanticism period. The Nightmare by Johann Henry Fuselli, which shows a woman agonizing in her sleep and a disturbing creature sitting on her stomach stares into the audience’s eyes. This work caused instinctive and visceral reactions from the public.
The theme of the tortured artist in touch with nature continued after The Wanderer Over the Mist by Caspar David Friedrich, a painting showing a man on the edge of the abyss of his own life. This work spoke of the lonely hero seeing the world in a new way, a topic well-known of the poetics of the time. He can either choose to jump into the unknown or let the experience change him into a new man. The misty landscape is mysterious and represents the unknown.
Along with the French Revolution came some violent wars all around Europe. Francisco Goya portrays this terror in the painting May 3, 1808, where he was able to extract the expressivity and drama of the event. The scene shows the French platoon executing Spanish civilians that were against French occupation. On the right side, the platoon stands in a row, almost perfectly aligned as a barrier, aiming their weapons at a group of people. There are individuals in desperation and some already dead on the ground, but one figure stands out. A man in a white shirt and poses as if he were crucified. Goya applies a unique light on this character and gives him stigmata markings. This painting is done one year after the troops leave Spain and he portrays it with Baroque and Romanticist styles combined.
The most famous painting about insurrection in the history of art must be Liberty Leading the People, done in 1830 by Eugene Delacroix. The work is inspired by real events, on the 28th of July of 1830, the Republican rebels of the French Revolution break the barricade, and King Bourbon Carlos X was replaced by Luis Felipe I, the past Duque of Orleans – representing a revolution of the people. The upright pyramidal shape shown in this composition highlights the red, white and blue flag being held at the top of the painting by the main figure, a woman representing liberty itself. The scene is like a victorious battle, with many people laying on the floors and a sky filled with clouds and smoke. This painting was bought by Luis Felipe I but hidden from the public for many years because of its provocative nature.
The pyramidal shape found in Liberty Leading the People can also be found in The Raft of Medusa, by Theodore Gericault. This painting, also inspired by real events, caused a scandal at the Paris Salon of 1819, because of its shocking revelation of a horrendous shipwreck that occurred because of an incompetent captain, ultimately causing the survivors to go mad and resort to cannibalism
The rise of the European Industrial Revolution is another event that helped spread the Romanticism’s way of thinking. A social crisis has begun, and the upcoming mechanization brings a feeling of impotence. An anxiety develops in this period in history, thus reminding man of his unique connection to nature. This relationship brings a new search of the substantially sublime, as seen in the landscapes of mountains and volcanoes of Joseph Wright and, with a more religious approach, William Pars.
The manifestation of exasperated emotions and the power and sentiment that nature can create is a consequence of this search for the sublime. This view is seen in Snow Storm- Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, of Joseph Mallord William Turner. He freely paints natures raw force and humanity's fight against a power much bigger than his.