The following essay was written by an actual WCC student. Her summary of Romantic painting demonstrates strong understanding of main ideas behind this movement, and she makes very effective use of works that were studied in class. Her analysis of Géricault’s painting is both insightful, and shows that she really looked closely at the painting and applied what she had learned.
One of the most notable movements in art was Romanticism, which began in the mid 18th century and lasted into the 19th century in Europe. This movement was a rebellion against the rationalism which guided the Neoclassical movement. The power of reason dominated Neoclassic art, while Romanticism was influenced by sense and emotion. Objectivity was not significant to the Romantic painters, who instead relied on their imaginations and celebrated freedom of thought as well as freedom of the individual.
Many Romantic paintings explored fantasy themes and elements from mythology, as well as disturbing or tragic events. For example, Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, based on the epic poem by Lord Byron, depicts the brutal killing of many women, while Fuseli’s The Nightmare depicts a sleeping woman being stalked by sinister creatures in her room. These terrifying images came from the idea that unconscious thoughts took over while the conscious mind was at rest. This concept would be taken up again many years later during the Surrealism movement, in which paintings were often based on dreams.
Other common topics of Romantic paintings were heroism and nobility. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People depicts an epic war scene including a personification of France leading young soldiers into a chaotic battle. Although these subjects were common in Neoclassic art, Romanticists focused more on the spirit of the scene. They included the chaos of battle that was absent from Neoclassic paintings of the same subject, such as Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe. Although West’s painting also portrays heroic soldiers in a battle scene, it has a much more staid composition as opposed to the dynamic approach taken in Delacroix’s work.
Another significant Romantic artist was Theodore Gericault. His paintings are recognizable by their overwhelming emotion. He often painted events from history, as well as from mythology. For example, The Raft of the Medusa depicts a wreck that occurred in real life, while Leda and the Swan displays a scene from Greek mythology.
Gericault’s The Tempest, also known as The Wreck, is a notable example of Romanticism in art. It was painted between 1821 and 1824, and is on display at the Musee de Louvre in Paris, France.
The Tempest portrays a dark and cloudy beach where the figure of a woman lies face down in the sand. Her identity is unclear, as she is covered in rags and her face is buried. Although she is the focus of the painting, she is depicted as insignificant against the vast ocean. It is uncertain whether she is dead or alive, and if she has any chance of rescue, although it seems unlikely as there are no other figures in the scene.
The boldness of the brushstrokes disallow much detail, making the content of the painting all the more vague and therefore mysterious. The waves beat violently against the nearby yellowish-tan hard and jagged boulders on the left, which take up nearly half of the painting and rises up above the frame of the canvas. Trickles of water drip off the sides, and give the viewer an immense sense of the power of nature. The only visible source of illumination is the sliver of light along the distant horizon, which starts as a bright white line and fades into the dark blue sky, and eventually into the clouds of grey. The intense lighting is especially notable on the boulder. The side facing the viewer is hidden by shadow, while the pale orange highlights graze the top of a smaller boulder that is in front of it. Lighting such as this is powerful in allowing the viewers to feel the despair of the characters in the paintings.
This style does not appear in many of Gericault’s other works from both earlier and later, which are much smoother and softer. The white of the spray of the waves is rough, resulting in a variety of opacity in a single stroke, adding to the foam-like effect. There is a notable similarity to the use of techniques that would later be included in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, although these movements did not come about until many years later.
Like other Romantic paintings, The Wreck is intensely emotional. The use of pervading darkness in painting was widespread in other Romantic pieces, such as Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, which portrays the sleeping artist being pursued by shadowy figures of bats and birds. Themes of disaster and despair were common in Gericault’s paintings, such as The Raft of the Medusa and Heads Severed, a painting of two bloody decapitated heads.