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Art Movements in Art History - Romanticism

Art Movements > Romanticism > Romanticism in England

Romanticism in England

In England, as in Germany, the first Romantic stirrings were to be witnessed in nature poetry among other genres, such as that of James Thomson, or in the nocturnal songs of Edward Young. This return to nature, this emphasis on the power of the individual, must be seen as a reaction to the mechanisation and depersonalisation brought about by the Industrial Revolution in England. This had brought with it a rift between capital and labour, between employer and employee, thus establishing a new hierarchical social order. Commercialism and urbanisation had led to unfree ways of life; and these in turn provoked the artist and the writer to express their subjective, emotive life and make the spectator or reader partake in their own existential struggle. Individualism became a means to retain mental and emotional independence. In literature and art the conflict between the "I" and the world, between the individual and the state, was explored. The aim everywhere was to express inner rather than outer realities.

In painting this is perhaps most directly expressed in portraiture. Social rank and status were no longer important. Where the artist had previously been commissioned to portray patrons in official costume or emphasise the importance of the sitter, the accent now fell on the uniqueness of' the individual. The self-portraits of artists, such as Palmer (c 1826) in England, and Friedrich in Germany, confront the spectators with a gravity and intimacy that were largely lacking in 18th century portraits. In Palmer's Self-portrait of 1826 an emotional sincerity comes across in a direct and spontaneous manner. A sense of mystery and spirituality characterises the portrait. Palmer used the features of Christ to express personal suffering. Portraits of children, especially those by Runge in Germany, are characteristic of the period because they reflect the innocence, sincerity and spontaneity which the Romantics considered to be essential to reassessment of the self. To the Romantic artist the child also symbolised an unspoiled primeval mystery; and for Runge children became a symbolic reflection of raw, pure energy in nature, as seen in his Portrait of his Parents (1806).

English Romanticism developed out of a new awareness of nature, seen as a reflection of the human spirit. Natural phenomena such as storms, disasters, the mysterious rhythms of growth, life and death were used to give expression to the dreams, fears and aspirations of man. Nature also became an escape from the restrictive conventional world and drew attention to the diverse and dynamic energies of the cosmos. Accurate studies of birds, animals and insects reflected man's interest in the mysterious and hidden secrets of nature. This renewed interest in nature was further stimulated by archaeological and scientific discoveries, expeditions and narratives in which the romantic aspect of strange and distant places was described or dramatised, as may be seen in the works of Wordsworth or Byron.
The philosophical writings of Rousseau and Burke were further encouragement to man to seek hidden meaning behind the surface of physical reality.

The work of William Hodges (1744-1797) illustrates this interest in the picturesque and exotic. Accompanying Captain Cook on his voyages to the South Sea Islands in the years 1772 to 1775, Hodges recorded such dramatic new scenery as he experienced in New Zealand and Tahiti. This escapism was encouraged by the political and industrial revolutions at the end of the 18th century as well as by revolutionary ideas that were leading to great social change. Man was trying to escape the burdens of his own time. And such an escape was found in nature, particularly in desolate, uninhabited landscapes far removed from a city environment.

Important to an understanding of the beginnings of Romanticism in England is the work of late 18th century watercolourists such as Alexander and Robert Cozens. Their work is remarkably innovative and demonstrates a sensitive and imaginative awareness of nature. Alexander Cozens (c 1717-1786) declared that "too much time [was] spent in copying the work of others, which tends to weaken the powers of invention," and that he "scruple[d] not to affirm that too much time may be spent in copying the landscapes of nature herself". Transforming random ink marks into atmospheric impressions of
mountains and cascades, Cozens broke entirely new ground. He created a poetic mood and evoked a sense of mystery in the brooding and dramatic shapes traced in his landscapes.

John Robert Cozens (1752-1797), Alexander's son, further developed the notion of raising landscape painting above the merely topographical. He was, above all, sensitive to changes in nature and recorded his impressions in sensitive, largely monochrome tonal gradations which Constable later described as "all poetry".

In the pre-Romantic period, landscape painting in England was characterised by two distinctive approaches. On the one hand there was the more classical approach which echoed Winckelmann's theory that art must strive towards a noble simplicity and calm grandeur. On the other hand there was the approach in which poetic imagination played a superior role, as in the work of PJ de Loutherbourg (1749-1812). In this artist's renderings of shipwrecks, mountain streams and avalanches, we can discern these distinctive qualities which were destined to become characteristic of English Romanticism.

The wars and revolutions at the turn of the century created an atmosphere of doubt which resulted in a spirit of pessimism. Man realised his insignificance and transience and became increasingly aware of nature's destructive aspects. Artists such as Stanfield and Martin, among others, portrayed the unbridled powers of nature with pathos and wild imagination.

After 1815 the British market was flooded with works of art belonging to Continental collectors. In England there was a preference for 17th century Dutch landscape paintings, such as those of Van Ruysdael which, with their nostalgic charm, were especially popular through their association with undefiled nature. Both Turner and Constable learnt a great deal from Dutch landscape painting.

Through the collections of British aristocratic landowners, and of the nouveaux riches who owed their wealth to the Industrial Revolution, British artists at this time became acquainted with a great variety of styles and subject matter in the work of the Old Masters. It is understandable therefore that Romantic paintings were, at times, eclectic in character. Works of the Old Masters having a Romantic flavour often appeared in a new guise in which expression and subject matter were adapted to a new artistic vision. Turner, for instance, was familiar with the works of Claude Lorrain and Poussin, and during his visit to the Louvre made a particular study of Titian.

Other sources of inspiration to the Romantics were the Bible and works of Chaucer, Milton, Spencer and Shakespeare. These stimulated the imagination of the new generation of artists, attracted as they were by dramatic events from the past, by emotional experiences, and by the mystical, the irrational and the supernatural.

More than any other British artist, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) found himself in accord with the taste and fashion of his time, especially through the attraction exerted on him by the supernatural, witches, violence and dream fantasies. Influenced by Michelangelo, Fuseli combined elements of exaggerated heroism with his Nordic sense of the demonic, the fantastic and alarming. He was also inspired by dramatic episodes from Shakespeare's literary works and represented them in a diluted 16th century mannerist style - distilled, however, with a strong personal quality. Although he was more of an illustrator than a painter, he nevertheless infused his accounts of the surreal with a psychological dimension. The preponderant use of linear qualities at the expense of colour, and the way in which he
depicted only the essential illustrative details in light tones against a predominantly dark background, showed a marked similarity with Blake, whose work was strongly derivative of Gothic art.

William Blake (1757-1827) shared Fuseli's disregard for natural appearances, and often used the Bible, in particular the Book of Revelation, and also Romantic poetry as a source of inspiration. With an imaginative sense of design he transformed natural phenomena into the supernatural. Like a medieval illustrator he created symbols for mystic concepts. His own philosophy was spiritually and theologically founded, and physical reality existed for him on a lower plane than did the sublime world of art and
fantasy. To Blake the world of the imagination was the world of eternity; he created in his illustrations an intensely private symbolism.

Blake was convinced that the images he used were clearer and livelier in his vision than in the retinal apprehension of the world around him. His preference for Gothic art, which he declared to be superior to Classical art, stemmed from his disapproval of the restrictions that conventional representation, and the formulas and rules associated with it, would have imposed on him.

Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) had a strongly pantheistic approach to nature. He represented nature as the Garden of Eden, in which flocks of sheep, chapels, sheaves of wheat and fruit-laden trees were transformed into images of his imagination. He described natural appearances in detail, so stressing their symbolic significance; and he heightened the mystery of his scenes by setting them at dusk or at night, for instance Harvest Moon (1835) and Coming from Evening Church (1830). Like Blake, he had a special affinity for Gothic art; yet his intense perception of the manifestations of nature separated him from this artist. He recorded natural details faithfully. But his scenery is pervaded by a supernatural mystery. Indeed he seeks sacred symbols in secular disguise. Thus the trees and cottages in Coming from Evening Church take on the pattern of Gothic arches, so that the scene becomes a vision of a vanished world of believers, unspoilt by the harsh reality of early 19th century urbanisation. Religious rituals were depicted without reference to any specific Christian rite. The pantheistic visions of Palmer can be compared to those in the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

Like Wordsworth, Constable represents in his work the Romantic veneration of nature. Constable and Wordsworth's interest in the intimate aspects of the surroundings of their youth finds expression in their works. To them the passions of man were to be discovered incorporated within the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. Windmills, cottages and sheds were places which had strong personal associations for Constable. His renderings of them, although descriptions of natural phenomena in the landscape, reflect a spiritual essence. His art becomes the medium through which his emotional experience is revealed.

Initially Constable was satisfied with portraying passive nature, but around 1811 a change in his approach became noticeable. He was then becoming increasingly aware of the expressive effects of light and atmospheric changes on landscape. He could now distinguish between the permanent physical qualities of nature and such intangible and inconstant elements as light and moving air which affected local colour and tone values, form and textures. Aiming to render this element of endless change in the landscape, Constable created a subtle balance between light and form. His attempt to represent landscape in terms of chiaroscuro differed from the way in which 17th century and 18th century artists had used this painterly device. To Constable the physical and climatic changes he observed in nature became representative of a sequence of human emotions; light and dark became
metaphors of joy and despair.

With works like The Hay Wain (1821), Constable hoped to elevate the depiction of a modest rural landscape to the same level as the historical and classical landscapes of Poussin and Claude. Yet he never devised or contrived a painting, nor was the landscape merely a background or stage for heroic or tragic events. He painted what existed in the field of his experience, based on his observation of physical and climatic changes in nature.

It was particularly in his preparatory oil sketches that Constable recorded directly, swiftly and spontaneously every change and movement in nature. A great deal of the original impulse and energy of the first emotion is lost in his completed works. In these "finished" works Constable strove to create landscapes within the conventions of the academic tradition to which he was, in a sense, still bound. However the loose and aggressive technique in his later works, like The Leaping Horse (1824-1825), proved no longer acceptable to his contemporaries, because such works revealed an intensely subjective approach emphasising personal expression rather than topographical facts. In works like the full-scale sketch of Hadleigh Castle (1829), and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), Constable's technique becomes even broader, his impasto thicker, his brush strokes more rhythmical and emphatic, his style more individual. Less descriptive, the landscape becomes an integrated world of vibrating and moving light. Nature is no longer a structure of stable forms, evenly illuminated from a single source; flecks of white light flow over objects, dissolving them - but at the same time unifying all pictorial elements in the composition.

In Hadleigh Castle light dispels darkness and illuminates a shadowy world. Constable's increasing use of unconcealed symbolism begins to reflect the darker side of his experience. We see this in Stonehenge (1836). Threatening storm clouds and turbulent winds heighten the feeling of melancholy and loneliness.

Constable introduced new pictorial solutions that contrasted sharply with academic principles. His work displays a new tension between art and nature, and between nature and his own emotions and reactions.

Like Constable, JMW Turner (1775-1851) was also attracted to the inconstancy of nature and the effects of light. Initially he made accurate sketches of delicate Gothic ruins, reflecting his Romantic temperament. Although he studied landscape, plants and rocks in detail, it was the spiritual content rather than the natural appearance that fascinated him. But instead of creating an Arcadian fantasy of harmony and discipline, Turner saw the elements of nature as forces that threatened to destroy man. Like his Northern contemporaries, especially Friedrich, he saw human passions as increasingly subjugated to the natural elements. Man he saw as an intruder faced with violent storms, devastating
avalanches, icy glaciers and turbulent seas: for instance Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812). Here, Turner's vision of nature differs from French Romantic painting, in which man remains the pivot and dominates the scene.

Turner's work contains a pessimism that found expression in scenes of catastrophes - as represented, for instance, in the watercolour Messieurs les Voyageurs on their Return from Italy in a Snow Drift upon Mount Tarrar (1802). In his work Turner illustrates his respect for nature, and man's impotence when faced with the violence of cosmic forces.

Turner made increasing use of watercolour because he found it a light and translucent medium in which he could divest forms of their physical reality and transform them to transcendental, atmospheric visions. Initially he attempted to elevate the poetic landscape to the level of great classical works, for instance his Fifth Plague of Egypt (1802) and Sun Rising through Vapour; Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish (1807). In his later works such as the Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834), colour and light became his primary consideration. It was no longer tangible or concrete reality that stimulated his interest, but rather the intangible, expressed in light, colour and paint.

Turner's works cannot be described as pure landscapes. In his Fighting Temeraire (1838) and in his Petworth Series (1836-1837) he transcends the natural by dissolving objects in light and, through innovating spatial manipulations and imaginative colour, creates an entirely new order of reality. No contour is defined clearly; light and atmosphere surround and dissolve forms, so that only the most essential structure makes them identifiable. Kenneth Clark holds that Turner's Petworth Interiors are some of his earliest attempts to make light and colour the only basis of design. The pictorial innovations in Turner's late works (especially his watercolours of the 1840s), and the lack of a clearly recognisable subject, caused dismay among contemporary critics. In his suppression of the object for the sake of an idea, and in his use of colour and paint, Turner was well in advance of his times. The emphasis that he, like Constable, placed on the inconstancy of life and nature, was nevertheless appreciated by younger contemporary artists, who also attempted to recreate nature according to a personal vision.

Towards the end of the Romantic period artists such as Hunt, Rossetti and Millais established the Pre-Raphaelite group. These artists were also peripherally associated with Romanticism in the sense that they fervently wished to escape mediocrity and the everyday. They found their inspiration in the allure of foreign countries, as well as in antiquity, Shakespearean literature and spiritual sources. Like the German Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites launched their own reconnaissance of early Italian art because they were dissatisfied with the decadence, triviality and frivolity of contemporary art and called for a
return of truth to nature and the visible world. Like Blake they strove towards the transcendental-ethical. But they did not command, the formal attributes of Blake's work. They formed an artistic brotherhood, and artists (Millais and Hunt for example) vowed to combat the "falsehoods" of contemporary art by returning to a kind of naive medieval style of painting. They worked directly from nature and depicted what they perceived in painstaking detail and in bright colours. In this they deviated from the traditional earthy colours and atmospheric browns which still characterised the work of some contemporary
art. Their subject matter was largely in accordance with that of the previous Romantic generation, but they differed substantially in their approach and technique in the representation of objects. Hunt and Millais initiated a method of working with fine brushes and thin, flowing colours on a damp white priming layer. In their efforts to retain fidelity to nature they, paradoxically, often clothed their models in the costumes of imaginary characters. These personages were then placed in natural surroundings, and the scene was conscientiously delineated. In this way an almost "magical" naturalism was achieved.

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