Introduction to Romanticism

I began our introduction to Romanticism by discussing whether we can glean the ideologies of eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century society by examining the cultural products of these periods. I therefore spent these classes contrasting eighteenth-century with Romantic examples of architecture, landscape painting, portraiture, poetry, and representations of the poet. (If you click on the links below, eighteenth-century images will appear in the top right hand frame of this page; romantic images will appear in the lower right hand frame.)

In discussing neo-classical ARCHITECTURE, I offered as examples Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral [1675-1710], James Gibbs' St. Martin-in-the-Fields [1721-22], and John Woods' The Royal Crescent at Bath [1767-75]). In contrast to these buildings, one might examine the highly Romantic architecture of Christian Lank's Neuschwanstein in Southern Germany.

Although we did not look at these, we might also consider the evolving genre of LANDSCAPE PAINTING. In Constable's "Salisbury Cathedral" (1823) and "Stour Valley" (1814) or Gainsborough's "Harvest Wagen" (1767) we can see the new appreciation of nature that develops over the course of the 18th-century and into the Romantic period, even if this is a version of nature that is still ordered, balanced, utilitarian, and fully controlled by man. By contrast, William Turner begins to explore a darker side to nature, what the Romantic philosophers Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke called the sublime.

In PORTRAITURE, we examined the eighteenth-century examples of Joshua Reynold's "Colonel George Coussmaker" (c. 1782), Reynolds' "Fourth Duke and Duchess" (1778), Gainsborough's "Mr. and Mrs. Andrews" (1750), and Gainsborough's "The Honorable Mrs. Graham" (1775-77), comparing these works with Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" (1818). We also examined William Turner's experimentations with color and composition in "The Passage of St. Gothard," "Snowstorm," and "Fishermen at Sea."

We finished by examining competing REPRESENTATIONS OF THE POET. For eighteenth-century examples, we looked at Francis Hayman's and Charles Grignion's illustrations to Alexander Pope's "Second Epilogue to the Satires." For Romantic examples, I offered up John Martin's "The Bard" (1817), which illustrates the following lines from Thomas Gray's poem of the same name:

Ruin seize thee, ruthless King,
confusion on thy banners wait;
Tho' fanned by Conquest's crimson wing,
They mock the air with idel stare!
Helm, nor Hauberk's twisted mail,
Nor even thy virtues, Tyrant, shall avail
To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
From Cambria's curse, from Cambria's tears!

The poem tells of Edward I's attempt to prevent the Welsh from keeping alive the spirit of resistance by condemning all their bards to death. In the painting, the last bard curses Edward I from a rock high above the conway River, before hurling himself to his death in the torrents below. As another example, I offered up Blake's illustration to the following lines in Gray's "The Progress of Poesy":

Man's feeble race what Ills await,
Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain,
Disease, and Sorrow's weeping train,
And death, sad refuge from the storms of Fate!
The fond complaint, my Song, disprove,
And justify the laws of Jove.
Say, has he giv'n in vain the heav'nly Muse?
Night, and all her sickly dews,
Her Spectres wan, and Birds of boding cry,
He gives to range the dreary sky:
till down the eastern cliffs afar
Hyperion's march they spy, and glitt'ring shafts of war. (ll. 42-53)

In this passage, Gray illustrates how the Muse of poetry was given to man to compensate for the real and imaginary ills of life, just as the sun (Hyperion) exists to dispel the gloom of the night.

Some of the elements that students pinpointed about eighteenth-century society, based on these images, include the following:

1) a general emphasis on the status quo, for example the citing of ancient conventions in painting and architecture. The representation of the poet in the illustration to Pope clearly underlines the poet's place in a canonical tradition stretching back to ancient Greece.

2) the power of the aristocracy after the Restoration (1660). This centralized and hierarchized power is evident in the order of the church architecture and also in the blatant display of wealth and power in the portraits of Colonel Coussmaker and the Honorable Mrs. Graham.

3) the valuation of decorum and etiquette. The portraits represent individuals in highly stylized postures and in highly ornate costume. A good example is Gainsborough's "Mr. and Mrs. Andrews," since the figures seem out of place and even uncomfortable in their natural setting. This is a society that places a high value on self-presentation and on one's relationship to others in society.

4) a desire to control nature, emotion, the body. When individuals are represented within natural settings, they show off their mastery of the land (the gun held by Mr. Andrews; the tamed horse of Colonel Coussmaker; and the general domestication of nature in the landscapes of Gainsborough and Constable). The buildings and the landscape paintings seem designed to underline the power of man to control anything in the universe. The concept that perhaps best illustrates this ideology is the eighteenth century's faith in progress and in the ability of science and reason to overcome all difficulties. Indeed, the period is often called the Age of Reason.

5) a valuation of order, balance, and symmetry, which is on display especially in the architecture and portraiture. Indeed, neoclassical buildings even appear next to the Honorable Mrs. Graham and the representation of Pope. A philosophical concept that illustrates this ideology is the "Clockmaker God." In response to the order of the universe discovered by Sir Isaac Newton's laws, many began suggesting that God created all things perfectly at the beginning of time, so perfectly, in fact, that he could then step back and allow it to continue with no further interventions.

By contrast, students pinpointed rather different ideological values in the Romantic images we examined:

1) a valuation of originality over convention. Turner's paintings are a good example, since, in paintings like "Snowstorm—Steamboat Off a Harbor's Mouth" (1842), he is so far ahead of his time that he is anticipating impressionism by decades. By many accounts, Turner also pushed himself to achieve such originality of conception. According to tradition, he had himself tied to the mast of a ship on which he was travelling so that he could see the effect of snow falling about him, which then inspired "Snowstorm." Indeed, Turner's originality often made his contemporary critics balk. One critic, for example, renamed this painting "soapsuds and whitewash." He was also caricatured in the popular press.

2) a desire to champion the rights of the oppressed (the colonized in Martin's "The Bard", the poor and destitute in Blake's engraving). The representation of the poet in both Martin's "The Bard" and Blake's engraving, as a result, underlines the rebellious power of the poet. In Blake's representation, the poet-prophet even goes so far as to take on the divine power of God.

3) a new emphasis on individualism, expressed in the idiosyncratic elements of Neuschwanstein and in the solitude of the individual in Friedrich's "Wanderer" and Martin's "The Bard." Indeed, in Friedrich's painting, we are no longer given a subject on display (with conspicuous signs of that subject's place in the social world) but a nondescript figure. We are made to acknowledge, as Aisha Peay and Meg Lowry suggested, not the subject's social self but the effect of the landscape on the mind of the subject, who does not even turn his face to us. We are thus also invited to take on his point-of-view; we are invited to experience his emotions before the grandeur of the scene before him. There is also a sense here that the subject is noteworthy not because of any social position but because of what he experiences and does (in this case, the achievement of this isolated and dangerous prospect). By this token and thanks to the anonymity of the turned-away subject, we are made to conclude that anyone can achieve the same experience. We are not given the trappings of a particular class or rank but the experiences of a human being. The isolated nature of this figure further serves to underline his individuality, compared to the clear signs of human society in eighteenth-century representations of people and landscape.

4) a desire to abandon oneself to nature, emotion, and the body. The sublime exemplifies this desire to push oneself to the limits of bodily and perceptual endurance in order to experience new and alternate states of being. The use of drugs is another example of this general tendency, best explored perhaps in de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and in Coleridge's Preface to "Kubla Kahn."

5) a degree of irrationality. Indeed, the abandonment of oneself to emotion, mentioned in the previous point, often included the exploration of irrational states of mind, as in, for example, Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" (1781). Indeed, de Goya goes so far as to suggest, in his "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," that the Age of Reason by necessity includes, perhaps even entails, a shadow side of Unreason. The new valuation of sublime landscapes is similarly an effort to appreciate that in nature which is not utilitarian, not ordered, not balanced, not symmetrical.

I then suggested some of the major changes occurring around the Romantic period that threatened the values of the previous period (click here for a time-line of the period), including:


My thanks to Emily Allen for her help
with my choice of 18th-century material