The word Romantic is derived from the Romance languages, and evoked a nostalgia for the past, a longing for untouched nature, and an interest in the “noble savage.” Much of the philosophical underpinnings for the movement came from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was also inspired the French Revolution. The artists depicted dreams and nightmares as internal events, perhaps because psychology began to be studied as a serious science in the 19th century. The concept of the “noble savage” also came from Rousseau, who saw native peoples as being closer to nature, a concept based on racist ideas of native people in colonized parts of Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas. Most Romantic artists evoked mood through the use of color and shadow. Often, the stories used as subject matter have a more threatening, often sexual content. This is also the period when artists began to have a more social consciousness.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808 (photo By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the painting above, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres used the story of Oedipus from Greek mythology, with Oedipus confronting the Sphinx to save Thebes. There are bones and bodies in the lower left foreground of the work, but Oedipus is mostly nude and heroic in the foreground as he confronts the monster with a female head and torso. In Ingres’s paintings, he combines Poussiniste crisp linearity with Rubenesque softness of brushstrokes. The painting has both erotic and threatening overtones. One of Ingres’s most famous works was commissioned by Paolina Borghese, the sister of Napoleon, but was never delivered to her because of the fall of Napoleon from power. This was the Grande Odalisque, a painting of how Ingres imagined a harem, and a woman that lived within, looked. This fits with the Romantic interest in a non-European, or at least white, other, especially within the context of Orientalism, something defined by Edward Said as “dat[ing] from the period of European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or “rescue” (What is Orientalism?). The woman in this painting is light skinned, more European than Middle Eastern, reclining on rich silks and furs, with a peacock feather fan in one hand and a hookah at the end of the couch. Ingres exaggerated her back and legs, making them not anatomically correct, which was one of the critiques leveled against the work when it was displayed at the Salon of 1814.jean_auguste_dominique_ingres_-_the_grand_odalisque_-_wga11841

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814 (photo by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Théodore Géricault often illustrated the theme of man against nature. He painted Officer of the Imperial Guard on Horseback after the disastrous invasion of Russia by Napoleon. Géricault’s style was much more Rubenesque than Ingres, and in this work, he showed the drama and psychological impact of war and battle. Although he used distortions in the horse and man increase the drama, and he filled the scene with smoke and fire, and has the horse trampling over broken cannon. The scene is much more chaotic than David’s image of Napoleon at Saint Bernard PassAn_Officer_of_the_Imperial_Horse_Guards_Charging

Théodore Géricault, Officer of the Imperial Guard on Horseback, 1812 (photo By Jean Louis Théodore Géricault –, Public Domain,

Géricault’s most famous work is The Raft of the Medusa, for which he did a number of studies, including of cadavers. The story of the work comes from the wreck of a merchant marine ship that was captained by an appointee of the restored Bourbon monarchy, as he had supported the monarchy throughout the Revolution. The captain piloted the ship onto the rocks off the coast of Senegal, causing it to wreck. The captain and other important passengers were loaded onto the lifeboats, while the ship’s carpenter made a raft for the other almost 150 passengers, who were left adrift for 2 weeks with no food or water. By the time they were found by another ship, there were only 15 alive on the raft. The government in Paris attempted to sweep this under the rug, but Géricault created his painting, which was rejected by the Salon. He took the work to London, and exhibited it there, making sure to publicize the incident. Géricault’s work was one of the first to show the new social consciousness of Romantic artists. Here, the work pushes up in a heroic triangle to the Afro-French man at the top of the composition, as they wave at the small speck of a ship on the horizon. To the left, there is a storm clearing, and around the edge of the raft are a number of dead bodies, reminding the viewer of the great loss of life. Géricault chose to show the figures on the raft as strong and able, not dehydrated, starved, and sun burned, to make them seem heroic.Raft_of_the_Medusa_-_Theodore_Gericault

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819 (By en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

When Géricault came back to Paris, he painted a series of 10 images of the patients of Dr. Étienne-Jean Georget, which show the facial characteristics of “monomaniacs,” mentally ill people the doctor perceived as having a single type of mania, such as envy, kleptomania, and kidnapping. It is important to remember that the mentally ill were generally removed from society and treated as subhumans in the 19th century. When looking at Géricault’s Madwoman with a Mania of Envy, you can see her red-lined eyes and pinched mouth. The removal of any background forces you to only focus on the face of the woman.Théodore_Géricault_hiena_de_SalpêtrièreThéodore Géricault, Madwoman with a Mania of Envy, c. 1822 (photo By Jean Louis Théodore Géricault – Unknown, Public Domain,

Eugène Delacroix was another of the Romantic artists who combined Orientalism with some social consciousness. His painting of the Massacre at Chios tells a story from the Greek of Independence, where the Greeks of the island of Chios rose up, and almost managed to throw the Ottomans off the island. The Turks responded by killing most of the residents and selling the rest into slavery, and for people like Delacroix, this became the symbol of the struggle of the Europeans (white folks) against the dangerous other (non-white folks). In fact, this was the war that Lord Byron would die in. In Delacroix’s scene, the suffering Greeks in the foreground are emphasized, and the Turks are dark, dangerous, and threatening. The entire background is taken up by smoldering fires and the wreckage of the island. Another example of Delacroix’s Orientalism comes from his image Women of Algiers, painted when he was in Tunisia, then a French colony. Delacroix was actually given permission to go into the harem, making this more realistic than Ingres’s image of the odalisque. The women that are part of the harem are light skinned and European-looking again, but their servant is from Sub-Saharan Africa, and is dark skinned. She seems more disapproving, but the racism of Orientalism can be seen here also, since the women are sitting around, and the implication is that they are lazy. Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus memorializes a moment from the Lord Byron poem that purports to tell the story of the death of the last Assyrian king, Sardanapalus. According to Byron’s tale, Sardanapalus ordered that his possessions, harem women, horses, and servants would be burned on his funeral pyre as his enemies invaded. Delacroix’s scene shows the king reclining on his bed as the servants, women, and horses are killed around him. His favorite harem woman is face-first on the bed, going willingly, and the entire scene is highly sexualized and erotic, with overtones of sadomasochism.

Eugène Delacroix, Massacre at Chios, 1822-24 and Women of Algiers, 1834 (photos By Eugène Delacroix – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, and By Eugène Delacroix – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork,


Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827-28 (photo By Eugène Delacroix –, Public Domain,

In 1830, The French rose up in the July Revolution against the brutality of the restoration monarchy of the Bourbons. This Revolution brought the citizen-king, Louis Philippe, duc d’Orléans, to power in the July Monarchy, with promises to be a better king. Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People memorializes the July Revolution, with Liberty, an allegorical figure with her face fully in profile, wearing a phyrgian cap, associated with both freed slaves in Rome and the 1789 Revolution. She holds the Tricolour, the French flag, as she leads a group of people of all classes over the barricade. The colors of red, white, and blue carry through the scene, in the clothing of the dead royal guards and the clothing of the people. The man in the front left corner wearing his nightshirt was meant as a reminder of the brutal repressions of the Bourbons. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in the background is meant to definitively place the scene in Paris.Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830 (photo By Eugène Delacroix – This page from this gallery., Public Domain,

There was also a strong Christian strain in Romanticism, which took the form of nostalgia for a form of religious mysticism from the late medieval year. An artist most associated with this form of Romanticism was William Blake, little-known engraver, painter, and poet. He is known for self-publishing long books filled with illustrations, often hand-colored with watercolors. Blake developed a new type of copper etching that allowed him to write directly onto the plate. His image of God drawing the Universe is drawn from 13th century French Bible Moralisées, but Blake has God making his hand into a compass as he separates light from darkness.Europe_a_Prophecy,_copy_D,_object_1_(Bentley_1,_Erdman_i,_Keynes_i)_British_Museum

William Blake, God Creating the Universe (Ancient of Days), frontispiece of Europe: A Prophecy),  1794 (photo By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain,

William Blake, Little Boy Lost, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789-94 and Tyger, from  Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789-94 (photos By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, and Public Domain,

Henry Fuseli is an excellent example of the English interest in the sublime. The Aesthetic of the Sublime is defined as the “irrational” attraction to fear, pain, ugliness, loss, hatred, death… along with beauty, pleasure, joy, and love. His painting The Nightmare shows a beautiful woman in bed, with an incubus on her chest and a scary horse face peering through the curtains. His etching and aquatint of Satan, Sin, and Death goes back to the medieval mystical Christian belief that Sin was the child of Death and Satan. Both of these show the Sublime as something that is both beautiful and frightening, ugly and terrifying.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781 and Satan, Sin, and Death, 1776 (photo By Henry Fuseli – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

The greatest of the Spanish Romantic painters (and printmakers) was Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Goya’s images reflect his psychological insights and support for intellectual and political freedom, as seen in his series Los Caprichos. This series is all about the loss of the reason of the Enlightenment, and the increase in fear that followed. Two plates from this series the self-portrait El Sueño da la razon produce monstruos and Que viene el Coco show this concern. In El sueño, the painter is surrounded by bats and cats as he sleeps, referring to the nightmares and visions that visit in sleep, which is a very Romantic notion. Que viene el Coco is a scene of the boogeyman visiting a mother and her children, again referring to the idea of nightmares and threats that come from the lack of reason. He became court painter to Charles III and Charles IV, and painted a portrait of the family of the latter. This portrait, which can be read as a mocking of the royal family, as it would seem that their flaws were emphasized, although there is evidence that the Queen, Maria Luisa, loved it, saying it was a good likeness of the family. At any rate, Goya, drawing on the tradition of Velázquez, included himself in the background painting.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Los Caprichos, plate 43, El Sueño da la razon produce monstruos, published 1799 and Los Caprichos, plate 3, Que viene el Coco, published 1799 (photos By Francisco Goya – Unknown, Public Domain, and By Francisco Goya – PDF from Arno Schmidt Reference Library, Public Domain,


Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Family of Charles IV, 1800 (photo By Francisco Goya – Museo Nacional del Prado, Public Domain,

Goya also created a series of works that dealt with the Spanish rebellion against Napoleonic rule, brought on by the appeals of Ferdinand VII (second from left in portrait, in blue) to Napoleon to help him consolidate his rule after conspiring against his father. Napoleon, though, overthrew him, and put his brother Joseph on the throne in 1808, leading to a 4 year Spanish rebellion that ended in 1812, with Ferdinand VII recrowned king in 1813. In May 2, 1808, the Spanish rose up against the French, leading to French retaliation on May 3. These events were memorialized in a 2 painting series, meant to be seen together, The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808, which show the nearly successful rebellion and the French reaction. The first is chaotic, with the same actors you will see in the second image attempting to remove Napoleon’s Ottoman troops from Madrid. In The Third of May, the men who were the rebels in the first image are seen being executed by the French, who have no faces and seem like automatons. The man at the center is almost Christ-like in his pose and placement within the scene. Taken together, especially with his series of etchings The Disasters of War, these paintings reveal Goya’s deep ambivalence toward war. The Disasters of War also show both Spanish and French atrocities, with Goya refusing to indict one side or the other, choosing to indict both.

 Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, The Second of May, 1808, 1814 and The Third of May, 1808, 1814 (photos By Francisco Goya – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and By Francisco Goya – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Disasters of War: 26, One Can’t Bear to See These Things, c. 1810-1814 and Disasters of War: 3, The Same, c. 1810-14 (photos By Francisco Goya – PDF from Arno Schmidt Reference Library, Public Domain, and Public Domain,

Another strain of Romanticism was the interest in nature, although this took a slightly different form in each country. German Romanticism was heavily informed by Sturm und Drang, led by Goethe, which looked to return to medieval German mysticism. The Germans in the early 19th century were also greatly impacted by the Napoleonic Wars, many of the battles of which took place in Germany. One of the great painters of the movement was Caspar David Friedrich, whose self-portrait, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, shows the German Romantic tendency to dwell on man’s isolation and smallness in the face of the grandeur of nature. He also painted 2 companion pieces, Monk by the Sea and Abbey in the Oak Forest, which also speak to this smallness of man. Abbey also deals with the temporary nature of man’s constructions compared with the longevity of nature. Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1817-1818 (photo By Caspar David Friedrich – The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain,

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809 and Abbey in the Oak Forest, 1809 (photos By Caspar David Friedrich – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3-936122-20-2. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and By Caspar David Friedrich – scanned from book, Public Domain,

The English Romantics who were interested in nature seemed to focus on nostalgia for the pre-Industrial countryside of England, which was the most industrialized country in the early 19th century. They attempted to ignore the early 19th century realities of coal smoke to power the factories and pollution. One of these was John Constable, who came from a wealthy family. His painting The Hay Wain shows people using what would have been at the time outdated technology in a bucolic landscape to harvest the wheat. The entire scene is a romanticized view of the realities of English country life, as is his painting of Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden. Here, the cows graze in the field as people walk along a country path, and the trees frame the Gothic cathedral perfectly.

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821 and John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden, 1820 (photos By John Constable – John Constable, Public Domain, and By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Another English Romantic artist who painted scenes that dealt with the sublime aspects of nature and the effects of industrialization was Joseph Mallord William Turner. He was also known for his washed out colors, made from diluting his oil paints with more linseed oil, and in many ways was a precursor to the Impressionists. His Rain, Steam, Speed: The Great Western Railway shows the brand-new railway on a bridge with the old bridge on the left. In the right, off to the side of the bridge, is a farmer plowing in his fields, and there is a rabbit attempting to jump off the bridge to get away from the train. His Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838 also deals with the progression of industrialization. Here, the last of the wooden sailing ships of the British Navy was being tugged by a coal powered tug boat to be broken up, with the coal smog covering the sun on the right side of the painting.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed: The Great Western Railway, 1844 and The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838, 1839 (photos By J. M. W. Turner, Public Domain, and J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Turner also painted a number of scenes of historical events, although the events were typically not that far off in history. He painted the Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 from 2 different views. Both, though, do not correspond to any reality of the Thames, and also shows the fire as a major conflagration, larger than it would have actually been to enhance the drama. Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing the Dead and Dying Overboard, Typhoon Coming) shows an actual event as well, when the captain of the slave ship Zong in 1781 threw the dead and dying slaves overboard as a typhoon came on. This was partially to lighten his load, and partially because slaves were considered cargo. Part of the racist legacy of slavery was that the African people forced into slavery were treated as less-than-human. Again, Turner creates a scene where the people are small in the vast seascape, with the ship dwarfed by the waves, and the people in the water tiny as compared to the sea and fish.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, 1835 and Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing the Dead and Dying Overboard, Typhoon Coming), 1840 (photo by J. M. W. Turner [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and By J. M. W. Turner – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Public Domain,

American landscape painters in the early 19th century were interested in creating a mythical America, something to glorify the new nation of the United States. The idea was to show the American landscape as vast and empty, ready to be filled and civilized, which could be read as an antithesis to Rousseauian ideals. Thomas Cole was a member of the Hudson River School, and painted vast landscapes that adhered to these ideals. One is View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), which shows the storm moving off to the left, over the still wild landscape, with the civilized landscape to the right. George Caleb Bingham painted an image of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri in 1845, long after that way of life no longer existed. But, Bingham was memorializing a way of life that was distinctly American, combining the idea of showing the vast landscape with the idealization of the “noble savage.”Cole_Thomas_The_Oxbow_(The_Connecticut_River_near_Northampton_1836)

Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow), 1836 (photo By Thomas Cole – Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain,

Winslow Homer’s work can be regarded as transitional. He was largely self-taught and first worked as a magazine illustrator. He also was embedded with the Union Army during the Civil War, creating drawings that were sent back to magazines and newspapers in the Union cities. Homer’s Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862, exemplifies his visual recording of the war. Here, the sharpshooter sits in a tree, holding his rifle, ready to shoot, creating a view of the war that seems at once immediate and romantic. Homer also created a series of paintings immediately after the war that gave a view of the realities of the Union Army, or at least Romanticized views of that reality. The Dark Side shows African-American mule drivers for the Union Army resting in the tent, but fits in with stereotypes of African-Americans being lazy. Prisoners from the Front shows a Union Army officer and 2 men with 3 Confederate soldiers they had captured. The Confederates seem bedraggled, but perhaps the most interesting part of the piece is the indistinct African-American soldier for the Union Army in the back. Veteran in a New Field shows a veteran, who has put down his coat and canteen in the field, wielding the scythe in a field of wheat. But, the scythe is old-fashioned and is more like that carried by personifications of Death, as a reference to the amount of people killed in the 5 years of the Civil War.bestmattedmed
Winslow Homer, Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, 1862

Winslow Homer, The Bright Side, 1865 and Prisoners from the Front, 1866 (photos by Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

winslow_homer_-_the_veteran_in_a_new_fieldWinslow Homer, Veteran in a New Field, 1865 (photo by Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Another strain of American Romanticism post-Civil War was the creation of images that would be the impetus to go West. Many of these were painted by Albert Bierstadt, a German-American artist. His works also fit within the 19th century American ideology of Manifest Destiny, the idea that white Americans were meant to control the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Also, they fit with the ideas of the Vanishing Race, that Native Americans were dying out and/or assimilating, partially because of Manifest Destiny, and partially because they were racially inferior in the racist ideology of the period. Works like The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak shows both the beautiful landscape of the American West, with the Native people in the foreground. The Rocky Mountains in the back are slightly Alpine, which shows the tendency of Bierstadt’s work to make the American West into the new Europe, in no small part to try to get more Europeans to move into that landscape. Sunrise, Yosemite Valley also shows Bierstadt’s luminism, which emphasizes the clarity of light.

Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863 and Sunrise at Glacier Station, 1870 (photos by Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Albert Bierstadt – Usenet, Public Domain,

Some artists, such as George Catlin painted images of the Native people of the Plains, attempting to keep things as “authentic.” Many books state that Catlin “observed the Native American sense of oneness with nature, which, as with European Romantics and American landscape painters, was seen as imbued with powerful spiritual forces” (Adams, p. 730). But, this just fits with Romanticized stereotypes of Native people.george_catlin_-_the_white_cloud2c_head_chief_of_the_iowas_-_google_art_project

George Catlin, White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, 1844-45 (photo by George Catlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The revivalist strains of architecture were also important in this period, with the Gothic Revival style taking the lead. This was popular in England, France, and Germany, partially because all of those countries tried to claim the original Gothic as originating in their medieval country (only France could really make that claim). The English wanted the rebuilt Houses of Lords and Commons (Westminster Palace) to be in this new style. Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin won the competition for this building, which was supposed to reflect a nationalistic, Christian architectural style, and remind people that the parliamentary system of government had been established in the Middle Ages. A number of churches in the US and England were also built in this Neo-Gothic Style, with Richard Upjohn pioneering Carpenter’s Gothic, sending a manual to small towns around the country that would allow them to build Gothic-style churches out of wood.the_houses_of_parliament2c_london_28284841528429

Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin, The Houses of Parliament, London, 1836-1870 (photo By mwanasimba from La Réunion (The Houses of Parliament, London) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Nash showed a Romantic vision of the Far East with his Royal Pavilion built in Brighton for the Prince of Wales between 1815 and 1818. This was build with new materials like cast iron, and reflected the nature of England as an empire, with holdings in India and the Far East.

Richard Nash, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, England, 1815-1818 (photos By Peter Greenhalgh [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons and By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Romantic period marked both the time of increased empire building, and the time of increased social consciousness. This would continue throughout the 19th century.


Works Cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art Across Time, Part II. 4th ed. Nw York: McGraw Hill, 2011.

“What is Orientalism?” Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes. 4 August 2016.


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