Tag Archives: Romanticism

A Few Paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Moonlight, A Study at Millbank – J. M. W. Turner – 1797

Take a few moments to look at these paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner (aka J.M.W. Turner aka William Turner). While the subjects are important, what I wish to point out is the techniques used, and how Turner’s approach to light evolved. When looking at these paintings, focus on the approach the artist took to convey his ideas, and how that translated into technique.


Mount Vesuvius in Eruption – J. M. W. Turner – 1817


The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire – J. M. W. Turner – 1817

The Devil’s Bridge at St. Gothard – J. M. W. Turner- 1841

Rain, Steam, and  Speed, The Great Western Railway – J. M. W. Turner – 1844

Looking into his catalog of work, the evolution is just as clear.  By the time he reached near the end of his light, Turner was experimenting, not just with light, but with how the light was conveyed on the canvas, and how the approach used could alter the scene or event being painted.  What makes Rain, Steam, and Speed, The Great Western Railway so intriguing to me, is not just the technique, but how it relates to the artist and his previous works.  Early on, he followed tradition. By the end, he was painting almost nondescript scenes, with areas left clouded or ambiguous, and only a few items on the canvas that could be recognizable. He was pushing and exceeded traditional boundaries that had been taught in the art academies.

What Was The Art World Like in 1850?

Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute – Joseph Mallord William Turner


We, or should I say, I have a very specific idea on how non-famous artists get their pieces viewed today. Either they place them on the walls of any business that will have them – say, your local coffee shop or book store – or, the pieces are submitted for review to local galleries. There,  the artist will either have individual pieces that will become part of a collection that’s trying to convey a specific theme, or the artist themselves will be highlighted, with several to dozens of pieces are shown.

I have no idea how true this is today, and I admit that it’s a fiction created in my head based off of nothing more than minimal inputs from actual artists. I do know that the world today is more capitalistic, and that this drives the art scene, somewhat.

My point here is what it’s not. It’s not patronage (although this probably still occurs today), and it’s not a student getting a showing at the local art college (which definitely still occurs today, having been to a few of these myself). It’s this latter example I want to expand upon, because in the early 1800′s, the Art Academies of Europe were where an artist learned their craft, cultivated their talent, found patronage, and had their work shown at annual exhibits. It was the academy system that was the primary means of promoting art in Western Europe, and if one wished to succeed in the art world, inevitably an artist had to demonstrate whatever skills and talents that the leaders of each Art Academy felt was indicative of such.  In other words,  an artist had to meet someone else’s definition of what was acceptable, rather than meet their own. This is a broad interpretation of what likely happened, but it needs to be said for reasons I will cover later.

That’s not to say that those who held sway with the academies were less than liberal in their approaches.  Pieces that pushed the boundaries were featured a fair bit. For example, The Grand Canal, Venice by Joseph Mallord William Turner, pictured above, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 is an exercise of imprecision*, a sacrifice of “reality” and technique in order to create a more balanced painting.

My point here is that the Academies weren’t necessarily stodgy, but there was a well worn path that one needed to follow. This is a topic for a different post. Right now, all we need to know is that the Academy system existed, and it was the primary means for an artist to succeed in the early to mid 1800′s.

(*The painting is based off of separate sketches that were drawn at different locations in Venice, combined into a single painting that creates a scene that doesn’t truly exist in our reality. This imperfect approach was seen as a detriment to Turner’s work by some, not an asset. The same could be say of his approach to color, as well as technique. While his subjects were classic romanticism subjects – at one point he believed that landscapes could “convey a full range of artistic, historical, and emotional meanings” – it was his techniques that separated him from other artists of the times. Looking at his piece from 1844 entitled Rain, Steam and Speed,  - The Great Western Railway, you can see he was doing things differently.  You can also see a better detailed reprint of his The Grand Canal, Venice here)

What is Romanticism?

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon - Caspar David Friedrich

Before we get into how things changed in the art world after 1850, we have to discuss what was in place at the time, and the philosophical bent of the premier artists of that era.  This brings us directly into the idea of Romanticism.

Before we get too far into this, let me point out something that’s probably obvious, but needs to be said. Intellectual movements such as romanticism extend beyond one medium, sometimes including areas including that of philosophy and academics. These movements sometimes evolve organically as a response to other social items and its participants unaware that they are part of something bigger. Other time these movements come into being with intent, with artists and philosophers not only cognizant of the new ideas they are espousing, but sometimes even intentionally looking at the world in a new way as a “rebellious response” to the status quo. This latter idea plays a big part in the evolution into modern art, but for now I simply want to state that movements exist, and exist beyond particular mediums.

For now, I wish to talk about romanticism broadly. When this word is used in the artistic sense, it’s not referring to love. When you hear that  Victor Hugo was a romantic, it didn’t mean he bought roses for his lovers, and made sure they had a poem every day.  Romanticism doesn’t refer to love directly.

Instead, it means, as  German poet Friedrich Schlegel wrote ”(the depiction of) emotional matter in an imaginative form.” It is an idealization of a notion, expressed through art.  Sometimes the notion can be as specific as a natural scene painted to evoke man’s place in nature. Sometimes the notion can be as abstract as the idea of “liberty” and “nationalism” and what it means to both individuals and societies as a whole.  To put it in another context, it is the idealization of nature, whether it dealt with the inherent beauty of earth, or the natural rights of humanity or societies.

Two points – one, my definitions above should only be seen as a starting point. Art historians smarter than myself have written extensively on the subject, and I’d be a fool if I thought I could give due coverage of the movement in a single post.

Secondly, I could go into great detail as to why romanticism came into being, but for the purposes of what I’m trying to accomplish (figuring  out Modern art), it’s of little importance.  The key thing to remember is that by 1850, Romanticism was on the way out, but as to the hows and whys that are happening, belong in a different post.

From my own perspective on romanticism, I am a great admirer of the era, and of the artwork that came out of it. In my house there’s a reprint of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above The Mist, which is often used as a primary example of the romantic period.  There’s a good reason for that, for it evokes the precision of the artist, but also communicates the contemplative aspect of mankind when confronted with nature. Much of Friedrich’s work contain men and/or women with their back to the viewer of the piece, with them looking at, what would be in other pieces, the background of artwork. This technique evoked two distinct ideas. One, what was in the background is far more important than what is in the foreground. Two, the viewer of the artwork could then easily put themselves in place of the faceless individuals in the piece, and relate to that moment when one contemplated the background scenery.  This idea being evoked, that individuals are part of something grander, is a near perfect example of what romanticism is trying to convey.

However,two constants in the art world are that movements become stale, and the world itself evolves.  My next post will deal with what happened to the Romantic movement.