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Art Movements in Art History - Romanticism

Art Movements > Romanticism > Romanticism in France

Romanticism in France

Despite the relatively stable and traditional structures for art in France, that is the biannual Salons, government commissions, and the academic training of artists, the need for greater emotional independence and introspection was felt as early as 1789, even amongst students of David. Calling themselves the "Primitifs", artists like Charpentier, Broc and Anne-Louis Girodet Trioson began to "romanticise" Classicism. They advocated a return to a childlike, innocent experience. Although their work was still predominantly linear in character, they avoided any references to the Greco-Roman world.

In their eagerness to express a more emotional state of mind, they produced largely sentimental images, for instance Charpentier's Melancholy and in Broc's Death of Hyacinth. A closer look at these works, however, reveals their unorthodox use of light on forms, creating at times bizarre and unnatural effects, and in this sense breaking significantly with the Neoclassical tradition. Although echoes of this tradition can still be traced in the composition of Pierre-Paul Prud'hon's Portrait of Empress Josephine, the natural setting and informal character of the portrait seem to be inspired by Jean Jacques Rousseau's plea for a return to nature. Josephine is here not depicted as the official Empress, but as a private human being, meditative and introspective.

Equally, the Battle of Nazareth by Antoine Jean Gros, although depicting Napoleon's military campaign, concentrates attention on the very essence of war, the chaos, confusion and violence, rather than on the heroism shown in Napoleon's campaign. In an impulsive, painterly manner, the artist has explored
the emotive force, the turbulent movement and horror of war. Flickering light dissolves contours and emphasises the frenetic action and tensions of the event. There is no hero in this composition; Gros clearly demonstrates his empathy with the victims of the battle. With the decline of Napoleon's power, his retreat from Moscow, the battles of Victoria, Leipzig and Waterloo, French attitudes to war were to change substantially. National interest shifted from the heroic victor to the agonies and suffering of the vanquished.

In Napoleon in the Pesthouse at Jaffa also by Gros, our attention is again focused on physical and psychological suffering, rather than on the humanitarian qualities displayed on this occasion by Napoleon. Although stylistically rooted in the art of the Old Masters, Gros introduces pictorial innovations which were to inspire a whole generation of Romantic painters in France. Vibrancy of colour, broken contours and vigorous brushwork were some of the means Romantic painters later used to
express emotional intensity and passion.

Gros' Battlefield of Eylau (1808) was an official commission to commemorate the victories of Napoleon. Because it was painted in the "grand style" according to the conventions for treating historical subjects, it was a success at the Salon. Yet it deviated substantially from the idealised tableaux of David. Gros depicted Napoleon's slaughter with spine-chilling realism, and with a boldness and directness that contrasted sharply with the smooth and ordered canvases of David.

The Salon of 1827 was held in the year when Victor Hugo provided a manifesto for Romantic literature in the Preface to his Cromwell. Artists such as Louis Boulanger, Theodore Gudin and Ary Scheffer, with their rhetorical and excessive canvases, echoed in their work the new sentiments of personal, political and academic liberty and thus provided a stimulus for the Romantics.

Theodore Gericault, a student of the Neoclassicist Guerin, also studied the work of Greek antiquity, and Raphael, Titian and others. Disillusioned, however, by the Napoleonic era, he began to search for new subject matter, finding alternatives for Homer, Napoleon and the world of reason. Although many of his large canvases are still deeply rooted in the Classical tradition and his style owes much to the Old Masters, he began to focus on contemporary and human situations which had an emotive impact. Heroic scale and the "grand style", previously reserved for heroic themes and mythology, were now used by him to depict the suffering and passions of ordinary people. These become the real "heroes" in
his canvases. Even Gericault's famous horses must be interpreted as metaphors for human
emotions and passions. The struggle between man and beast, heightened by vibrant colour
and textural brush strokes, frequently evokes sexual connotations.

Gericault's Blacksmith's Siqnboard (1814) clearly reflects the artist's debt to Rubens; but his handling of an open composition, the painterly brushwork and vibrant colours, amongst other elements, display a vitality far removed from the "calm dignity" advocated by Winckelmann. By choosing to depict a subject from "low life", Gericault deliberately breaks down the academic hierarchy of subject matter.

In the Raft of the Medusa (1819) Gericault has transformed a contemporary event into an epic metaphor. The artist has chosen a tense moment in the Medusa shipwreck disaster as the victims desperately attempt to attract the attention of the Argus, a ship sailing past in the distance. It is a moment of confusion, of psychological tension and false hope. As a political allegory, the painting caused an
embarrassment at the 1819 Salon by its specific references to Bourbon favouritism. It was severely criticised and, in order to distract attention from the specific event depicted, the painting was renamed A Shipwreck.

Although the composition and the depiction of the nude figures in the Raft of the Medusa betray the presence of Classical tradition, the subject matter in essence is the terror and desperation of anonymous human beings faced with death. Jules Michelet, in 1847, interpreted the painting as a sociopolitical metaphor for contemporary France. It evokes the individual's disillusionment with the Age of Enlightenment. Having failed the hopes of the individual, the Enlightenment had also revealed the insufficiency of reason. Romantics like Gericault now attempted to explore the terrifying truths that lay
beneath the surface of reality. They also reappraised, in their work, such concepts as hope, despair, suffering, courage, dignity and endurance. They went further, expressing an unshakable belief in the supremacy of the imagination, intuition and emotional integrity, in the uniqueness of the individual and in the dynamic forces of nature.

In a series of haunting portraits of the insane from 1822 to 1823, Gericault explored the realm of irrationality, attempting to understand the mysterious interaction of mind and body.

Eugene Delacroix made his debut as a painter at the 1822 Salon, where he exhibited his Barque of Dante. Although in many ways indebted to Gericault and his Medusa, the Barque of Dante does not depict a contemporary shipwreck, but is an example of Delacroix's admiration for the great literary texts of the past. Conceived also as a painting in the "grand style", it was well received by the public and acquired for the Royal collection of contemporary paintings. The tradition of Michelangelo and Rubens is clearly evident, especially in the monumental rendering of the nude. Delacroix broke significantly,
however, with the Classicist mode of painting. The critic Adolphe Thiers saw in the work
a combination of "... the boldness of Michelangelo and the fecundity of Rubens". The composition is permeated by an atmosphere of doom and horrifying desperation. The throbbing rhythm, created by the writhing, luminous figures in the foreground, evokes an almost erotic sensuality. Emotional and physical tensions have been emphasised by the dark, saturated colours.

In 1824 Delacroix chose to depict a contemporary event, the Greek revolt against the Turks of the same year. In his Massacre of Chios he violated all great traditions of History Painting. Even Gros, who had been an inspiration to all Romantic painters, exclaimed when he saw the work "it is the massacre of painting!" There is no hero and no apparent focal point in the composition. Delacroix gives unbridled
expression to disorder, chaos and terror. Although there are still references to Gros and to the Classicists, and although Delacroix had made accurate and conscientious studies of all the documentary evidence (as well as of the costumes and other details) the event so fired his imagination that he totally identified himself with it and was able to transform what happened at Chios into an allegory of suffering and endurance.

The complex compositional devices of the picture, the opening up of the background into a vast landscape, the use of vibrant and complementary colours, reflecting and absorbing light, the gestural and broken brushwork, were revolutionary pictorial means which negated Classical restraint and order. The lack of an apparent formal structure and moral or didactic focus contrasts sharply with the works of the Neoclassicists too. Apart from the fact that Delacroix's sympathies are clearly with the victims of the revolt, and not with the victor, the significance of this work must be sought in its pictorial innovations, in the treatment of paint, colour and light. In this, according to the contemporary critic Theophile Gautier, Delacroix was "a painter, and artist in the fullest sense of the word".

The concept of liberty and liberation which occupied all Romantic artists was fully expressed in Delacroix's Liberty Leading the Nation. The composition was stimulated by the political events of the July Revolution of 1830 which Delacroix witnessed himself. It is a hymn to Liberty, combining historical fact and poetic allegory. The figure of Liberty, forming the apex of the composition, evokes a multitude of associations and can be seen as goddess, symbol of freedom, symbol of birth and of rebirth, or as combination of all of these. The literal facts have been transcended. The particular has been transformed into an allegory of universal significance. It is not merely a record of physical reality, or the embodiment of rationally conceived ideals, but an exploration of life itself.

Gautier, the contemporary critic who fully appreciated Delacroix's genius, maintained in the Ariel Salon of 1836:

... He is a poet as well as a technician. He does not take a painting back to the childishness of Gothic nor to the senility of pseudo-Greek. His style is modern and corresponds to that of Victor Hugo in Les Orientales: it has the same fire ard temperament.

Having completed his Liberty, Delacroix turned away from the depiction of contemporary "historical" events and sought his inspiration in literature. His imagination was furthermore kindled by a trip to Morocco in 1832. In his Women of Algiers he gave full expression to his discovery of vibrant colour, a
sensuous delight in textures, and the effects of light on form and colour. His technique had loosened and he painted, as Baudelaire put it, "with a drunken broom". Still echoing a dependency on Rubens and the Venetian masters, he displayed such painterly virtuosity and spontaneity that he seemed to embody Gautier's Romantic dream of "a new Renaissance, of a modern, original art", giving full reign to his imagination as he did in this poetic vision of the exotic East and in others of his oeuvre.

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