Romantic Art and Its Greatest Artists

Romantic art doesn't mean cupids and flowers, although it does mean emotion!  For Romantic art, or Romanticism, is a movement that developed originally in Great Britain, France and Germany, affecting all of Europe by the late 18th century and reaching its high point in the early 19th century - roughly 1772-1840 as Neoclassicism evolved into the Romantic passions and emotions.

The movement affected not only painting, but music (Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin) and literature (Victor Hugo, Goethe, Byron and Walter Scott).

Romantic art, as the pendulum swing away from Neoclassical art, was about emotion, the aspiring to reach infinity, and passion., The individual and his personal impressions were glorified, and logic and reason were set aside to make way for irrationality, and the supernatural.

"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog",  by Caspar David Friedrich

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Whereas the Neoclassical took Antiquity for its model, the Romantics turned to the Middle Ages, which seems like a refreshing change of decor - hence the Neo-Gothic or Troubadour styles. The medieval period was also later perceived as a period of intense piety, to which artists wish to return - hence the Nazarene movement in Germany and the Pre-Raphaelite movement in Great Britain.

"Sir Isumbras at the Ford", by Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais

The Brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites had four guiding principles that could also be said to hold true for great many other creators of Romantic art.

  1. to have genuine ideas to express
  2. to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them
  3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote
  4. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues

The Orientalist painting "Odalisque", by Eugène Delacroix

Artists had always turned to Rome for their training and inspiration. In the Romantic period they travelled to other climes to discover Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Spain. This gave rise to the Orientalist movement that portrayed the exoticism of mysterious Arab cultures with veiled women and the brilliant lights and deep shadows of Mediterranean landscapes. Napoleon Bonaparte's campaigns also contributed to making these lands part of the Romantic imagination.


Painters took inspiration less from mythology and more from literature, either from the contemporary Romantic authors from rediscovered older writers, such as Shakespeare and Dante. There was also a new fascination with Nordic mythology, as Wagner's operas proved.

The imaginary, the mad, mysterious are all favorite subjects, in particular with the role of women as the evil temptress, mingling eroticism and death. Contemporary events such as the Napoleonic wars or revolution in Greece and Spain were traded in their grim reality, and artists didn't shrink from even borrowing corpses from the morgue to paint bodies with real-looking dead bodies in their pictures.

Landscapes were no longer calm, picturesque settings, but turned into forces of Nature to be celebrated, in all their beauty and violence. In England in particular, Constable painted scenes of Suffolk and especially remarkable studies of clouds, while Turner caught the vibrancy of sunsets, sky and sea.

"Witches' Flight", Goya

The subjects in Romantic art are no longer idealized - far from it. Wounded or dead, in a corrupt system of grief or transport of joy, artist salt to depict and arouse emotion. Local color counted in Romantic art, so figures were no longer timeless archetypes, but dressed in the clothes of their time and place, be it the Mediterranean Basin or the Middle Ages.

Even brushstrokes became forceful and passionate, and the rendering often more like a sketch of the painting than the careful, orderly style of Neoclassicism, for example.

The Greatest Artists of Romantic Art

61.  Spaniard Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) turned from the light themes of his youth to paint dark studies of the bloody Spanish Or, or disturbing scenes of the supernatural. His long career as one of Spain's most important artists of extended from Rococo through Neoclassicism to Romanticism.

62.  The English William Blake (1757-1827) was a visionary poet and important painter in Pre-Romanticism, and mingled Neoclassicism and Romantic art in his work.

63.  Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was one of Germany's most authentically Romantic and singular artists.

64.  Englishman John Constable (1776-1837) took inspiration from Dutch landscape painting to paint views of his native Suffolk countryside. His paintings are today among the most highly priced and highly valued in Great Britain.

65.  Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) marked the maturity of Romanticism, which is defined in France as ending with his death.

66.  Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) also was one of the outstanding figures of French Romanticism at its height.

Click here to see examples of Romanticism in art on the Wiki Commons website.

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