Romanticism in painting

by Simon Court

What is it that distinguishes the Romantic view of the world from others? It is the importance which is placed on individuals who, inspired by the emotive power of imagination, perceive and order the world through their own senses. In doing so they reach an understanding of both nature and themselves. Whether it is manifested in the harmonies of the ‘child in nature’, the solitude in the mountains, or the destructive forces of a sea-storm, it is the Romantics’ feelings towards nature which determines their experience of it.

For the Romantic, the role of the artist is always active, never passive. As the German painter Caspar David Friedrich said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.” It is not that the Romantic denies the existence of an independent, objective reality: rather, it is that such reality can only be described through the subjective experience of the individual.

Whether grounded in the philosophical arguments of British empiricism or Kantian idealism, the conclusion drawn by the Romantic is the same: the world is only known to us through our imaginative responses to it, and artists, with their heightened receptiveness to feelings, are best placed to reveal it. Such emotions, however, must always be tempered by reason. As the Spanish artist Goya puts it in the subtitle to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1798), “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origins of their marvels”.

In seeking to express the world through imagination the Romantics looked beyond the confined and ordered interiors of royal palaces and stately homes towards the wildness and wonder of the landscape. As the German painter Philipp Otto Runge exclaimed in 1802, it is the landscape as “romantic field…..where man and nature dominate equally, each giving meaning and interest to the other”. For it is in contemplation of nature that man achieves his most emotional experiences and profound instances of self-awareness. The empiricist Edmund Burke provided an analysis of (and a vocabulary to describe) this sensation, and the revelation of the ‘sublime’ in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757).

Burke’s contribution to the Romantic understanding is his observation that what constitutes the greatest experience of the sublime is that which most disturbs and horrifies us – that which is not within our control or comprehension, but is hidden and beyond us. Further, two attributes of the sublime in nature – vastness and infinity – can only be understood in obscurity. For, Burke says, nothing can obtain to greatness if we can “see an object distinctly” and “perceive its bounds”. As such, “a clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea.” This view is confirmed by Friedrich: “when a landscape is covered in fog, it appears larger more sublime, and heightens the strength of the imagination and excites expectation…..The eye and fantasy feel themselves more attracted to the hazy distance than to that which lies near and distinct before us”.


Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

Unsurprisingly, then, we find the vastness and excesses of landscapes and natural disasters (especially shipwrecks) are a common inspiration for Romantic painters such as Friedrich and Turner. It is in this world of space, scale and motion where the artistic imagination is most excited: a world where, as William Hazlitt puts it, objects “hover on the brink of nothingness”.

But before confronting the extreme terrors of the sublime, we should note that there is a gentler (although no less radical) ‘pastoral’ form of painting developed within the Romantic tradition, notably by the English painter Samuel Palmer, who will be the subject of a later post. This relates to the idea of the ‘child in nature’. As Simon Schama observes in The Face Of Britain, “it was an article of Romantic faith that childhood was unsullied nature, adulthood all contrivance, commerce and artifice”. This faith led Coleridge, in ‘Frost at Midnight ‘(1798) to address his sixteen-month-old son Hartley:

But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,…
… so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God


For Philipp Otto Runge (as for Coleridge), this faith in the unspoilt innocence of childhood, where feelings remain spontaneous and unspoilt, was quite literal: Runge was deeply Christian and believed that nature was the manifestation of the Divine, and viewed his painting as communicating the “sensation of our kinship with the whole universe”, where “everything harmonises in one great chord”.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1809

Philipp Otto Runge, The Child in the Meadow, 1808, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Child in the Meadow (1809) Runge has placed a naked infant alone in nature, on its back and staring boldly up to the sky. It is dawn and the child is illuminated in golden, warming light. It looks like Jesus in a Nativity scene, but this it is not a specifically Christian image. Rather, as Tom Lubbock says in Great Works, “it’s a universal symbol of the miracle of birth….a divine baby, taken out of Christian theology, and laid in nature”. As the infant basks in the glow of the morning light, it responds, like a flower, opening its arms in welcome, its fingers stretching up and out like the plants beside it. The baby has apparently sprung from nowhere (or fallen from the sky); and although it is alone it is fearless and at one with nature, emphatically part of its landscape. Mankind and nature are in perfect harmony through the divine miracle of life.

We look at The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Friedrich, and see a man with his back to us, standing alone amidst a mountainous landscape, looking across the foggy vastness below. His stance suggests confidence, or at least defiance in the face of the elements, but we cannot see his face, and are therefore unable to fully gauge his feelings. Is he exhilarated, triumphant and all- conquering, or hesitant, uncertain of his next step into the hazy unknown? We want to be able to analyse his feelings and thereby understand the meaning of the painting, but we cannot do so.

Friedrich often employed the ‘Rückenfigur’ – a person seen from behind – in his landscapes and, as Lubbock points out (when discussing in Great Works a similar composition Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise (1817)), this conceit is crucial. The figures in our way and impose their own consciousness on us, but their feelings are closed to us. As Lubbock says, “The landscape experience is blocked and trapped in these rival viewers with their unfathomable minds.”

So if a total explanation of the Wanderer is impossible, can we at least seek a partial one? We may think that it leaves a contradictory impression, suggesting that man has mastered the landscape whilst remaining insignificant within it. We may be bolder and think that it portrays a single moment of man’s yearning for the infinite, whilst remaining always separate from it. But we cannot know for sure.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4, Kunsthalle Hamburg‎

In The Sea of Ice (1823-4) there is no Ruckenfigur to interrupt our experience of what we see. We are witnessing directly a horrific site in a desolate world. A ship lies amongst the grinding slabs of sea-ice which has, in its relentless and powerful motion, ruined the ship and, presumably, all life on it is lost. The jagged ice-berg in the foreground is mimicked by another in the distance, both mountainous in shape. Are we seeing human aspiration crushed – like the frail bark of the ship – by a glacial indifference’? The impression is that whilst nature can destroy humanity, it remains permanent, and ultimately impenetrable to man.

In both the Wanderer and The Sea of Ice Friedrich is showing us an instant of sublimity as we contemplate nature, either directly or indirectly. But in doing so, have we understood, or do we realise that we can never fully understand, the world? That ambiguity is a Romantic achievement, and a Romantic condition of life.

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840

JMW Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

We stare, confused, at this chaotic scene: then, refocussing, details rise up and objects become visible. We start to pick out hands flailing in the turbulent waters, see a leg being devoured by monster-fish. The scene remains incomprehensible, but the horror of it has caught up with us.  In The Slave Ship (originally entitled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on) (1840), the English artist J.M.W. Turner depicts the moment in 1783 when the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered the slaves to be thrown overboard so as to be ‘lost at sea’ and thereby be able to collect for their loss on insurance. Here, the tragic impact of human moral irresponsibility is central to this natural carnage, in that the evil actions of the captain has started the causal sequence of the hellish drama.

Turner’s use of colour, and the frenzied brushstrokes which deliberately obscure the distinctness of the shapes, enhance the sense of nature overwhelming, and condemning, man. The violent reds and oranges, with the gold of the declining sun, makes the sky angry and sets the sea aflame. As the art critic John Ruskin observed, the ‘fearful hue’ of the sea frames the ‘guilty ship…its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood’, tossing helpless in the sea. The painting betrays both a morbidity and an impression of futility.

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London

JMW Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Tate, London


In Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843) Turner extends the dimensions of a human disaster to Biblical proportions. The aftermath of the great flood is represented as a whirlpool of colour: a darker outer rim with blurred figures swimming in blinding yellows creating a swirling circle of energy in which the eye strains to form any clear image. This vortex expresses the forces of nature drawing man down into its mass. The human figures are encased in earth-bubbles, whose transitory fragility reflects man’s own predicament. As Turner makes clear in his own verse (taken from The Fallacies Of Hope and published in the Royal Academy catalogue entry for the picture), the scene shows:

Hope’s harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly,
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies.

Turner has taken the Romantic landscape beyond the mountains and the seas into a cosmic vision. In doing so he has stretched out the sublime into pure abstraction: a visual impression of the powerlessness and ultimate insignificance of man in an indifferent universe.

So where has the imagination of the Romantic painters taken us? Are we living in glorious harmony in God’s earth, as Runge’s ‘child in nature’? Or staring out at the world continually seeking answers, like Friedrich’s wanderer? Or are we resigned, fatalistically, to our own powerlessness in the face of Friedrich’s sea of ice or Turner’s swelling waters? That is the distinctly Romantic dilemma.


Further reading:
William Vaughan: Romanticism and Art (Thames & Hudson, 1978)

A tax lawyer by profession and living in Oxford with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history, politics and SimonRomanticism by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series and regularly contributes to this blog. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club