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

Keats and ‘Negative Capability’

by Lucy Tutton
It was in December 1817, in a letter to his brothers, that we see John Keats first use the term Negative Capability. He set out what he believed was necessary to become what he called a “Man of Achievement” or one who is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” As the famous couplet from Ode on a Grecian Urn reads: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty – That is all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

We can see this sentiment reflected in his letters. In 1817, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, he wrote that “what the Imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” This letter was written just one month before the Negative Capability letter, and we can see Keats setting out the ground work for what would become the final concept. He stated that whatever a person perceived as beautiful must be the truth, whether it be in art or poetry or music. A person must be able to accept whatever they perceive as true without questioning how or why; this is the only way they can become a ‘Man of Achievement.’ Keats spent much of his, albeit short, career striving to become one such man. In the following post I will be discussing the origins of Negative Capability, how Keats developed it as his circumstances changed, and also whether or not Keats ever achieved his goal of becoming ‘negatively capable’.

First of all, I would like to point out the irony of studying Negative Capability, a subject which requires the reader to be content with “half-knowledge”; an irony that Keats himself was aware of during his constant quest to achieve it. He longed for “a life of Sensations, rather than thoughts” but found himself unable to be happy with “half-knowledge”. He was a thinker, but longed to be among the dreamers of the world.  In addition, I do not believe that Keats ever saw himself as a “Man of Achievement,” nor did he consider himself to be a master of Negative Capability. He was ambitious, yes, but incredibly hard on himself.

We need only look at his self-written epitaph to get an idea of how the young poet saw himself. He died at the age of 25, his gravestone bearing the words Here lies one whose name was writ in water. His name being “writ in water” gives the impression that he believed his words would fade and evaporate. It is understandable, given his poor health and the deterioration of his mental state, that his epitaph reads in such a way, however, we can see these uncertainties and doubts even in his earlier poetry. Consider the sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be. It shows perfectly both Keats’ ambition and his fears should he not survive to reach his goals. Keats knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, just not how to get there. Especially towards the end of his life, after watching his mother and brother die of consumption, the same disease which would eventually claim his own life, Keats became more and more disillusioned with his original concept of Negative Capability. He didn’t give up on it completely, however, he changed and twisted it in order to create a goal that he considered to be reachable.

In a letter he wrote to close friend, Benjamin Bailey, Keats’ insecurities and doubts at his own ability to achieve Negative Capability become clear:

I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought.

He credits Bailey, stating that his is one of these minds. However, it would appear that Keats himself saw “existing partly on sensation partly on thought” as an easier target than Negative Capability. In a letter written to Richard Woodhouse in October 1818, Keats talks about the “Chamelion poet,” or one who possesses such “egotistical sublime” that he is “without self, without character”. Keats wrote that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the Chamelion poet.” This is because the “Chamelion poet”, as Keats sees him, does not have any consideration for whether or not his argument is valid, or if there is any rational reasoning behind it. This idea of the “Chamelion poet” can be seen to have similarities with Negative Capability. To be negatively capable, a person must be able to completely disregard the need for rational explanations, in the same way that the “Chamelion poet” disregards logic. Nearly a year after Keats wrote this letter, he is still toying with the idea of a “life of Sensations”, but he is still struggling to achieve it.

It seems that Keats’ own self-doubt is what truly prevented him from becoming completely negatively capable.

I know nothing I have read nothing and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions of ‘get Wisdom- get understanding’ – I find cavalier days are gone by. I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge – I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world…there is but one way for me – the road lies th[r]ough application of study and thought.

This statement creates something of a paradox for Keats. He intended to become a master of Negative Capability, a real “Man of Achievement”, and yet the only way he could do so was through the acquisition of knowledge. In 1819, Keats wrote that “nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” and yet he denied himself the opportunity to travel because he believed he hadn’t read enough, nor did he know enough. He denied himself life experience because he felt that his true calling lay in education and knowledge. Keats was young, ambitious and unforgivably hard on himself. It seems that he never truly talks himself out of his struggle between his need for knowledge and his determination to become negatively capable.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that Keats ultimately compromised in his need for Negative Capability, reaching instead for a sort of happy medium between intellect and imagination. “I was never afraid of failure,” he wrote, “for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” It is not surprising that this move away from his original musings on Negative Capability correlated with his deterioration in health. In 1820, in a letter to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, he wrote:

‘If I should die,’ I said to myself, ‘I have left no immortal words behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had the time I would have made myself remembered.’

It would appear that in order to become “among the greatest” before he died, Keats decided to aim for something he perceived to be more realistic. He died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis, a disease that he most likely contracted from his younger brother whilst he was attempting to nurse him to health. His symptoms first appeared in 1820, and having a medical background and seeing both his mother and his brother die of the disease it seems likely that he would have known what was going to happen. Having to face his own mortality at such a young age led him to question his life, his achievements (or, as he saw it, the lack thereof), and his eventual demise.

Keats was fully aware of his contradictions and his limitations, or at least the ones that he perceived himself to have. In the letters grouped between the dates of 14th February – 3rd May 1819, all of which are addressed to ‘The George Keatses’ he wrote about the “disinterestedness of Mind”, presumably the ability to separate intellect and the imagination, remaining only with what the imagination alone perceived to be the truth. He stated “I perceive how far I am from any standard of disinterestedness.” It is clear that Keats struggled to separate his need for thought and knowledge from his perception of the truth, thus preventing himself from becoming a “Man of Achievement.” He was stuck in a cruel cycle; he constantly questioned how he could become one of these men, and in doing so he drove himself further away from his goal. He believed so fervently in the importance of Beauty and Truth, however, he could find no other way of coming by it himself other than through education and learning, which seems to oppose a person’s ability to be negatively capable.

I am three and twenty, with little knowle[d]ge and middling intellect. It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing.

We can see clearly Keats’ inability to view himself as anything other than mediocre, despite having achieved so much for a man who was so young. Furthermore, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey composed in 1819, he puts the “fine writer” in second place next to the “human friend Philosopher”. We can see that Keats was truly torn between his quest for truth and his quest for knowledge.

In his essay entitled ‘Was Negative Capability Enough for Keats?’, critic R.T. Davis concludes that, for Keats, Negative Capability was “temporarily convenient”, stating that by the end of his career “he was impelled by his experience both of living and writing to reach after that fact and reason which he had once said were small considerations for a great poet.” This much is true; with his change in health and circumstance, the young Keats did find himself reaching after “that fact and reason”, desperately trying to understand why his life had turned out in the way it had. However, I would not agree with Davis in stating that Negative Capability was just “temporarily convenient” for the young poet; this much is obvious from reviewing his letters. In February 1819, in a letter to George and Georgiana, he wrote:

I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of…staring at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness – without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion –

He consistently aimed for Negative Capability, referring to it throughout his letters, or at least to something similar. We are fortunate that his letters are easily available to read alongside his poetry; it gives us a unique opportunity to see the, often complicated, thought processes behind his work. His quest for beauty never ceased, just his way of finding it. Faced with his brother’s mortality, followed swiftly by his own, he wanted only to be remembered as a great poet. Ideally the way he would have become one was through Negative Capability, yet he doubted his own abilities in achieving the concept that he had created. Instead he found a medium; one who can exist “partly on sensation, partly on thought.” It was less that Negative Capability “was not enough for Keats”, it was that Keats could not picture himself, a man of “middling intellect” achieving it; therefore he could not.

Lucy Tutton graduated in July 2014 with a degree in EnglishLucy T Literature from the University of Birmingham, during which time she studied Shakespeare, Victorian Literature and Metaphysical Poetry. She wrote her final year Research Project on the subject of Keatsian Negative Capability.
She currently works as an Academic Coach in English Literature and Language. She will return to University in September 2015 to begin a Masters degree in Literature and Culture where she intends to undertake modules in Victorian, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite Literature.

Wordsworthian Romance: 'Into a dazzling cavern'

This post is a shortened version of the Jonathan Wordsworth Memorial Lecture given by Professor Frederick Burwick, at  Grasmere on February 21st 2015.  You can see a film of the whole talk below.
In the eighteenth century, the term ‘Romantic’ was applied to a literary resurgence of wild narratives similar to those popular in the aristocratic circles of High Medieval and Early Modern Europe, from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-96). Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516) and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) were ranked as masterpieces of Renaissance romance. As a literary genre, these fantastic tales of the heroic, marvellous, magical, and supernatural merged with another evolving narrative mode, the Roman as it was called in Germany and France, the novel as it was called in England. Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic Romance and Sir Walter Scott’s Historical Romance contributed further to the popular permutations of the genre. Among the poets who persisted in attributing sublime grandeur to the traditional romance, Wordsworth acknowledged Spenser alongside Ariosto and Tasso as foremost masters of the genre. Just as Ariosto and Tasso used the romance to transport readers into strange exotic territories, Wordsworth recognized in the romance a model for exploring the subjective spaces of fantasy and dream.
One of Wordsworth’s repeated metaphors for the subjective retreat into the imagination is quoted in my title. As you will have recognized, it is from his account in The Prelude of attending a theatre performance (Prelude 7:437-515).

At the thought of where I was
I gladdened more than if I had beheld
Before me some bright cavern of romance (7:483-485)

Here and elsewhere there is a doubleness in his reference to the ‘cavern of romance’. The experience of something ‘more’ is engendered not by the performance but by the awareness of being in a theatre, ‘the thought of where I was’. The doubleness of ‘where’ is compounded by the ‘when’: his recollection of a country-theatre while describing a London theatre. The seeming paradox of a ‘glimpse/ Of daylight’, even in a sunless cavern, Wordsworth dispels by the doubleness of the self-aware imagination contemplating the spells of romance, yet resisting the spell-bound thrall.

Caverns there were within my mind which sun
Could never penetrate, yet did there not
Want store of leafy arbours where the light
Might enter in at will.             (3:246-249)

Such caverns abound: the theft of the boat from the ‘Cavern of the Willow tree’ (1:398), or ‘in a rocky cave/ By the seaside’ dreaming of Don Quixote transformed into an Arab Bedouin (5:57-165), or the glittering shield and the ‘knight’s tomb’ (8:574-582), ‘the grotto of Antiparos, or the den/Of Yordas’ (8:717-747).
In crossing the Alps, Wordsworth carried with him an edition of Orlando Furioso. More significantly the characters and incidents of Orlando Furioso were stored in his mind, readily conjured by association, as when he recognized in Michel Beaupuy the idealism and ‘perfect faith’ that belonged to the heroes of old romance (9:306-311). Wordsworth met Captain Beaupuy in Blois, a man who was to have a great influence on the poet’s developing political ideas; he is mentioned in The Prelude  as someone ranked by birth “With the most noble, but unto the poor / Among mankind he was in service bound … Man he loved / As man”. The very terrain through which he wandered with Beaupuy became animated with episodes from Ariosto and Tasso: ‘Angelica thundering through the woods/ Upon her palfrey, or that gentler maid/ Erminia, fugitive as fair as she. (9:448-471).
<iframe src=”″ width=”500″ height=”281″ frameborder=”0″ webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href=”″>The origins of Romanticism: A lecture by Professor Fred Burwick (Fourth annual Jonathan Wordsworth Memorial lecture)</a> from <a href=””>Wordsworth Trust</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a>.</p>
In recollecting his boyhood reading of romance, Wordsworth reconstructs the affective response, the wild stimulation tamed by reflective thought. In Book One, Wordsworth announced his preparations for his ‘glorious work’ as poet. Confident of his ability, he conducts an inventory of poetic subjects. He has a ‘plenteous store, but nowhere such / As may be singled out with steady choice’ (1:171-172) His deliberations survey a wide-scope of chivalric romance: ‘some old/ Romantic tale by Milton left unsung’ (1:180-181). Rather than pursue the grand legends, he turns to ‘Some tale from my own heart, more near akin/ To my own passions and habitual thoughts, (1:222-223). In narrating ‘the Growth of the Poet’s Mind’ Wordsworth recounts the nurturing of the imagination in the wild adventures of romance, in reading and re-enacting in childhood sports. He delineates, too, the discovery of the ‘glimpse/ Of daylight’, the double perception of romance narrative, and the cultivation of ‘romantic perception’.

Professor Fred Burwick has been teaching at the English department at the University of California, Los Angeles since 1965, and has held several positions at universities in Germany, lectured in Cologne, Heidelberg, Leipzig and Munich. Professor Burwick wrote more than 30 books, 140 articles and numerous reviews, and his book on Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (Penn State, 1996) won the Outstanding Book of the Year Award of the American Conference on Romanticism. He has been named Distinguished Scholar by both the British Academy (1992) and the Keats-Shelley Association (1998).

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