Comparing Romantic Painting in Europe & America

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  • 0:01 The Romantic World
  • 0:40 Romanticism in Europe
  • 2:50 Romanticism in America
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore Romanticism as it was understood by artists in Europe and in the United States. Then, you will test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Romantic World

It's a debate that's centuries old. Who's more romantic, Europe or America? Well, I can't tell you that, but we can talk about Romanticism, the artistic and intellectual movement that exalted emotions, imagination, and the sublime. Romanticism was a major movement across the Western world, but it was experienced somewhat differently in Europe and the United States. The Romantics encouraged art that explored a wide range of emotions, from joy to fear to awe. However, artists in different parts of the world found different ways to invoke these emotions, and captured a distinct sense of their national mentality.

Romanticism in Europe

Romanticism in Europe first showed itself through landscape painting. German and British painters begin creating dramatic natural scenes. Billowing clouds, dark horizons, and dramatic lighting dominate these scenes. These were not just abstract scenes, but very much connected to a sense of national pride. Who wouldn't be proud of this?

Landscape paintings often connected to sense of national pride
Landscape of rolling hills

These landscape painters often included solitary figures in the landscape, giving them both a sense of loneliness and courage in these vast scenes.

One of the notable figures in this movement was John Constable, an English painter of the early 19th century. This romantic image of English landscapes combine natural vistas with small hints of human activity, from little buildings to single figures. Throughout these, humanity appears small and humble next to nature, but there is also no question that they belong there. They fit into the landscapes; they are part of it.

the Cornfield, by John Constable

As the Romantic style moved down into France, artists found new ways to engage dramatic and emotional scenes. Rather than landscapes, French artists focused on historical dramas. Just as the landscapes of England and Germany had a strong message of national pride, the French historic paintings were very connected to political happenings. With the rise of Napoleon, artists used historic images to create symbolic parallels between past events and strong pro or anti-government messages.

The Raft of the Medusa

The most famous of these painters is Théodore Géricault. This is The Raft of the Medusa, painted by Géricault in 1819. The scene is based on a real event: an 1816 shipwreck resulting in the death of over 100 people. The disaster was blamed on the incompetence of the captain, a man who people believed to have some connection to the king. So, this was not a flattering portrait of the role of the government. But, still very clearly romantic. Look at the dramatic clouds and waves. The entire composition strongly evokes mixed emotions of hope and despair.

Romanticism in America

American artists quickly caught on to the messages of Romanticism. For artists in the United States, the drama and emotion and imagination of this movement closely mirrored the revolutionary and frontier spirit of the nation in the 19th century. Romanticism in Europe had proven to be very flexible as well, with different nations and artists using it for a wide range of purposes. For American artists, who were in the middle of a major growth of national pride in the power of the individual, this was irresistible. The ideas of freedom and individualism dominate the American Romantic movement in literature, philosophy, and art.

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