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Famous American Romantic Painters & Paintings

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Romanticism was a major movement in several countries, but Americans developed their own unique variation. In this lesson, we'll explore American Romanticism and talk about a few major artists and paintings.

American Romanticism

Are Americans romantic? It's an interesting question; certainly some Americans are pretty romantic, but I don't know that it's a quality we're particularly famous for. Now, are there Romantic Americans? That's a whole different question. In the early 19th century, artists in the Western world started challenging the formal rationalism of arts at the time and started embracing styles that were more dramatic, chaotic, and emotional. This movement was called Romanticism. Romantic painting became big in Europe, but American artists latched on to it in their own unique ways. The motifs of these 19th-century painters would go on to help define some very important aspects of the still-young American national identity. Turns out, we're all just a bunch of Romantics.

European Romanticism was largely focused around historical paintings. Rather than the logical and stoic paintings of the previous neoclassical era, Romantic paintings were dramatic, chaotic, and always held a sense of danger. The goal was to capture the essence of the sublime, something terrifying and yet awe-inspiring in its pure, natural power. Europeans loved capturing this in paintings of historic scenes, and there is some evidence of this in American Romanticism as well.

Emanuel Leutze

One of the most famous pieces of American art and most prominent example of American Romanticism is the 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emanuel Leutze. Leutze was a German-born artist and actually painted this in Germany, but he had trained in the United States and was interacting with American painters when he created this, so we consider it part of the American Romantic tradition. The scene is of George Washington leading his troops in a surprise attack on British troops stationed at Trenton, New Jersey. It was a major moment in the war, and Leutze's treatment is clearly meant to celebrate Washington's leadership. While we know that the Americans win the battle, at this point in the painting that's not abundantly clear. What is clear is that they are fighting against ice and wind and night, braving the harsh and terrible elements to launch a risky attack. The dramatic lighting, the massive size of the painting, and the chaotically assembled figures add to the drama and help capture the feeling of the sublime in this historically-crucial moment.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze
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Thomas Cole

Painters like Leutze did embrace the historic dramas, but American Romanticism really came to be defined by a different type of painting: landscapes. European Romanticists painted landscapes that displayed the terrible and awesome power of nature, but almost always within the context of small villages or hikers in the countryside. American Romantic painters looked to the vast amounts of wilderness in the United States and found the sublime in the untamed, uncivilized landscapes. It was one of the first times in art history that landscapes became a true genre of art, and not just the background of other scenes. The group that defined American Romantic landscapes was known as the Hudson River School.

The Hudson River School was founded by a series of artists painting in the Hudson River Valley of New York, led by an English-born painter named Thomas Cole. Cole really set the tone for American Romanticism with his plein air paintings, or those he did outside, in nature, as opposed to in a studio. One of his most famous paintings is the 1836 The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton). This painting is again dramatic in its scale, its use of shadows and light, and the uncontrollable, chaotic appreciation for the power of nature. What really defined American Romantic landscapes, however, is that lack of human presence. A tiny head of an artist can be seen in the bottom if you look hard enough, but he is clearly not the focus. Nature on its own was enough of a subject for Cole.

The Oxbow by Thomas Cole
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