By Megan Trudell:
Rebels and Martyrs: how Romanticism and revolution changed art
As a new exhibition opens at the National Gallery Megan Trudell looks at the Romantics’ legacy.
It is a powerful and romantic idea about past artists that they were visionaries starving in garrets, in some ways outside society.
This image – deliberately created in part by artists themselves – can, if unpicked, tell us a great deal about how individuals responded to a rapidly changing world during the 19th century, and something about that world itself.
A new exhibition at the National Gallery in London follows the changing role and self-description of the artist, from pillars of the establishment to rebels and martyrs.
It includes around 70 paintings and aims to view the evolution in the artist from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ pride in acceptance by the establishment in the late 18th century to the tortured outsider status of the likes of Egon Schiele in the years immediately before the First World War.
Covering 130 years, many of the paintings – often portraits and depictions of artists at work – tell part of the story of the dramatic social changes between the French Revolution and the First World War.
Artists struggled to make sense of them and expressed their contradictions in different ways.
Emerging in the late 18th century in Europe, Romanticism was a response to the tremendous hopes of the French Revolution turning to disillusion with the rise of Napoleon and the return of tyranny.
For many who had welcomed the revolution’s promise of freedom, its outcome was a bitter blow.
Many rejected the Enlightenment ideas of reason associated with the revolution and replaced them with a frequently mystical glorification of an illusory ancient past.
Romantic painting is characterised by an emphasis on nature and the individual expression of emotion and imagination.
The ethos of Romanticism stressed that artists should not paint for money or glory, but to release an inner creativity at whatever cost.
It is this movement which gave birth to the notion of the tortured individual artist.
But Romanticism was contradictory, not simply a reactionary rejection of reason.
It was also a formal challenge to the attitudes and forms of classicism in art, to pre French Revolution conservatism and to establishment painting.
Review of that exhibition also here.
Capitalism, realism, and modernism in 19th-20th century art: here.
Romantic poets dying young: here.