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Exposing facades of human nature in the art of Romantic Era. In the words of Jean-Jacques Roussea, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains". This poignant statement reflects the stark reality of society grounded in a multitude of rules, values and standards; reminiscent of the dominant ideas of the age of Enlightenment. As both an implicit and explicit criticism of that era, Romantics encouraged one to paint their personal vision upon landscapes of music, writing and art. In contrast with seeing humans as merely faceless creatures of Reason, the era of Romanticism saw diversity and as such, resulted in a passion for introspection. This thinking came along with the historical backdrop of European War from 1793 to 1815, resulting in an industrial society with soulless individualism, economic egoism, utilitarianism and materialism (Steven Krei). The artists of the Romantic Era felt that this spate of rationality failed to apprehend the fullness of reality, hence choosing to rebel by returning to the heart as a source of knowledge. It was through this stream of intuition and outflow of emotions, that the different facades of human nature could be exposed and understood.
Considering this introspection, artists in this era gave new expression to their personal experience through the individual's experience of inner emotions. The newfound interest in the individual and subjective is mirrored in the Romantic approach to portraiture. Traditionally, records of individual likeness or portraits became vehicles for expressing a range of psychological and emotional states in the hands of Romantic painters. Gericault probed the extremes of mental illness in his portraits of psychiatric patients, as well as the darker side of childhood in his unconventional portrayals of children. In his portrait of Alfred Dedreux (41.17), a young boy of about five is depicted. Striking is how the child appears to be intensely serious, seemingly more adult than childlike. In the backdrop, dark clouds convey an ominous and unsettling quality which accentuates the traumatized state of the child. Artists also looked into their own inner worlds by exploring still life which usually their immediate surroundings. As such, analyzing their choice of subjects could provide light to their personal experience.
In the works of Vincent Van Gogh, his living environment is reflected in his paintings as they change with circumstance. For instance, moving into Arles resulted in paintings richly draped in yellow, ultramarine and mauve as inspired by the local sunlight and landscape. In his famous painting, Bedroom in Arles; suggests domesticity and a sense of well being within one's own home (in Letter B22 Van Gogh himself maintains that the painting conveys "absolute restfulness"). This painting might also reflect his inner reflection on what he was deprived of within the asylum walls: a home and a sense of purpose. Taking a closer look at the few versions of the painting, shows the inclusion of "paintings within paintings" where he added self portraits in the bedroom. This sense of egoism also reflects the nature of Romantic artists to pay more importance to the self. Explaining his aims in a letter to his brother, Van Gogh claimed to have only applied simple plain colours, like those in crêpes and that the square pieces of furniture must express unswerving rest. As such, it can be seen that artists' of the Romantic Era were affected by their personal environments and how they shaped their lives. This can be seen reflected in their works, depicting their observations of others or of themselves.
In the search to further decipher the mysteries of the inner self, artists of the Romantic Era also explored emotional states which extended into the realm of animals, signifying the Romantic fascination with animals as both forces of nature and metaphors for human behavior. This notion is manifested in the sketches of wild animals done in the menageries of Paris and London in the 1820s by artists such as Delacroix, Antoine-Louis Barye, and Edwin Landseer. An instance of personal experience; Horace Vernet, who exhibited two scenes from Mazeppa in the Salon of 1827 (both Musée Calvet, Avignon), also painted the riderless horse race that marked the end of the Roman Carnival, which he witnessed during his 1820 visit to Rome. His oil sketch reflected his experience and inner thoughts after witnessing this (87.15.47) frenetic energy of the spectacle, just before the start of the race. Images of unbridled and wild animals evoked primal states that roused the Romantic imagination. As Romantics sought Nature's glorious diversity of detail -- especially its moral and emotional relation to mankind, artists also began to express this sense of harmony with the world through the creatures that dwelled in it; animals including.
The connection between the personal experience and the presence of nature hence becomes important as it can be seen as healing power, a source of subject and image, refuge from the artificial constructs of civilization, hence according nature the status of an organically unified whole. For instance, Gericault explored the Romantic landscape in a series of views representing different times of day; in Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct (1989.183), the dramatic sky, blasted tree, and classical ruins evoke a sense of melancholic reverie. On the other hand, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) produced images of solitary figures placed in lonely settings amidst ruins, cemeteries, and frozen, watery, or rocky wastes. In other works, men were also shown to struggle against the power of nature, shown through scenes of shipwrecks such as Théodore Gericault's strikingly original Raft of the Medusa (Louvre). These various imageries of nature depicted the inner state of a person's mind and hence were a means for Romantic artists to express the spectrum of emotions. Each artist's highly subjective perspective of each scene in nature also accords with the sense of individuality in Romanticism.
Using sympathetic real life experiences to convey and emphasize emotion, artists of the Romantic Era also often delve into darker themes which reflected the existing social conditions. For instance, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) depicted the horrors of war along with aristocratic portraits. Romantic artists also demonstrated social and political consciousness--as one would expect in a period of revolution, one that reacted so strongly to oppression and injustice in the world. In light of this, writer and painter William Blake's sketch A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows was graphic in its depiction of a slave in Surinam hanging by a single rib. Blake illustrates the general lack of compassion whites had when dealing with enslaved Africans throughout the world through this simple yet shocking sketch. In retrospect, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions and the manner in which he expressed his disdain for slave trade was clear in his work. As such, it can be seen that Romantic artists were also fascinated with the way their society and times manipulated the lives of their people. Hence, they gave new expression to their art in a dramatic manner; encapsulating the revolutionary spirit of Romanticism itself.
In conclusion, it can be said facades of human nature was exposed starkly through Romantic art due to the spontaneity of the period's ideas. As a reaction against Neoclassicism in which the style is full of emotion and beauty; with many individualistic and exotic elements, Romantic art portrays emotions painted in a bold and dramatic manner, and there is often an emphasis on the past. Artists looked towards their personal experiences for inspiration, either from their surroundings, especially that of the nature, their society, and also that of their religion. This liberation from the rationalized thinking mechanism allowed the era's artists to focus on the individual and in the words of Blake, "Bathe in the waters of life" and embrace humanity.