National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Romantics and Realists

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Romantic has always been an elusive label -- in 1836 one wag concluded that romanticism "consisted in not shaving, and in wearing vests with heavily starched lapels." Delacroix, who in fact declined to identify himself as a romantic, is often set opposite the "classical" Ingres. Yet both produced romantic works exploring literary, historical, or purely imaginary, often exotic, themes: Delacroix with freely painted, energetic compositions and vivid color, Ingres with carefully controlled but evocative contours and highly refined surfaces. More than defining a style, romanticism suggests an inspiration in the creative imagination and an intense, personal response. In 1846 the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire answered his own question "What is romanticism?" by calling it "a manner of feeling."

For realist artists in the next generation, on the other hand, the painter was to be guided by observation. "Painting is an essentially concrete art," Courbet wrote in 1861, "and can only consist in the representation of real and existent things. It is a wholly physical language, which uses visible objects instead of words; the abstract, invisible and nonexistent, lies outside the scope of painting." He adopted as subjects the events and people of ordinary life and elevated them to a stature previously reserved for themes from the Bible, ancient history, or mythology. It was an affront to the arts establishment, compounded by the way in which he painted, with rough texture and the offhand look of accidental compositions.

A similar bias for fact was already at work in landscape painting. Abandoning the idealization that had long characterized French landscapes, "modern" landscapists -- including Courbet -- depicted real, even unremarkable places with the freshness of direct observation.

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