The Significance of Landscape Painting During the Romantic Movement

Romanticism flourished as a movement in art in the 18th to 19th century. The main feature of Romanticism is that it was both against the aesthetic and classical values of the Classical and Neoclassical art especially pertaining to the latter’s observance of balance, order and reason. Romanticism defies these  values and instead the movement  stressed the expression of intense individual emotions and imagination  rather than on reason  and because of that their art leaned more on portraying the remote and indefinite, escape from reality , lack of restraint and  a preference for picturesqueness, grandeur or passion rather than finish or proportion .

To the Romantics, an individual’s feelings were the source of creativity. Landscape painting during the Romantic period embodied such philosophy. For the Romantics, landscapes contained meaning beyond and above its mere visual appearance, and many painters attempted to instill in their landscapes with this sense of transcendent meaning .

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Foremost Romantic landscape painters of that time were Gaspar David Friedrich, John Constable and Joseph Mallord Turner. In order to appreciate fully the landscape paintings during the Romantic Movement, it is very important to understand what landscape painting generally means during that period. At this time painting tends more towards “landscape”. In other words, landscape painting had become the popular subjects of the artists in Britain as well as in Germany ( from which the Romantic movement first started) in the 18th to the 19th century. In fact for  some, they had even included landscape scenes in their portraits.

It can be safely stated that the  genre of landscape painting assumed a new role during the Romantic period in these two countries. In the past art history, it had been considered more or less as a  minor decorative form, given over to the production of pleasing imaginary compositions or topographical views. At this time however, landscapes were drawn or painted mainly to express an artist’s feelings or emotions, not just for the outward beauty of woods, fields and skies but for nature’s “inner life”. In both countries, the sky had become an important focus and inspiration of the Romantic landscape painting.

As John Constable had said, “it is the keynote, the standard scale, and the chief organ and sentiment”.For the Germans, where attitudes were more conditioned by philosophy than the British, they regarded nature as having  its own pervading spirit of an almost sacred character, not static but subject to growth and change, analogous to the spirit in man. Because of this philosophical view, the purest and most studied forms of Romantic landscape painting were produced in Germany. They mostly represent the changing states of nature as symbols of the varieties of human emotion.

There was more emphasis on mood, highlighted with the German   concern for nature as a process rather than an order and the     awareness  of some  spiritual entity  concealed within nature’s    visible manifestations. The greatest German Romantic landscapist was Gaspar David Friedrich (1774- 1840). Friedrich’s landscape painting was superficially more traditional, in the sense that he represented natural views seen from fixed points in space and time. But true to the nature of a German Romantic view, he believed that nature was only the physical manifestation of an inward life, a continuous process corresponding to the creativity of the artist’s mind.

In the paintings of Friedrich, we see the Romantic interest in the sublime. He is well-known for his dramatic canvasses that emphasized the mystic struggle between man and nature.Admirably, Friedrich used an almost “photographic technique to bring out every detail in his landscapes”. Tiny figures were drawn against a formidable and dominating background of mountains, forests, oceans, skies and ruins.

As a result, the viewer may be led to feel a melancholic sense of the infinite. Also, to achieve a sense of visionary experience to his scenes, Friedrich uses a technique of putting a light of storm or moon or dawn in it . In effect, like Turner, Friedrich’s art uses both the combination of light and shadow to heighten the drama of the scenes he depicts .

As mentioned earlier, Friedrich’s works were derived from minute observation of nature during his walking expeditions in the countryside. He draws the scenes he saw but not exactly as it was seen through an ordinary eye for he claimed that he looked “through the inner eye”, meaning that  the transcription of nature was never his sole aim. Because of this “inner eye” view, Friedrich was able to draw and paint his landscapes with poetic feeling and transcendent effect. This inner view may be aided by or attributed to Friedrich’s belief in the spirituality inherent in nature and may also be a reflection of his Christian faith. In his painting Moonrise over the Sea,(1822), the figures seemed to yearn  for a world beyond.

Landscape paintings of Friedrich also shared the widespread German hope for freedom that was a popular social issue at that time after the Napoleonic wars. His paintings reflected his pride in his German national heritage and he used  massive oak trees to signify the strength of the German people.

His landscape images can be interpreted and viewed as metaphors of German politics and history.  That is why Friedrich’s landscapes can also be theoretically called “national landscapes”. British landscape paintings, on the other hand, although had embodied the above qualities of German painting in varying degrees, expressed itself in a little different Romantic way.

On the whole, British landscape painting was less mystically inspired and more experimental than Germans. Its sense of the divine was somehow obscured with the British artist’s other more mundane preoccupations of  topography , the sense of  the picturesque,   the interaction of the ideal and the real, as well as the influence of the Old Masters . Also, it was also more involved with the idea of the sketch wherein its finish product had a feeling of “sketchiness” in them in terms of breadth of handling as opposed to the   German paintings that were very smooth and neat in handling.

Moreover, British artists preferred to work   direct from nature in watercolor and oils.  Because of such working style  in the outdoors the Romantic concern with transience was achieved by  British painters chiefly, although not exclusively, in terms of movement, for example  through clouds being blown across the sky and wind whipping up the waves . One of the greatest English landscape painters was John Constable ( 1776-1837).

The Romanticism in the landscapes of Constable is found in his honesty to his own experience of nature. He focused more on the changing moods in the weather, the play of light on clouds and trees and water and captured this view on canvass with a remarkable directness and skill. Constable had no desire to idealize or generalize the particular scene before him, and he would not hesitate to include in his paintings objects that were not ideally beautiful or  whole as in his inclusion of a  broken-down old cart in his work  The Hay Wain (1821) .

Constable was an English painter from Suffolk. Most of his paintings depicted the Suffolk countryside, particularly the area round the River Stour. In these paintings he showed  scenes of everyday life in the Stour valley area of the English countryside where he lived most of his life. He wanted to paint what he could see with his own eyes. Constable was not interested in the dream worlds of other artists with their specially worked out color schemes. Constable wanted to be completely true to nature.

As matter of fact, he actually took his easel out into the countryside and painted directly from nature as opposed to other artists who painted on their inside studios or workrooms. He was fascinated with  the impression of sunlight flying through trees,  the movement of clouds in the sky and of shadows on the ground. Other artists who saw Constable’s painting were shocked. When they saw the true green of the countryside instead of the brown foreground and blue background that was expected of landscape artist, they called the picture a ‘nasty green thing!’.

But Constable, more than any other British painter, was the first to open people’s eyes to the beauty of the English countryside. Through his eyes, English people and other viewers were able to  see hidden beauties of nature which perhaps they  can never see for themselves .[10] Opening the English people’s eye to the beauty of the natural scenes around them was very significant especially   because at this time the Industrial Revolution had rapidly destroyed the beautiful, virgin look of the English countryside.Constable was the best- known landscapist in this period to make sky studies, with notes on the back stating the date, the exact hour of the day, and the direction of the wind.

In his finished landscape of Suffolk countryside, he mostly employed the light of the sky to give vitality and life to the  simple agricultural scenes.John Constable’s notable artwork The Haywain was shown in Paris in 1824 and was very popular. Eugene Delacroix in particular admired the way Constable had put his paint on the canvass in small, thick dabs to give a brightness to different parts of the picture .

The Flatford Mill (1817) was one of Constable’s best known naturalistic paintings. Through this painting he was able to communicate his  sheer love of and identification with the countryside he painted, the Suffolk of his childhood. He captured in this painting his desire to paint what was true in nature and its light and to combine this with the practical details of agricultural life at that time.

In comparison, the art of Constable was said to have a polar opposition to his Turner’s works. Constable’s painting reflected an “unadventurous stay- at- home” character as compared to Turner’s “Romantic wanderer” depiction . Constable’s true depiction of country scenes had somehow tend  to limit his  achievement to that of a mere observer of rural landscape, neglecting to acknowledge emotion and originality as inspirations for  his work, as contradictory to Turner’s more emotionally  charged paintings. Upon careful study of Constable’s artworks, it can be observed that he puts imagination aside and focused instead on the sensation of the moment. What he was trying to achieve by his artistic vision was “to paint exactly what he sees in the clearest, freshest tones”.  He usually achieved this by the means of light effect, to heightened reality.

Generally, through his paintings Constable sought to bring about an emotional response and awareness in his viewers to the impermanence of things as a reflection of the fragility of human existence. Moreover, he wants to convey an impression that in the universe man, animal and landscape co-exist in harmony. This vision is clearly in opposition to   Turner’s violent apocalyptic canvasses. Turner’s works  conveyed a message that the world is  on the verge of destruction by uncontrollable  natural forces more powerful than man while  Constable’s paintings show his faith that nature holds the key to  timeless truths and moral values, where man  and nature can exists together in  unity.

Joseph Mallord William Turner ( 1775- 1851), historically speaking, Turner was the greatest English painter of the 19h century. His works went much further than the other artist of his time. Because of his  creative imagination, Turner who was born poor later became a professor of the Royal Academy, reaping fame and earning substantial fortune for his works.  During his lifetime he produced works more than any other artist who ever lived, and at his death he left behind 2,000 finished paintings and more than 19,000 sketches, watercolors and drawings.

Constable and Turner shared in the same attitude of painting nature as they  saw it than with any Romantic philosophy. Turner’s early inspirations in his works were the landscapes of Claude and the seventeenth century Dutch masters. Later, however, Turner gradually introduced more subject matter into his work, exploring visual effects of great elemental forces such as Alpine storms with the accompaniment of increasingly free brushstroke. In Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), light and atmospheric effects dominate the picture to such an extent as to make it virtually abstract .

Turner’s pictures of nature were nevertheless very different from those of Constable. He painted pictures of the sea and sky which are full of wild movement and dazzling light. Turner liked to travel. He spent a lot of time wandering around Britain and Europe studying the different forms and moods of nature.

With his marvelous memory he could paint almost every kind of landscape that he had seen. During his travels, Turner was continually sketching and painting his impressions of what he saw. He sailed up and down the coasts of Europe on coal boats or with the fishing fleets. He even went out fishing in rough weather to study the different effects of sea and sky.

It is told that Turner once stood tied to the mast of a ship for several hours during a storm in order to get first hand impressions. When a viewer  look at his picture, Steamer in a Snowstorm which is kept  in the Tate Gallery in London, he will undoubtedly  almost feel the rush of the wind and the slap of the waves. In this art work, one cannot clearly make out the ship. That is swallowed up in the swirling sea spray, and in the dazzling light and dark shadows of the storm cloud.

Through such kind of paintings, it can be concluded that Turner was a true Romantic painter, when a viewer look at his pictures he makes him share his feelings about the beauty and wildness of nature.During a visit to Italy, Turner was excited by the marvelous brightness of the atmosphere in Venice. He did some wonderful paintings there, including A View of Venice, showing the brilliant sunshine and the shimmering palaces and churches’ along the water’s edge. It was confirmed that Turner visited Venice on at least three occasions.

In fact, Venice, a romantic city with a balanced view between sea and sky and of dreamlike atmosphere, was one of Turner’s favorite landscape subjects.Upon a careful study of Turner’s artworks, it can be observed that Turner’s vision was more inward and that his imagination soared to greater heights than that of Constable.  The role of light in Turner’s paintings does not heighten reality but rather diminishes it. Light tends to add mystery and remoteness to his scenes .

Turner was fascinated with the brilliance of sunlight (“the Sun is God,” he is reported to have said in his deathbed). The ultimate expression of Romantic concern with light is found in Turner’s late work in Norham Castle Sunrise (1835-40).Like Constable, Turner saw the physical world as impermanent but he also perceived it to be accidental. Turner held on to the belief that the world will eventually fade away and only light would remain.

With this view and through his inward imagination and creativity, Turner portrayed the destructive effects of light and other forces in the world in his canvasses. That is why Turner was fascinated with the subjects of the storms and shipwrecks. The subject had enabled him to embrace the extremes of traditionalism and experiment and of agitation and calm. Shipwreck was an all-too-common instance at that time of the destructive powers of nature. One of his early paintings was The Wreck of a Ship (1810).

Through such paintings Turner takes the trend towards considering the sublime aspects of landscape and turns it into “a universal metaphor of man versus nature”. Turner successfully portrayed in Nature in his works as  an elusive and intangible force that  will ultimately conquer and destroy. In fact it can be safely said that generally in the art of Turner, “man is constantly pitted against natural forces in epic dramas of life and death” .

As a conclusion, it can be said that landscape painting during the Romantic movement  had become an important means to conveys an artist’s feelings or  emotions and views  not only of the physical world around them but also of their own philosophical views of the world. Generally they view the physical world as transcendent , having a more deeper meaning and significance than its visible forms.

Friedrich attributed a divine character to nature and through it he also expressed his nationalistic feelings, Constable looked at nature as a representation of man’s fragility and necessity to co-exist in harmony with his surroundings while Turner viewed his physical world as an enemy, with natural forces threatening his peaceful existence.


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  2.  JILLIAN, Garret. Romantic Landscape Painting: Turner & Constable. DS Mial Homepage., 2001, retrieved 9 January 2008,                                 < http://www.>.
  3. National Gallery of Art. Spirit of an Age: Nineteenth Century Paintings. NGA, Washington, 2008, retrieved 9 January 2008 < http://www.nga. gov/exhibitions/spirit2.shtm>. PERRY, Marvin. A History of the World.
  4. New York,  Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1988. The Guinness Compact Encyclopedia .  Edited by Ian Crofton.  London,  The Guinness Publishing Limited, 1994.
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