Poetry by Brushstroke

English Romanticism

William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1)

First Half of 19th Century

English Romanticism – Turner Discovers the Effects of Light

Where do we come from, how was life born on earth? Charles Darwin finds an answer to this question key to mankind during his voyage of nearly five years by ship in the 19th century— an answer that will change the prevailing beliefs about life. He discovers that species are adapting to their environment and are becoming increasingly complex. Darwin’s modern theory of evolution thus contradicts the theory of creation, according to which God created all beings in their present form and man in his image, and marks the beginning of a new worldview. The painter William Turner is living at the same time in England. Like Darwin, he believes it is time to break through to new ways of thinking and turn towards nature. The two men met in London’s elite club “Athenaeum”.

Romanticism has its origins in English literature, which rejects the Rationalism of the Enlightenment and devotes itself to nature and the world of emotions. Landscapes as untouched and remote sceneries hold the attention of poets like Blake and Wordsworth. They also influence the painters who find their new focus in landscape motifs and seascapes, and experiment with color effects. The most famous English Romantic artist is William Turner, the “inventor of the atmospheric landscape”. In his work, color begins to emancipate itself from form. Contours dissolve, surfaces blur and form another dimension. Relief-like colors override form, yet leave room for detailed scenes. Long before the Impressionists, the artist focused on conveying the effect of his motifs under certain lighting conditions. Turner is a pioneer of art, just as his contemporary Darwin is a pioneer of science.

Pastel colors, hazy contours, fine details in between – Wolfgang Beltracchi works on the picture of the HMS Beagle in the Devonport harbor he is painting in the artistic voice of William Turner.

Five Facts – English Romanticism

John Constable and William Turner are the most important representatives of English Romanticism. The predominant motifs are landscapes, which are, however, painted using very diverse techniques.

Every landscape seems perfect. Because Romanticism has no ambitions to be documental. It creates dream worlds, composed of sketches from the painters’ own imaginations.

In Romanticism, colors are used for the first time as a means of creating a mystical, eerie or melancholic mood. The atmosphere created in this way takes the viewer to a distant world, far away from real life.

The expression “romantic“ derives from the French word “roman“, which goes back to the vernacular term for knights novels in the Middle Ages. The new intellectual movement of Romanticism chose this label to distinguish itself from classical antiquity.

Watercolor painting already existed in ancient Egypt. In later eras, the artists mostly used watercolors for creating studies, as Dürer and Rembrandt did. William Turner, who regarded watercolors as independent works, first gained broad recognition for this technique.

The artists of English Romanticism approached similar motifs in very different ways. Constable changed from a naturalistic technique to a painting technique that emphasizes the brushstroke. With his ever-progressing dematerialization of motifs, Turner laid the foundation for modern art.

John Constable, Flatford Mill, 1816-17 (2)

William Turner, The lake of Zug, watercolor, 1843 (3)

Samuel Palmer, In Shoreham Garden, 1830, watercolour (4)


Image credits:

1: William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
2: John Constable, Flatford Mill, 1816-17 © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Foto
3: William Turner, The lake of Zug, watercolor, 1843 © age footstock / Alamy Stock Foto
4: Samuel Palmer, In Shoreham Garden, 1830, watercolour © recht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Foto
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907. © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo