Movement of the Month: Part 3 – Romanticism

This week, Hannah continues her Movement of the Month series by taking an in depth look at Romanticism.

What’s the Movement of the Month? Dear reader the movement we’re looking at is Romanticism!

Romanticism in a nutshell

Let’s begin. Romanticism was a cultural movement that started in Europe. It was somewhat of a reaction to the Industrial Revolution which occurred during the same time period. The movement affected philosophical thinking, literature, music, and art.

Somewhat of a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism began in in the 1750’s and reached its peak in the 1800’s to 1850’s and continued after that with the pre-Raphaelites right up until around 1890. Romantic art focused on emotions, feelings and moods of all kinds, including spirituality and imagination.

Spill the tea, what was going on in with the western art world 1750’s – 1830’s?

Well lots happened in the 18th century for art! Galleries such as the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, and the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro were founded: in the 1790’s the Louvre was founded, then later the National Gallery was founded in 1824. Whilst we celebrate the institutions which gave and continue to give so much to the art sphere historically, we must also acknowledge these cultural developments would have benefited from the profits of colonialism and slavery which was later abolished in this period.

There was also a hierarchy of genre painting during this time. History and religion being the best and most popular subjects to paint; then portraiture, genre scenes, landscapes and then finally realism and still life.

Turner became popular because of the fictitious biography of his paintings; his works were able to conjure up a story within the scene rather than a scene within a story. Towards the 1800’s there was a concern with Catholic painting and the role of religion in culture with the emancipation. Grander subjects didn’t come off as well as more humble subjects. We had the sublime subjects from the 15th century onwards but Romanticism gave artists the fuel to move forwards instead of opulent clothing and ample proportions, so art became a more streamlined version of the sublime.

Elsewhere, with the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799, individual liberty triumphed over absolute monarchy. This meant for art in France, Neo-Classism was the thing. History and politics heavily influenced art, and popular culture such as art and music became an intrinsic factor of patriotism and morale. From this point forward, modern life featured heavily in French painting, a theme we see from artists like Delacroix right up to Impressionist’s such as Manet and Cézanne.

Ok so, what about literature?

Literature during this period is often characterised by the five “I”’s: Imagination, Intuition, Idealism, Inspiration and Individuality. Goethe –  who wrote Faust – was a big influence on Romanticism, and poems and novels he wrote really influenced artists. Shakespeare was once again a pop culture icon influencing all the heavy hitters and Tennyson similarly influenced many artists – such as with The Lady of Shallot, of which SEVERAL Victorian artists gave interpretations of (we will come back to this masterpiece later!) We see this Romanticist Literature influence carry on influencing right up through the Pre-Raphaelite’s who weren’t first exhibited until 1849!

Romanticism essentially set to reaffirm the beauty in everyday life.


Without it, we wouldn’t have moved into post-impressionism and artistic greats like Millais’s Ophelia, painted outside to capture that essence of nature bringing the background forwards as a subject rather than an object. Furthermore, we wouldn’t have had one of England’s most celebrated paintings and (my personal favourite), The Lady of Shallot by John William Waterhouse in 1888. A tragic yet compelling telling of Tennyson’s wonderful poem, as seen below which shows just how important this movement was for future artists to be influenced by.


The Lady of Shallot by John William Waterhouse in 1888. Source


Romanticism within our collection


Born in 1775, and dying in 1851, Joseph Mallord William Turner was the son of a Barber (who would sell his early childhood work to his customers)! and began studying at the Royal Academy in 1789 where he soon began exhibiting what he was to become so famous for: his watercolours. Whilst here in our collection at the Whitworth we currently house 18 Turners, one particular work caught my eye. The fantastic yellows, blues and greens of the ocean, and the wonderful crowd scene to the left of the painting make this one of my favourite Turners.


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William Turner, View of the Beach at Margate, c.1840. Source.


However, with this painting comes a particularly fascinating story! The provenance is Mrs Booth, who was Turner’s landlady and mistress, sold this painting to Christie’s in 1865. The piece was then bought and inherited down through the Broadhurst family, who were one of the largest cotton manufacturers of Manchester. After Sir Edward Tootal Broadhurst died the painting was bequeathed to us here, at the Whitworth. A Turner expert in 1924 and then again in 1980 questioned the authenticity and thus forth, the painting was kept in storage for many years, it even had a completely different name –“The Phantom Ship.” Ian Warrell, however (the current best expert on Turner in the UK), stated he is confident this is, in fact a Turner, part of a group of paintings of Margate which are currently housed in the National Museum of Wales in Carfiff.  John Ruskin said of him and Margate “Where therefore, and in this very town of Margate, he lived, when he chose to be quit of London, and yet not to travel.”



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Baby’s Gown, British, 1800 – 1824. Source


This British garment (1800-1824), is also from our collection. In this era, women, girls, and toddler boys all wore similarly styled, high-waisted dresses made up in lightweight silks and cottons for warmer weather. Boys would often wear similar dresses until around the age of 4, when they would begin to wear shorter trousers. The fabric of these styles of dresses were easily washed and bleached. Dresses such as this with boat neck lines and a high, short bodice were often modelled on adult women’s dresses. Early 19th century Christening Gowns were very similar in style to the above image with cap sleeves, however these would have had a much longer skirt to the dress. The hemline of this particular dress would have started around the knee, getting gradually longer as the child aged until she was ready to dress in the contemporary female fashions of the day around age 15-18.

Ford Madox Brown

Ford Madox Brown first exhibited at the Royal Academy this same year, in 1840. Parentless, and often dubbed a working-class hero of the era, he painted subjects close to his heart. Never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he was absorbed by a truthfulness and developed a close relationship with the painters. Rossetti even once contacted to ask whether Brown would teach him! He was close also friend to William Morris, and later taught at the Working Men’s College and set up the Labour Bureau in here in Manchester.


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Ford Maddox Brown, Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. 1839 – 1841. Source


The dramatic and sombre painting above features his cousin (and future wife!) as one of his models. The Victorian’s had a deep fascination with Mary Queen of Scots, possibly due to the previous attitudes of disdain those of the Elizabethan era held of the exiled queen. In this painting, as composed Mary awaits her fate, one of her ladies-in-waiting faints in anticipation of her gruesome death. The death was actually so gruesome it took three swings of the axe! Mary’s female companions here are as much centre stage as the queen herself. This would later reflect a wider theme within Romanticism and Victorian painting – that is Woman becoming the subject, rather than the object, of a piece.

So what of the subject? The mystique surrounding Mary Stewart has in recent times been at the forefront of popular culture. The tempestuous life of a powerful ruler, who fell to her subsequent house-arrest and demise, is one we’ve all become infatuated with. Queen Mary, and her cousin Elizabeth, are often depicted as women who simply can’t have it all. Powerful, feminine, but ultimately isolated in either power, or decisions the heart made. These complex women are relevant now more so than ever before. These women are both successful yet a victim, both inspiring yet flawed, and undoubtedly both absolutely relevant in today’s climate of change.

So there we have it! Romanticism, history, politics all rolled into one movement that changed art forever. Here are some more paintings below to consider if you fancied a little more. Tune in next time, as we delve into the Pre-Raphaelites, and later onto Impressionism!


The Visitor Team


Paintings to consider during this period and the movement’s influences

The Nightmare – Henry Fuseli 1781

Witches’ Sabbath – Francisco Goya 1798

Queen Mab’s Cave – Joseph Mallord William Turner 1827

Liberty Leading the People – Eugène Delacroix 1830

Slave market at Cairo David Roberts 1848

Lilium Auratum Frederick Lewis 1851

Ophelia – John Everett Millais 1851/52

Indoor Gossip, Cairo – Frederick Lewis 1874 (Currently on display here at the Whitworth)

The Lady of shallot – John William Waterhouse 1888

Echo and Narcissus – John William Waterhouse 1903


One thought on “Movement of the Month: Part 3 – Romanticism

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post. Romanticism is one of my favorite art, musical, and literary movements. I sometimes feel like we need a renaissance of Romanticism, though there are some modern books and movies that make use of it.


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