Main Body

Module 4 Romanticism in England & Germany

(Constable, Turner, Freidrich)

Landscape Paintings

Source: [1]

Dutch and English Landscape Painting

Landscape painting depicts natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, in which the main subject is typically a wide view and the elements are arranged into a coherent composition. During the Dutch Golden Age of painting, in the 17th century, this type of painting grew in popularity, and many artists specialized in the genre. In particular, painters of this era were known for developing extremely subtle, realist techniques for depicting light and weather. The popularity of landscape painting in this region, during this time, was in part a reflection of the virtual disappearance of religious art in the Netherlands, which was then a Calvinist society. In the 18th and 19th centuries, religious painting declined across all of Europe, and the movement of Romanticism spread, both of which provided important historical ingredients for landscape painting to ascend to a more prominent place in art.

In England, landscapes had initially only been painted as the backgrounds for portraits, and typically portrayed the parks or estates of a landowner. This changed as a result of Anthony van Dyck, who, with other Flemish artists living in England, began a national tradition. In the 18th century, watercolor painting, mostly of landscapes, became an English specialty. The nation had both a buoyant market for professional works of this variety, and a large number of amateur painters. By the beginning of the 19th century, the most highly-regarded English artists were all, for the most part, dedicated landscapists, including John Constable, J.M.W. Turner, and Samuel Palmer.

The Hay Wain, by John Constable, 1821. Constable was a popular English Romantic Painter.
The Hay Wain, by John Constable, 1821. Constable was a popular English Romantic Painter.

French Landscape Painting

French painters were slower to develop an interest in landscapes, but in 1824, the Salon de Paris exhibited the works of John Constable, an extremely talented English landscape painter. His rural scenes influenced some of the younger French artists of the time, moving them to abandon formalism and to draw inspiration directly from nature. During the revolutions of 1848, artists gathered in Barbizon to follow Constable’s ideas, making nature the subject of their paintings. They formed what is referred to as the Barbizon School.

During the late 1860s, the Barbizon painters attracted the attention of a younger generation of French artists studying in Paris. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille among others, practiced plein air painting and developed what would later be called Impressionism, an extremely influential movement.

In Europe, as John Ruskin noted, and Sir Kenneth Clark confirmed, landscape painting was the “chief artistic creation of the nineteenth century,” and “the dominant art. ” As a result, in the times that followed, it became common for people to “assume that the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape was a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity. ”

Nationalism in Landscape Painting

Nationalism has been implicated in the popularity of 17th century Dutch landscapes, and in the 19th century, when other nations, such as England and France, attempted to develop distinctive national schools of their own. Painters involved in these movements often attempted to express the unique nature of the landscape of their homeland.

The Hudson River School

In the United States, a similar movement, called the Hudson River School, emerged in the 19th century and quickly became one of the most distinctive worldwide purveyors of landscape pieces. American painters in this movement created works of mammoth scale in an attempt to capture the epic size and scope of the landscapes that inspired them. The work of Thomas Cole, the school’s generally acknowledged founder, seemed to emanate from a similar philosophical position as that of European landscape artists. Both championed, from a position of secular faith, the spiritual benefits that could be gained from contemplating nature . Some of the later Hudson River School artists, such as Albert Bierstadt, created less comforting works that placed a greater emphasis (with a great deal of Romantic exaggeration) on the raw, terrifying power of nature.

The Oxbow, by Thomas Cole, 1836. Thomas Cole was a founding member of the pioneering Hudson School
The Oxbow, by Thomas Cole, 1836. Thomas Cole was a founding member of the pioneering Hudson School


John Constable “View on the Stour Near Dedham”

[Smarthistory > Art in the 19th Century Europe > Romanticism > England > Constable, View on the Stour near Dedham]

1822, oil on canvas, 51 x 74 inches (The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA)

Joseph Mallord William Turner “The Fighting Temeraire”

Essay by Abram Fox[2]

Painting: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire,
Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)Imagine that you were born in 1950.

How much has the world changed since when you were a kid? There was no internet, and no personal computers. Your parents didn’t own a minivan or SUV—those didn’t exist yet. Commercial airplanes were brand new. The world was still recovering from World War II, and if you lived in the United States you likely lived in mortal fear of a nuclear attack from the USSR. Life in 2013 may resemble life in 1950 in some ways, but there’s no question the world is a different place, a more advanced, stranger place.

The Industrial Revolution Changed Everything

That was the point of view of British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (commonly known by his initials J.M.W.) in 1839. J.M.W. Turner was born in 1775, less than a month after the start of the American Revolutionary War. He grew up in a United Kingdom whose empire stretched across the globe under the watchful eye of its navy, and whose military prowess was encouraged by a booming economy driven by the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution, between roughly 1760 and 1830, brought great positive change to Great Britain. Steam power heralded a machine age filled with factories and mechanical processes. Innovations in textile machinery increased industrial output thousands of times, iron became cheap and strong enough to become an everyday building material, and gas lamps meant people could be active at all hours of the day and night. Populations increased, consumer goods became more affordable, and the middle class exploded. There was a palpable understanding that the world was changing forever.

However, not all things improved. Even though the average income grew during the industrial age, standards of living plummeted for most, as did conditions in urban housing and in the new factories. Child labor was not only legal, it was expected. Despite its economic successes, the Industrial Revolution was not without serious problems.

Brave Historical Legacy

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, Sketch for "The Battle of Trafalgar, and the Victory of Lord Nelson over the Combined French and Spanish Fleets," 1805 1833 (Tate, London). Stanfield may have depicted the Temeraire, illuminated in the foreground and flying the British flag.
Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, Sketch for “The Battle of Trafalgar, and the Victory of Lord Nelson over the Combined French and Spanish Fleets,”1805 1833 (Tate, London). Stanfield may have depicted the Temeraire, illuminated in the foreground and flying the British flag.

Ambiguity was on Turner’s mind when he began work on his painting, whose full title is The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up,1838. He was familiar with the namesake ship, HMS Temeraire, as were all Britons of the day. Temeraire was the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where Napoleon’s forces were defeated, and which secured British naval dominance for the next century.

By the late 1830s, however, Temeraire was no longer relevant. After retiring from service in 1812 she was converted into a hulk, a ship that can float but not actually sail. She spent time as a prison ship, housing ship, and storage depot before she was finally decommissioned in 1838 and sent up the River Thames to a shipyard in London to be broken into scrap materials. That trip on the Thames was witnessed by Turner, who used it as inspiration for his famous painting.

Clash of Technology

For many Britons, Temeraire was a powerful reminder of their nation’s long history of military success and a living connection to the heroes of the Napoleonic Wars. Its disassembly signaled the end of an historical era. Turner celebrates Temeraire’s heroic past, and he also depicts a technological change which had already begun to affect modern-day life in a more profound way than any battle.

Rather than placing Temeraire in the middle of his canvas, Turner paints the warship near the left edge of the canvas. He uses shades of white, grey, and brown for the boat, making it look almost like a ghost ship. The mighty warship is being pulled along by a tiny black tugboat, whose steam engine is more than strong enough to control its larger counterpart. Turner transforms the scene into an allegory about how the new steam power of the Industrial Revolution quickly replaced history and tradition.

Believe it or not, tugboats were so new that there wasn’t even a word for what the little ship was doing to Temeraire. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Turner’s title for his painting is the first ever recorded use of the word “tugged” to describe a steamship pulling another boat.

In addition to the inventive title, Turner included in the exhibition catalog the following lines of text, which he modified from a poem by Thomas Campbell’s “Ye Mariners of England”:

The flag which braved the battle and the breeze
No long owns her

This was literally true: Temeraire flies a white flag instead of the British flag, indicating it has been sold by the military to a private company. Furthermore, the poem acknowledges that the ship now has a different function. Temeraire used to be a warship, but no more.

Creative Adaptation

In 1838 Temeraire was towed approximately 55 miles from its coastal dock to a London shipyard, and untold numbers of Britons would have witnessed the ship’s final journey. However, the Temeraire they saw only lightly resembled the mighty warship depicted by Turner. In reality her masts had already been removed, as had all other ornamentation and everything else of value on the ship’s exterior and interior. Only her barren shell was tugged to London. 

Temeraire and tugboat (detail), Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)
Temeraire and tugboat (detail), Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)

Turner’s painting doesn’t show the reality of the event. He instead chose to depict Temeraire as she would have looked in the prime of her service, with all of its masts and rigging. This creates a dramatic juxtaposition between the warship and the tiny, black tugboat which controls its movements.

In fact there would have been two steamships moving Temeraire, but Turner exercised his artistic creativity to capture the emotional impact of the sight. Contemporary viewers recognized that The Fighting Temeraire depicts an ideal image of the ship, rather than reality.

Strong contrast is also visible in the way Turner applied paint to the various portions of his canvas. Temeraire is highly detailed. If you were to stand inches away from the painting, you would clearly see miniscule things like individual windows, hanging ropes, and decorative designs on the exterior of the ship. However, if you looked over to the sun and clouds you would see a heavy accumulation of paint clumped on the canvas, giving it a sense of chaos and spontaneity.

Sky painting.
Accumulated paint visible in the sky (detail), Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839, oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm (The National Gallery, London)


Art image of train, oil on canvas.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, oil on canvas, 1844 (National Gallery, London)

Many works by Turner in this period of his life, like Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and DyingTyphoon Coming On) and Rain Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (left), use the same effect, but The Fighting Temeraire stands out because of the naturalistic portrayal of the ship compared to the rest of the work.

The Artist as a Warship

Turner thought The Fighting Temeraire was one of his more important works. He never sold it, instead keeping it in his studio along with many of his other canvases. When he died in 1851 he bequeathed it and the rest of the paintings he owned to the nation. It quickly became seen as an image of Britain’s relationship to industrialization. Steam power has proved itself to be much stronger and more efficient than old technology, but that efficiency came with the cost of centuries of proud tradition.

Beyond its national importance, The Fighting Temeraire is also a personal reflection by the artist on his own career. Turner was 64 when he painted it. He’d been exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts since he was 15, and became a member at age 24, later taking a position as Professor of Painting. However, the year before he painted The Fighting Temeraire Turner resigned his professorship, and largely lived in secrecy and seclusion.

Although Turner remained one of the most famous artists in England until his death, by the late 1830s he may have thought he was being superseded by younger artists working in drastically different styles. He may have become nostalgic for the country he grew up in, compared to the one in which he then lived. Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway would reflect a similar interest in the changing British landscape several years later, focusing on the dynamic nature of technology. The Fighting Temeraire presents a mournful vision of what technology had replaced, for better or for worse.

Caspar David Friedrich “Abbey Among Oak Trees”

[Smarthistory > Art in the 19th Century Europe > Romanticism Germany > Freidrich, Abby Among Oak Trees]

1809 or 1810, oil on canvas, 110.4 x 171 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

  1. “Neoclassicism & Romanticism: Landscape Painting” Boundless Art History. Boundless. 21 July 2015.  CC-BY-SA 4.0 
  2. CC BY NC


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Art 205 "Western Art from 18th to Mid 20th Century" by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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