3 Chapter 3 – French Romanticism and the Academy


By the end of this chapter you will be able to:

  • Reconstruct a basic timeline that spans the French Revolution, the Napoleonic eras, the Restoration, and the  emergence of Romanticism
  • Explain French Romanticism’s  driving philosophies
  • List the key French Romantic artists and identify and decipher their artwork
  • List the hierarchy of painting genres according to the French Academy
  • Describe the power of the Academy system over the art world

Opening section in audio:

At the beginning of the movie The Godfather, Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) wants nothing to do with his family’s involvement in organized crime. When telling a family story to his girlfriend, he concludes, “That’s my family, Kay, That’s not me.” As the film progresses, however, Michael’s father and older brother are the focus of violent attacks and Michael becomes more active in the family business until—at the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT)—he has assumed the leadership of the Corleone crime syndicate by killing all of his enemies. Fictional characters—both in film and in novels—have arcs. They change through time. The same is true of real characters from history. They often have a rise, but just as often there is a precipitous fall. Napoleon Bonaparte is but one example.

Ingres, Napoleon on his Imperial throne.jpg
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, oil on canvas, 1806.
Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, oil on canvas, 1812.

A visual starting point could be Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1806 painting, Napoleon on His Imperial Throne. In this work, Ingres painted Napoleon as if he were an omnipotent ruler—rather than a mere mortal. But six years later, Jacques-Louis David (Ingres’s former teacher), painted The Emperor Napoleon in His Study in the Tulieries (1812). These two portraits—painted just six years apart—show a significant arc in the life and career of Napoleon.

In David’s portrait, Napoleon’s uniform is completed with white knee breeches and stockings, and black shoes with gold buckles. Although he wears a military uniform, this is hardly a military portrait. He has discarded his officer’s sword—it rests on the chair on the right side of the painting—and Napoleon is shown doing the administrative work of a civic leader. He stands between the high-backed red velvet chair on the right and in front of the Empire-styled desk behind him. A gilded regal lion serves as the visible leg of the desk, and an ink-stained quill, candle-lit lamp, and various papers can be seen atop his writing table. David has signed and dated the portrait on a rolled up map to the side of the table, a leather-bound volume of Plutarch (in French: Plutarque) is beside it. Plutarch was an ancient Roman biographer and historian, most famous in the nineteenth century as the author of The Parallel Lives, a text that explores the virtues and vices of Greek and Roman rulers, men such as Alexander the Great, Themistocles, Julius Caesar, and Cicero. The inclusion of this book was a way to visually tie Napoleon to the great rulers of the classical past who he so admired. And yet, not everything is perfect within this space.

Although Napoleon stands and looks out towards the viewer, he looks more dishevelled than not. His hair—complete with the grey typical of a man in his fifties—appears unkempt and tousled. In addition, his uniform would hardly pass muster. A cuff button has been undone, and his silken stockings and trousers appear wrinkled from being worn for an exceptionally long working day. This fact is alluded to by two time-bearing details. The grandfather clock displays the time as 4:12. And the candles of his desk lamp—one nearly burned to its completing, another recently extinguished, several others seemingly expired—make it clear that it is not the late afternoon, but rather the very early morning. Clearly, time was running short. This portrait seems to suggest that Napoleon was working too late and too hard at the time it was commissioned, and indeed, Napoleon’s time as a world ruler was coming to a climactic finale. The year the painting was completed—1812—was a particularly calamitous one for Napoleon, as he was in the middle of the disastrous invasion of Russia. Less than two years later, on 4 April 1814, Napoleon abdicated his throne and was exiled to the island of Elba. David skilfully and subtly depicts Napoleon’s transition from omnipotent ruler to fallible commander.

Excepted and adapted from: Dr. Bryan Zygmont, “David, The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries” in Khan Academy, accessed September 14, 2020, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/rococo-neoclassicism/neo-classicism/a/david-the-emperor-napoleon-in-his-study-at-the-tuileries
All Khan Academy content is available for free at www.khanacademy.org 


Antoine-Jean Gros section in audio:

Antoine-Jean Gros

Antoine Jean Gros by Gerard.jpg
François Gérard, Portrait of Antoine-Jean Gros at Age Twenty, oil on canvas, c. 1791.

Antoine-Jean Gros was born in Paris to a portrait painter. Before the Revolution, he trained under Jacques-Louis David but had to flee France for a safer environment during the Revolution. He move to Genoa, Italy in the 1790s and there met Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, who would become known as Joséphine Bonaparte. Joséphine appreciated Gros’ work and introduced the young painter to her new husband, Napoleon. She also commissioned a painting of her husband by Gros which was completed in 1796. The painting Napoleon Bonaparte at the pont d’Arcole impressed Napoleon and eventually led to Gros’ instalment as an official painter for the Emperor Napoleon following the troops and painting their endeavours. Usually considered a Romantic artist due to the emotive nature of his paintings and their brushier execution, Gros never embraced the ideology of the Romantics and largely devoted himself to presenting military events in a positive or grander light than they actually occurred (which is why Napoleon placed him in the position).

Gros' painting of Napoleon visiting the sick and dying at Jaffa
Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa, oil on canvas, 1804.

Gros’ most well known painting is Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa, from 1804. In this proto-Romantic painting, that points to the later style of Gericault and Delacroix, Gros depicted a legendary episode from Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt (1798-1801). On March 21, 1799,  in a make-shift hospital in Jaffa, Napoleon visited his troops who were stricken with the Bubonic Plague. Gros depicted Napoleon attempting to calm the growing panic about contagion by fearlessly touching the sores of one of the plague victims. (At this time it was believed that the plague was spread by touch, so this gesture would have made Napoleon look fearless and like a conqueror in the face of death – unlike his subordinate soldiers who recoil from the pestilence and smell.) Like earlier neoclassical paintings such as David’s Death of Marat, Gros combined Christian iconography, in this case Christ healing the sick, with a contemporary subject. He also drew on the art of classical antiquity, by depicting Napoleon in the same position as the ancient Greek sculpture, the Apollo Belvedere. In this way, he imbued Napoleon with divine qualities while simultaneously showing him as a military hero. But in contrast to David, Gros used warm, sensual colours and focuses on the dead and dying who occupy the foreground of the painting. We’ll see the same approach later in Delacroix’s painting of Liberty Leading the People (1830).

Napoleon was a master at using art to manipulate his public image and used this painting to counteract the travelling news of what had actually happened at Jaffa. In reality, he had ordered the death of the prisoners whom he could not afford to house or feed, and poisoned his troops who were dying from the plague as he retreated from the area.

Excepted and adapted from: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, “Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa,” in Smarthistory, November 23, 2015, https://smarthistory.org/baron-antoine-jean-gros-napoleon-bonaparte-visiting-the-pest-house-in-jaffa/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org 


Gros’ painting of Napoleon at Jaffa was a wild success at the Paris Salon because it was a brand new genre of painting. It was like a history painting, but it showed a contemporary event. This gave birth to a new and enormously popular genre of painting – the contemporary history painting. This new subject matter combined with the sensationally dramatic scene in the painting guaranteed it was well received by the public, which worked well for Napoleon. But the viewers at the Salon weren’t just responding to the propagandistic subject matter and the drama of the event, they were being sucked into a story that they couldn’t easily refuse and the composition makes sure of that. The triangular composition of the painting, a composition built out of the swaths of light that sweep through the painting, moves the viewers eye from each strategic point in the painting. The sick are in the dimly lit bottom, but arranged in a sweeping curve meant to draw your eye across the more well-lit ill soldiers to Napoleon and from Napoleon to the flag of France, which was a reminder of the ‘good cause’ the soldiers were fighting for in that foreign field. This reference to the ‘good cause’, plus Napoleon’s Christ-like pose, gives a subtle suggestion that these plague victims aren’t just dying of disease or being abandoned by their leader, these plague victims are martyrs for the cause of France (just like Marat in David’s painting from the Revolution). It was this kind of dramatic painting style with its embedded subtle messages that entrenched Gros as Napoleon’s premier public relations painter – although he was obviously not called that. He was just a painting that documented the troops.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres section in audio:

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

self portrait of Ingres at age 20
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Self Portrait at Age Twenty-Three, oil on canvas, 1804.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was an artist of immense importance during the first half of the nineteenth century. His father, Jean-Marie-Joseph Ingres was a decorative artist of only minor influence who instructed his young son in the basics of drawing by allowing him to copy the family’s extensive print collection that included reproductions from artists such as Boucher, Correggio, Raphael, and Rubens. In 1791, at just 11 years of age, Ingres the Younger began his formal artistic education at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture in Toulouse, just 35 miles from his hometown of Montauban.

Ingres was a quick study. In 1797—at the tender age of 16 years—he won the Académie’s first prize in drawing. Clearly destined for great things, Ingres packed his trunks less than six months later and moved to Paris to begin his instruction in the studio of Jacques-Louis David, the most strident representative of the Neoclassical style. David stressed to those he instructed the importance of drawing and studying from the nude model. In the years that followed, Ingres not only benefitted from David’s instruction—and the prestige and caché that such an honor bestowed—but also learned from many of David’s past students who  frequented their former teacher’s studio. These artists comprise a “who’s who” of late-eighteenth-century French neoclassical art and include painters such as Jean-Germain Droais, Anne-Louis Girodet, and Antoine Jean-Gros.

painting of a nude woman facing away from the viewer on the edge of a soft seat getting ready to bathe
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Valpinçon Bather, oil on canvas, 1808

Due to the financial woes of the French government in the first years of the nineteenth century, Ingres’s Prix de Rome—which he won in 1801—was delayed until 1806. Two years later, Ingres sent to the École three compositions—intended to demonstrate his artistic growth while studying at the French Academy in Rome. Interestingly, all three of these works—The Valpinçon Bather, the so-called Sleeper of Naples, and Oedipus and the Sphinx—depict elements of the female nude (to be fair, however, the sphinx is not human). The first two, however, do not depict a story from the classical past. Instead, nearly the entire focus of each composition is on the female form. While Ingres has retained the formal elements that were so much a part of his neoclassical training—extreme linearity and a cool, “licked’ surface” (where brushwork is nearly invisible)—he had begun to reject neoclassical subject matter and the idea that art should be morally instructive. Indeed, by 1808, Ingres was beginning to walk on both sides of the neoclassical/romantic divide. In few works is a Neoclassical style fused with a romantic subject matter more clearly than in Ingres’s 1814 painting La Grande Odalisque.

Ingres completed his time at the French Academy in Rome in 1810. Rather than immediately return to Paris however, he remained in the Eternal City and completed several large-scale history paintings. In 1814 he travelled to Naples and was employed by Caroline Murat, the Queen of Naples (who also happened to be Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister). She commissioned La Grande Odalisque, a composition that was intended to be a pendant to his earlier composition, Sleeper of Naples. At first glance, Ingres’s subject matter is of the most traditional sort. Certainly, the reclining female nude had been a common subject matter for centuries. Ingres was working within a visual tradition that included artists such as Giorgione (Sleeping Venus, 1510), Titian (Venus of Urbino, 1538) and Velazquez (Rokeby Venus, 1647-51). But the titles for all three of those paintings have one word in common: Venus. Indeed, it was common to cloak paintings of the female nude in the disguise of classical mythology.

Grande Odalisque - nude woman looking over her shoulder
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, oil on canvas, 1814.

Ingres refused to disguise who and what his female figure was. She was not the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Instead, she was an odalisque, a concubine who lived in a harem and existed for the sexual pleasure of the sultan. In his painting La Grande Odalisque Ingres transports the viewer to the Orient, a far-away land for a Parisian audience in the second decade of the nineteenth century (in this context, “Orient” means Near East more so than the Far East). The woman—who wears nothing other than jewellery and a turban—lies on a divan, her back to the viewer. She seemingly peeks over her shoulder, as if to look at someone who has just entered her room, a space that is luxuriously appointed with fine damask and satin fabrics. She wears what appears to be a ruby and pearl encrusted broach in her hair and a gold bracelet on her right wrist. In her right hand she holds a peacock fan, another symbol of affluence, and another piece of metalwork—a face-down bejewelled mirror, perhaps?—can be seen along the lower left edge of the painting.

Along the right side of the composition we see a hookah, a kind of pipe that was used for smoking tobacco, hashish and opium. All of these Oriental elements—fabric, turban, fan, hookah—did the same thing for Ingres’s odalisque as Titian’s Venetian courtesan being labelled “Venus”—that is, it provided a distance that allowed the (male) viewer to safely gaze at the female nude who primarily existed for his enjoyment.

And what a nude it is. When glancing at the painting, one can immediately see the linearity that was so important to David in particular, and the French neoclassical style more broadly. But when looking at the odalisque’s body, the same viewer can also immediately notice how far Ingres has strayed from David’s particular style of rendering the human form—look for instance at her elongated back and right arm. David was largely interest in idealizing the human body, rendering it not as it existed, but as he wished it did, in an anatomically perfect state. David’s commitment to the idealizing the human form can clearly be seen in his preparatory drawings for his never completed Oath of the Tennis Court. There can be no doubt that this is how David taught Ingres to render the body.

Students often stray from their teacher’s instruction, however. In La Grande Odalisque, Ingres rendered the female body in an exaggerated, almost unbelievable way. Much like the Mannerists centuries earlier—Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (c. 1535) immediately comes to mind—Ingres distorted the female form in order to make her body more sinuous and elegant. Her back seems to have two or three more vertebrae than are necessary, and it is anatomically unlikely that her lower left leg could meet with the knee in the middle of the painting, or that her left thigh attached to this knee could reach her hip. Clearly, this is not the female body as it really exists. It is the female body, perhaps, as Ingres wished it to be, at least for the composition of this painting. And in this regard, David and his student Ingres have attempted to achieve the same end—idealization of the human form—though each strove to do so in markedly different ways.

Excerpted from: Dr. Bryan Zygmont, “Between Neoclassicism and Romanticism: Ingres, La Grande Odalisque,” in Smarthistory, November 12, 2015,  https://smarthistory.org/between-neclassicism-and-romanticism-ingres-la-grande-odalisque-2/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org 


Next section in audio:

An aside about a compositional and theoretical device called The Male Gaze

film still of Marilyn Monroe in a pink top
Marilyn Monroe in a Film Still from Niagra (1953) – directed by Henry Hathaway

The theory of The Male Gaze is a second wave feminist theory and it began as a way to examine and explain the way women were filmed in twentieth century films. Often, women were framed compositionally so that it appeared as if the eye of the camera was the eye of a male co-actor watching the woman from an angle slightly above (because stereotypically speaking most men were taller than most women). This filmed-with-a-downward-angle aesthetic was also slightly filtered for the best aesthetic view, and always in a way or at an angle or in a lighting that made the viewer feel like they had some kind of power over the woman being filmed. This was the theory, or part of it anyway, and the theorist who first proposed it, Laura Mulvey, called it the Male Gaze. (Interestingly, this downward angle aesthetic can now be seen most frequently in the 21st century in selfies, but this is likely more an aesthetic choice, rather than a comment on the power dynamic between the viewer and the viewed.) Obviously, there are now many ways to film all kinds of people, but art historians took a look at Mulvey’s ideas and realized that historically women haven’t been exactly in control of their image in the same way men have been in art the art that portrays them.

Basically, the Male Gaze is a gendered way of saying a gaze that consumes and/or objectifies and is meant to do so. This isn’t a case of someone looking at a candid snapshot of someone and the viewer finding them attractive and thinking “Yowza!” That’s a different kind of gaze and is the product of the person doing to the looking, rather than an agreement between the viewer and a purposefully constructed image created with the purpose of being sexually available and attractive specifically to viewers who find female bodies sexually appealing. Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque was painted by a man for men and the subject in the painting knows it full well – she looks back at the viewer but with eyes glazed by some kind of exotic opiate. She is aware and her body is displayed by the artist for your consumption and objectification but due to her intoxication she is in no real position to protest, making her all the more consumable. But Ingres went one step further – instead of making the viewer mentally objectify the subject for better consumption, he literally changed the human body to make it easier on the eyes and more appealing than any reality.

Question: Can you easily objectify and consume the image of those you feel are your equals or that you find important to you?

Neoclassical dressed, curly haired woman partially reclining on a divan looking over her shoulder at the viewer
Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Madame Récamier, oil on canvas, 1800.

In answer to this question, the majority of people find that they can’t very easily consume the images of people they feel they know well, are important to them, or are their equals. Often consumption of an image requires an anonymity or, in the very least, a power structure (real or imagined) that places the consumed in a more powerless position than the one doing the consuming. In the early 1800s it wasn’t much different. The objectification of French women, especially known individuals of the time, was not often indulged in. Take Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Madame Récamier, whose painting was an influence on the pose of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque, for example. In David’s painting, Julliette Récamier appears clothed, somewhat in possession of her own image (based on her levelled look towards the painting’s viewer) and she was a well known figure on the social scene in early 1800s Parisian society. In David’s painting, the subject of the image may be idealized but she is not objectified. To do so would have caused a stir in French circles because one doesn’t consume one’s friends, generally speaking – that was taboo. Therefore, to make his painting a success Ingres had to make doubly sure that it was clear the object in his painting was not French, in fact it had to be clear she wasn’t even European.

To best show case things that were meant to be consumed but to indicate that it wasn’t considered culturally wrong to do so, the creator the image engaged in what is now called Othering. “‘Othering’ is the way members of one social group distance themselves from, or assert themselves over, another by construing the latter as being fundamentally different (the ‘Other’)…It is a term that is associated with discourses of colonialism, and, in particular, with the work of Edward Said.”[1] Ultimately, it creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary that allows for virtuous behaviours on the part of the ‘us’ and indulgence in taboo behaviours for the ‘them’. But who is the ‘us’ and who is the ‘them’?  In this case, the them is the “Orient” – in this time period of the 1800s that would be anyone from the the Near East, Northern Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean (although the Far East could also be included) – and the ‘us’ is the “Occident” – the north and western hemispheres.

In this particular case, Ingres created a clear indication that the woman in his image was not ‘one of us’ and was therefore ‘one of them’ by including visual clues to establish the woman as a foreign “other”; which is what we now call Orientalizing. Orientalizing, strictly speaking, is the idea of creating an image of someone who is from the Orient but, it is actually a bit more insidious than that. The image it creates is not a true image, it’s a fantasized image that is built on imagination and othering – constructed in such a way that those creating and consuming the image didn’t feel bad about it because the people in the image were ‘others’ and not one of ‘us.’ Orientalizing creates an image made up of assumptions and beliefs about the exotic aesthetics and non-western behaviours of the peoples of the lands that were currently being colonized by European countries. By creating beautiful and often sexually charged images and written works, the creators of the Western world strengthened stereotypes and feelings of superiority on the part of the West.

Le Bain Turc, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, from C2RMF retouched.jpg
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Turkish Bath, oil on canvas, 1862.

In his eighties, Ingres painted The Turkish Bath, and because Ingres always held to the position that he hated the sensual and emotive Romantics and he was always a faithful and true Neoclassical artist it begs the question:
Is The Turkish Bath very Neoclassical (i.e. logical, edifying, free of sensory indulgence, and about Roman times)? Or is it more sensual, emotional, and ‘natural’ (i.e. Romantic)?

It seems more closely related to the sensual, emotional, and natural. However, always keep in mind that Romantic art (with a capital ‘R’) really has nothing to do with romantic or sexual feelings, so this isn’t really Romantic art either. It’s just closer to Romantic than it is to Neoclassical.

Ingres is often considered a proto-Romanticist and this is largely due to the difficulty in labelling the art he created. It does not neatly fit in a Neo-Classical category as his subject matter was often so exotic and sensual. Yet, he did not agree with the ideals of the Romantics and his work lacks the sweeping dynamic emotion that typifies those works. At best, he can be positioned as a bridge between the two genres, and yet it seems most likely he was simply an artist who did work that pleased himself whenever he felt so inclined.

Self-Reflection Questions 3.1 & 3.2

Think about the artists, like Ingres and Gros, who grew up in the Revolution.

  • What was their response to what they had experienced growing up in that environment? How as their art different than that of David or even Prud’hon?
  • Do you think that there are more recent or more ancient examples of how tumultuously violent environments have changed the art/performance/values of the youth who grew up in it?


Next section in audio:

Academic Genre Hierarchies

At the beginning of the Revolution the Royal Academy had been abolished and in its place was the Arts Commune. The Arts Commune was presided over by David, and it then became the National Institute – which had many other disciplines under its domain but also included the fine arts. After the exile of Napoleon, in 1816 King Louis XVIII reinstated the Royal Academy or as it was now called, the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This is a quick time-line of the rise and re-invention of the art academy in France:

1793 – Royal Academy Abolished – becomes the ‘Arts Commune’ under Jacques-Louis David
1795 – National Institute adds Fine Arts to its classes
1816 – Royal Academy re-instated, now called the Académie des Beaux-Arts
1819 – Ecole de Beaux-Arts, a division of the Académie, is the primary place for prestigious artists to learn, teach, and show work

One of the major changes in the Academy during the early 1800s was that those who were allowed to become members of the academy where no longer young artists, but rather older and more established gentlemen who elected members in. It was this system that made it so hard for new art forms to get into the Academy by the mid 1800s. This system also created a distinct and celebrated hierarchy of painting genres – those that were at the top of the ranking were eligible to win their creators prizes and great prestige, while those at the bottom of the hierarchy would be considered only suitable for dabbling artists.

In the mid-1800s in France the hierarchy was, in most cases, arranged as follows:
History Painting – Painting that depicted historical events were the best of the best and often the biggest.
Portraits – Portraiture wasn’t really considered the most amazing thing, but it was considered to be decently good because people where the focus and everyone likes to look at pictures of themselves or people they know.
Landscape Painting – Landscape painting was okay, but really only if it was of historical landscapes. And only occasionally should it be cluttered up with people. If it did have to have people make them historical. Or peasants. But pretty peasants. Landscape painting had been recently promoted from lower in the hierarchy during the early to mid-1800s due to outside influences after the Revolution.
Genre Painting – Genre painting was the painting of anything not on the list but that included humans in a rustic or moralizing way. Often it was paintings of peasants or pseudo-peasants (what the higher classes imagined peasants to be).
Still Life – The last thing was still life painting – which was anything not living and arranged. Animal paintings, specifically paintings of pets and other owned creatures, held a place on this list at certain times – above still life. While paintings of dead animals were more in the Still Life category, although still somewhat more exciting than images of fruit and glass.

This list changed order at different times but History painting always stayed on top, and the higher up on the list, the bigger the piece could be, which is why French History paintings tend to be huge.

The Restoration

The world’s fastest recap of the Restoration of France:

Basically by 1814 the French had had enough war and enough death and they deposed Napoleon to the Island of Elba. He stayed there until 1815, came back to France and ruled for 100 days and then was shipped back to Elba where he later died. His autopsy said he died of stomach cancer, but other people think he died of Arsenic poisoning. Hard to say but that doesn’t stop people from still talking about it. People had been trying to kill him for a very long time. Once, when he was married to Josephine a cart-bomb had been placed in the road in an effort to kill him and/or Josephine as his carriage drove past.   Yes. CART BOMB.

Anyway, with the Emperor disposed,  Louis the XVIII – younger brother of King Louis the XVI – who had been hiding around Europe saying he was king of France, came back to ‘help out’. He became a constitutional monarch who shared power with the parliament. Louis XVIII was succeeded by his younger brother Charles X who was eventually forced to abdicate after a three day revolution in 1830.

So after a while as Emperor Napoleon was out and the traditional French monarchy were back in. Then Napoleon was back in, then the he was back out, then the monarchy was back in, and then Napoleon’s relatives came back and the monarchy was out, and then…I think you get the picture. The era of long lasting rulers was over for France.

Romanticism in France in audio:

Romanticism in France

In the decades following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo (1815) a new movement called Romanticism began to flourish in France. If you read about Romanticism in general, you will find that it was a pan-European movement that had its roots in England in the mid-eighteenth century. Initially associated with literature and music, it was in part a response to the rationality of the Enlightenment and the transformation of everyday life brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Like most forms of Romantic art, nineteenth-century French Romanticism defies easy definitions. Artists explored diverse subjects and worked in varied styles so there is no single form of French Romanticism.

Intimacy, spirituality, colour, yearning for the infinite. Even when Charles Baudelaire wrote about French Romanticism in the middle of the nineteenth century, he found it difficult to concretely define. Writing in his Salon of 1846, he affirmed that “romanticism lies neither in the subjects that an artist chooses nor in his exact copying of truth, but in the way he feels…. Romanticism and modern art are one and the same thing, in other words: intimacy, spirituality, colour, yearning for the infinite, expressed by all the means the arts possess.”

In 1810, Germaine de Staël introduced the new Romantic movement to France when she published Germany (De l’Allemagne). Her book explored the concept that while Italian art might draw from its roots in the rational, orderly Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) heritage of the Mediterranean, the northern European countries were quite different. She held that her native culture of Germany—and perhaps France—was not Classical but Gothic and therefore privileged emotion, spirituality, and naturalness over Classical reason. Another French writer Stendhal (Henri Beyle) had a different take on Romanticism. Like Baudelaire later in the century, Stendhal equated Romanticism with modernity. In 1817 he published his History of Painting in Italy and called for a modern art that would reflect the “turbulent passions” of the new century. The book influenced many younger artists in France and was so well-known that the conservative critic Étienne Jean Delécluze mockingly called it “the Koran of the so-called Romantic artists.”

The first marker of a French Romantic painting may be the facture, meaning the way the paint is handled or laid on to the canvas. Viewed as a means of making the presence of the artist’s thoughts and emotions apparent, French Romantic paintings are often characterized by loose, flowing brushstrokes and brilliant colours in a manner that was often equated with the painterly style of the Baroque artist Rubens. In sculpture artists often used exaggerated, almost operatic, poses and groupings that implied great emotion. This approach to art, interpreted as a direct expression of the artist’s persona—or “genius”—reflected the French Romantic emphasis on unregulated passions. The artists employed a widely varied group of subjects including the natural world, the irrational realm of instinct and emotion, the exotic world of the “Orient” and contemporary politics.

The dead, dying, and barely alive hope for rescue aboard a raft floating on rough seas.
Théodore Géricault, Raft of the Medusa, oil on canvas, 1819.
Lion and Serpent bronze statue
Antoine Louis Barye, Lion and Serpent, bronze, 1835.

The theme of man and nature found its way into Romantic art across Europe. While often interpreted as a political painting, Théodore Géricault’s remarkable Raft of the Medusa (1819) confronted its audience with a scene of struggle against the sea. In the ultimate shipwreck scene, the veneer of civilization is stripped away as the victims fight to survive on the open sea. Some artists, including Gericault and Delacroix, depicted nature directly in their images of animals. For example, the animalier (animal sculptor) Antoine-Louis Barye brought the tension and drama of “nature red in tooth and claw” to the exhibition floor in Lion and Serpent (1835.)

old woman in a bonnet stares through red rimmed eyes
Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy, also known as The Hyena of the Salpêtrière, oil on canvas, c.1819-20.

Another interest of Romantic artists and writers in many parts of Europe was the concept that people, like animals, were not solely rational beings but were governed by instinct and emotion. Gericault explored the condition of those with mental illness in his carefully observed portraits of the insane such as Portait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena), 1822. On other occasions artists would employ literature that explored extreme emotions and violence as the basis for their paintings, as Delacroix did in Death of Sardanapalus (1827-28.)

Eugène Delacroix, who once wrote in his diary “I dislike reasonable painting,” took up the English Romantic poet Lord Byron’s play Sardanapalus as the basis for his epic work Death of Sardanapalus (below) depicting an Assyrian ruler presiding over the murder of his concubines and destruction of his palace. Delacroix’s swirling composition reflected the Romantic artists’ fascination with the “Orient,” meaning North Africa and the Near East—a very exotic, foreign, Islamic world ruled by untamed desires. Curiously, Delacroix preferred to be called a Classicist and rejected the title of Romantic artist.

a king reclines on a bed and his servants slaughter his wives and animals and destroy his riches
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, oil on canvas, 1827.

Whatever he thought of being called a Romantic artist, Delacroix brought his intense fervour to political subjects as well. Responding to the overthrow of the Bourbon rulers in 1830, Delacroix produced Liberty Leading the People. Brilliant colours and deep shadows punctuate the canvas as the powerful allegorical figure of Liberty surges forward over the hopeful and despairing figures at the barricade.

French woman with the tricolour leads people across the dead
Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, oil on canvas, 1830.

Today, French Romanticism remains difficult to define because it is so diverse. Baudelaire’s comments from the Salon of 1846 may still apply:  “romanticism lies neither in the subjects that an artist chooses nor in his exact copying of truth, but in the way he feels.”

Excerpted and adapted from: Dr. Claire Black McCoy, “Romanticism in France,” in Smarthistory, September 1, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/romanticism-in-france/.
All Smarthistory content is available for free at www.smarthistory.org 


While French Romanticism can be difficult to limit to a specific aesthetic or ideal and can be hard to define clearly, there are some things that Romantic artists and Romantic pieces across Europe shared. The approach tended to value feelings of:

  • Emotion
  • Faith
  • Spirituality
  • Individuality
  • The Natural

And it tended to de-emphasize or outright de-value:

  • Intellect
  • Reason
  • Conformity
  • Cultural Constraints

Romanticism came late to France because of the upheaval of the Revolution, so its expression doesn’t follow closely on the aesthetic or ideological ‘rules’ that other countries explored. In later chapters a more clear picture will emerge regarding the ideas and approaches that Romanticism valued but the foundation can be described in the list above.

Self-Reflection Questions 3.3 & 3.4

Thinking about the French Romantic artists

  • Considering the individual work of a single artist, how do you feel their work exhibits some of the foundational elements of Romanticism (keeping in mind that Romanticism has nothing to do with romantic love and everything to do with overwhelming emotion and dramatic elements of nature)?
  • If Romantic works were about emotional responses and feelings, explain what emotions you feel when looking at some of the works by Romantic artists in this chapter.




  1. Scott Thornbury, "O is for Othering," An A-Z of ELT, August 14, 2012, https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/o-is-for-othering/


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