In this post we’ll explore Pre-Romanticism through its main themes and occupations; ruined abbeys, erotic dreams and strange visions. There’s a strong Gothic vibe in early Romanticism; dreams, visions, vampires and hallucinations, and artists sought inspiration in myths and ballades of the past, Celtic and Germanic fairy tales, and everything that evoked the spirit of the Middle Ages. Compared to the flashy second generation of Romanticism, art of Pre-Romanticism is shrouded in thousands of veils, in it an insurmountable mountain, a misty lake in a desolate countryside, it’s a dream of Albion. Pre-Romanticism is a gentle plant that grew from the imagination of the people of the North; from their gloom soothed by the roaring of the sea and their melancholy which enabled them to look within and to transcend the darkness of their surroundings.
Romanticism developed very early in British art and literature. In the same years when fashion and interior design were ruled by Rococo exuberance, and visual arts were dominated by Classical ideas imposed by the French painter David, a new sensibility was arising from the mists of Albion. Strongly opposing the cold and rational age of Enlightenment, artists of the new generation, represented by Thomas Gray, James Macpherson and Ann Radcliffe in literature, and Henry Fuseli, Turner and William Blake in visual arts, praised imagination and strong feelings, and advocated the return to nature. ‘Sturm und Drang’ in German literature and writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were also very important in creating the new spirit.
These artists found inspiration in everything otherworldly, dreamy and shrouded in mystery. All of a sudden, the artistic and literary stage of Europe was swamped with vampires and other ‘dreadful creatures’ (a tendency further developed by Mary Shelley). Proneness towards melancholy, strange visions, thoughts of death and transience, sleep and dreams, old ruins, long forgotten castles – all these themes suddenly pervaded the artistic landscape. Interest in the cold and gloomy North revealed to early Romanticists the beauty of old Icelandic sagas, the charms of the Scottish bard, the allure of dark Germanic, Celtic and Scandinavian legends and fairy tales, and drew their attention to everything ‘Gothic’; sombre, gruesome, frightening, because that’s how the folkloric and historical legacy of the ‘dark’ Middle Ages was perceived as.
As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime.
Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote that ‘Gleams from remote world visit the soul in sleep’, and the main focus of Fuseli’s art lies in dreams. He believed they were the most unexplored areas in art, which isn’t really a surprise because, firstly – how do you paint dreams, and secondly – until Romanticism there wasn’t really a concept of artist as a genius, a visionary, and because they were considered mere craftsmans, themes of their artworks were limited.
This isn’t the original version of this painting. Due to the popularity of the original, painted in 1781, Fuseli painted a few more versions and this is one of them. It shows a young woman sleeping and experiencing a nightmare. In a restless sleep, her arms are stretching, her golden ringlets falling down. Poor maiden, as helpless in her sleep as a virgin from one of Hammer production vampire films. It’s interesting that we can see her and the content of her nightmare at the same time. There’s a stark contrast between her light white-blueish nightgown and her almost ghostlike pale skin, and the darkness that lures from the background. Fuseli took inspiration from Germanic folkloric beliefs that demons and witches posses people who sleep alone. Lady’s pose was considered rather erotic when it was painted, but Fuseli was known to have had a collection of erotic drawings that might have served as an inspiration.
Still, what’s so appealing about this painting isn’t the composition or the colours, but its ability to anticipate the hidden and restless world of nightmares and the unconscious.
‘Eternity is in love with the creations of time.‘ (W.Blake)
Ah, finally, the visionary, the revolutionary-mystic, the rebel, the pot-head of Romanticism – William Blake, important for poetry and paintings alike.
Madame de Staël (Anne-Louise-Germaine),writes that people living in the North were more prone to melancholy, at the same time naming it as the reason that made their imaginations more vivid, more restless than it was with nations in the South. I’ll quote the book: ‘The people of the North were less engaged in pleasure than in its opposite sensation; and this rendered their imagination more fertile: the prospects of nature had almost unbounded influence over them; but it affected them as it appeared in their climate, always dark and gloomy.‘ (Madame de Staël, The Influence of Literature Upon Society, Volume 1, page 271)
William Blake is one of the finest examples of fertile imagination of the people of the North, as his poems and drawings were not only original and unique, but also very strange, mystic and flamboyant in terms of colours and ideas. His lonely and unreachable imagination produced drawings and watercolours that perfectly combine themes from Milton, Dante and the Bible, made with a prophetic vigour in strong and bitter colours. As an example of Blake’s wonderful imagination I’ll mention his portrayal of a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Canto V, where he shows two sinful lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, painted in deep blue and luminous white greyish shades. Namely, Dante reserved the second circle of hell for sinful lovers; Cleopatra, Paris, Helena, Tristan, Paolo and Francesca, who are carried away by the wind as a symbol of passion that guided them during their lives. Blake here used the motif of wind and created the composition as strange as it is imaginative.
I love Pre-Romanticism, the mystic gloominess of it, and I have to stress this point again – it is characteristic for Northern nations; mainly England and Germany. While the playful, sweet and flowery aesthetic of Rococo ruled the court of France, British artists had already dipped their fingers in the sea of Pre-Romanticism, and later elaborated it to the finest detail because they naturally had an eye for wild and untamed nature, picturesque seashores, lovely gardens lush with greenness. Even Thomas Gainsborough added a slight romantic sensibility in his portraits by painting nature as a background, whereas his French peers preferred a salon to showcase their wealth and luxury. Even with painters such as John Constable who are a tad more traditional with landscapes, you see that romantic spirit. In his painting ‘Stonehenge’ he chose to capture the old, mysterious pagan ruins, and the wild majestic sky over them. I think with Romanticism and British art and literature, it was just a question of time when it would raise to the surface, but it was a sensibility deeply woven into the art of the island. I’ll quote Madame de Stael again, it’s a bit long citation, but I couldn’t resists adding it because it perfectly captures the spirit of Pre-Romanticism.
‘Melancholy poetry is that which accords best with philosophy. Depression of spirits leads us to penetrate more deeply into the character and destiny of man, than any other disposition of the mind. The English poets who succeeded the Scots bards, added to their descriptions those very ideas and reflections which those description ought to have given birth to: but they have preserved, from the fine imagination of the North that gloom which is soothed with the roaring of the sea, and the hollow blast that rages on the barren heath, and, in short, every thing dark and dismal, which can force a mind dissatisfied with its existence here, to look forward to another state. The vivid imagination of the people of the North darting beyond the boundaries of a world whose confines they inhabited, penetrated through the black cloud that obscured their horizon, and seemed to represent the dark passage to eternity.‘ (page 271)*
If you survived reading this very long post, I congratulate you!