Tag Archives: French Romanticism

Eugene Delacroix – Horse Frightened by Lightning

22 Oct

Eugene Delacroix, Horse Frightened by Lightning, 1825-29, watercolour

The spirit of Romanticism is alive and intense in this wonderful and expressive watercolour by Delacroix. The simplicity of the composition contrasts the intense and dramatic mood that is conveyed. Using the combination of simple visual elements; a wild horse, a desolate landscape, and a gloomy sky with a lightning, Delacroix created a painting that encapsulated the aesthetic of the Sublime. The face expression of the horse and his pose convey his torment and fear at the sudden lightning and thunder that have appeared in the sky. He seems truly unsettled and his feelings seep into the lonely landscape around him and his fear touches the viewer too; our sympathy for the poor frightened animal mingles with the feeling of awe at the nature’s unpredictability and power. This scene seems like something I would imagine whilst reading a Gothic novel.

Delacroix inherited his love and admiration for horses from another master of French Romanticism; Theodore Gericault, who was only a few years older than Delacroix but at the time this watercolour was painted, Gericault had already been dead. But despite his short life and even shorter career his dramatic art full of feelings and dark passions set the standard for the French Romanticism. Wild and untamed, or tamed but still very beautiful, strong and awe-inspiring, horses are a motif we find often in the art of Romanticism; in Fuseli’s Nightmare, in the art of Sawrey Gilpin, Gros and Gericault. A century later Franz Marc painted vibrant and expressive paintings of horses as well. For Romanticists a horse was a symbol of something wild and unstoppable, of the fire of youth, of passion for exploration, of bravery and Delacroix chose to portray this majestic animals in numerous occasions.

In this watercolour the horse is clearly not representative of something strong and wild, but rather the opposite. Panicked and red-eyed, the horse exhibits his more emotional, vulnerable side, something one wouldn’t expect to see portrayed and this strange constrasts adds to the painting’s stunning beauty; it is not just aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but poingnant and strange all at the same time. The reason why I love this painting so much is firstly because it is a watercolour and I love watercolours, and secondly because of its simplicity, passion and expressiveness, and the colour scheme where the mystical deep shades of blue present in the sky and also as subtle touches on the horse add to the mood of the sublime. A brown colour scheme would have muted the effect of terror, strangeness and drama. Blue is the colour of the deep sea and the sky, of things infinite and mysterious. The landscape around the horse thus gets a mystical air and we might wonder whether the horse itself is but our vision or a fancy…

Caspar David Friedrich – A Vision of Eternity

2 Oct

”So driven onward to new shores forever,
Into the night eternal swept away,
Upon the sea of time can we not ever
Drop anchor for one day?

O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then. (…)

Pause in your trek O Time! Pause in your flight,
Favorable hours, and stay!
Let us enjoy the transient delight
That fills our fairest day.

Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on…

(The Lake – Alphonse de Lamartine, translated by A.Z.Foreman)

1822. Moonrise over the Sea - Caspar David FriedrichMoonrise over the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, although a famous German painter of Romanticism today, was pretty much neglected as an artist until the painters of Symbolism discovered the connection between his paintings and their own ideas. Friedrich’s paintings reflect the mood of Romantic poetry of his times, which is also the mood of Schubert’s music, and some unjustly criticised his art as being to literary. His painting above Moonrise over the Sea, perhaps his most famous work, is a typical Friedrich’s landscape: dreamy but emotionally charged, it shows the sea without the line of horizon which leaves the impression of something infinite.

As usual, we don’t see the faces of his characters, two women and a man in this case, contemplating on a desolate beach, admiring the moonrise perhaps. The colours are exquisite, as I’ve seen the painting in Berlin – now I can die happily. While the stones and the shore in the foreground may seem repulsive in their dark brownness, the sea and the sky are absolutely stunning; lavender shades softly reveal the golden setting sun, then the boats sailing on that magical blueness of the sea… Perhaps the solid brown rocks symbolise stability of his family life, the merging sea and skyline freedom, and the setting sun lost hopes and a feeling of helplessness against transience.

A hint of mystery and infinite is present in this painting as well, some interpret his paintings as portrait of human alienation and solitude. Namely, Caspar was born and grew up in Greifswald, a university town and a seaport on Baltic coast. He remained closely connected to the town even as an adult, and most likely admired the sea himself, for he did say ‘I have to stay alone in order to fully contemplate and feel nature.‘ However, he had experienced a several traumas in his childhood which may had left him with a bleak and melancholic view on life; deaths of people close to him: his mother and sister had died when he was very young, and at thirteen he witnessed his brother drowning while ice-skating.

As I’ve already said, Friedrich’s paintings have often been perceived as highly poetic and connecting them to poetry then seems quite right, don’t you think? Well, as a fan of poetry of Romanticism, I’ve noticed how longer gazing at this painting reminds me of Alphonse de Lamartine’s poem The Lake. The story behind that poem is very sad, but also a material for a novel. In 1816 Lamartine met a young girl by the lake Bourget. The following year he returned to the lake, expecting to see her again, but she wasn’t there. At first he thought that she had stood him up, only to find out later that she had taken ill and died… Still, to him she remained a symbol of platonic, unearthly love.

echo and the bunnymen heaven up hereEcho and the Bunnymen ‘Heaven up Here’, 1981

Art always reinterprets itself and I see a connection between Caspar David Friedrich’s wistful and dreamy, yet lonely landscapes with the cover of the album Heaven up Here by the Echo and the Bunnymen, a great post-punk band from Liverpool. I’ll quote Wikipedia: ‘The photograph used on the front and back cover of the album was taken by photographer Brian Griffin. The picture shows the band on a wet beach in the south of Wales; there are dark clouds in the sky and the sun is low on the horizon causing the band to be silhouetted. The original album’s cover art was designed by Martyn Atkins. Reynolds said that the band’s manager Drummond saw them as representing “cold, dampness, darkness“.‘ I fully recommend the album by the way, as it is perfect for Autumn, the melodies remind me of exactly of Friedrich’s damp and solitary landscapes, but rich in colours, and atmospheric just like songs on Heaven up Here (1981). Song Over the Wall is the one I’ve listened to the most, so I recommend you to check it out if you like.