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Gothic or Dark Romanticism

Gothic or Dark Romanticism

Author: Ian McConnell

Determine the traits in Gothic and Dark Romanticism works of art, such as those used by Francisco de Goya.

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about Gothic, or dark, romanticism. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define key terms, describe common themes of dark romanticism in the arts, and identify examples of dark, romantic works of art. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

The first term is "Gothic." A medieval style of art (painting, sculpture, stained glass, frescos, and illuminated manuscript) characterized by themes of Marian devotion, which refers to the Virgin Mary, and architecture with pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. The next key term is "Dark Romanticism," a genre of arts characterized by images of human-like forms of evil, i.e., Satan, devils, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and ghouls.

"Anthropomorphized." To assign human form or attributes to animals, plants, or creatures. "Mysticism." A spiritual belief in states of consciousness or aspects of reality beyond human perceptions, including communication and insights with a supreme being.

The big idea for today. The themes of Dark Romanticism include concepts of anthropomorphized evil in the form of ghouls, werewolves, and devils, mysticism, and feelings of isolation and the tragic dimension of humanity, decay, and destruction.

The artwork that we're looking at today dates between 1781 and 1823. But Romanticism wasn't just about the visual arts. Dark Romanticism was actually also a significant literary movement, with authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, as two of its most important literary figures.

We'll be traveling to London, England and Madrid, Spain today. Gothick, with a "k," or "Dark Romanticism," in a nutshell can be described as having the following characteristics. Depictions of anthropomorphzed evil, subjects containing references to metaphysical phenomena, Gothic architectural elements, and a fascination with the power and sometimes delusions of the mind.

The mystery of the power of the mind was a very important idea in the art of Dark Romanticism. Romantics became increasingly interested in the Gothic and sublime, metaphysics and the occult, and nightmares. Now, this painting, entitled "The Nightmare," is by the artist Henry Fuseli. And although Swiss, he spent the majority of his career in Britain.

And here's a picture of Henry. There he is. Now, in this painting, it depicts a young woman stretched across a divan in the midst of what we assume to be a terrible nightmare. The handsome looking fellow on her pelvis is an incubus, a nasty little male demon that enters into female dreams in order to have sexual intercourse with them.

Now, behind, emerging out from behind a curtain, is a black horse's head with pretty luminescent eyes. The term "nightmares" linguistically has nothing to do with the word "mare," which is a word used for female horses. It could be a little bit confusing.

Instead, it refers to a demon that typically rides a horse to get where it's going. So we can assume the horse and incubus arrive together. Now, many modern interpretations of this painting has suggested that the painting's overt sexuality served as a precursor to Sigmund Freud's studies of dreaming and the unconscious mind. Freud actually owned a reproduction of this painting. In its time, the painting wasn't well received by Fuseli's peers, but it's gone on to become one of the works of art that best defines this genre of painting.

So the artist William Blake, a good friend of Fuseli's, was an artist, poet, printmaker, and engraver whose work was reflective of his belief in the transcendent nature of the human imagination. Now, he had also developed his own interpretations of religion, going so far as to develop his own form of mythology.

Now, one of his mythological creations is depicted in his painting called "The Ancient of Days." And this godlike figure, called Urizen represents law and reason, and is shown within a sun-like disc and framed by clouds, using an architect's tool dipped into the inky blackness below in order to rework the universe, and existence itself, in order to fit his own personal vision. Now, for Blake, imagination superseded reason and logic. And this theme of reason and logic trying to constrain the sublimity of nature is evident in another of Blake's work, in which a nude figure of Isaac Newton is portrayed in a cave, using a similar tool in his attempts to explain the universe mathematically.

Spanish painter Francisco Goya is considered by many to be the father of modernist painting. His long and fascinating career is a varied collection of artistic styles, mediums, and subject matter. Now, his artwork serves as a social barometer of sorts. Goya's artwork as a form of his own personal expression, and as a reflection of the political and social climate of time, really recalls the work of another Spanish artist to emerge about 200 years later you're probably familiar with, Pablo Picasso. Here's a picture of Francisco Goya.

So the fear of revolution and social upheaval in late 18th century Spain was very real to the Spanish King, Charles the IV, due to the political climate in neighboring France. In his attempts to solve the problem before it began, Charles did his best to limit the amount of French influence, particularly with literature available in Spain.

Now, France was the center of the Enlightenment during this time, a period that saw the resurgence of human logic and reason. Goya's etching, called "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," is believed to be a work of art directed at the common people, perhaps a warning of the dangers in ignoring reason. It depicts a personification of reason, who's asleep, and the resulting release of a nightmarish menagerie of bats, owls, and a cat.

Several years after The Sleep of Reason, Spain was occupied by French forces during one of Napoleon's many military campaigns. Goya's painting "The Third of May," which I'll show you in a moment. This is actually "The Second of May" shown here. "The Third of May" both documents and memorializes the Napoleonic Wars.

Goya was one of many who welcomed the French, believing that the influx of French culture and a new constitution was beneficial for the people of Spain. Soon after, however, a rumor spread that the French army was planning on killing the royal family of Spain. People who rallied and fought against the French to prevent any harm coming to the royal family were themselves rounded up and summarily executed by a firing squad.

Now, this very famous painting captures the horror of that day, as well as the terrifying moments before a line of French soldiers, rather rigid in mechanical in their posture, fire point blank upon a group of common Spaniards. Now, the diagonally arranged composition depicts the bodies of the recently executed in the lower left-hand corner at the beginning of an access that runs through the hoards of terrifying people you can see in the far right. They're being let up, or precessed up, the stairs, and are about to meet a similar fate, we assume.

The dramatic lighting brings our attention on this central figure that you can see here in white, his arms extended as if being crucified. You can actually notice the inclusion of the stigmata, the wounds suffered by Christ when nailed to the cross. This painting became a symbol of the tragedy that took place, a reminder and warning in the hopes that something like this will never happen again.

My favorite painting by Goya is this crazy-looking portrayal of the mythological titan Saturn, or Cronus if you're from Greece, eating one of his children. Now, as this implies, this is based on an actual myth, not something that Goya created, and was a topic that earlier artists had addressed. This is Peter Paul Rubens' arguably much more disturbing interpretation of that.

By comparison, Goya's depiction of Saturn seems almost cartoonish. The reality, though, is that this painting was created during a dark time in Goya's life, and reflects the artist's own bouts of madness. He had actually lost his hearing due to an infection, and felt rather alone and isolated as a result. Now, his recent narrow escape from imprisonment at the hands of the reestablished Spanish monarchy and inquisition didn't really help matters either. His anger comes through in a series from his later career called The Black Paintings.

Now, artworks like this depict anthropomorphized representations of evil, which is a characteristic of Dark Romanticism, and may have been a not-so-subtle metaphor for Goya's personal feelings regarding the Spanish government's relationship to its people, or perhaps Goya's personal submission for Saturn's consideration as recipient of The father of the Year award. Who can say?

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe common themes of Dark Romanticism in the arts? And can you identify examples of Dark Romantic works of art?

And once again, the big idea for today is that the themes of Dark Romanticism include concepts of anthropomorphized evil in the form of ghouls, werewolves and devils, mysticism, and feelings of isolation and the tragic dimension of humanity, decay and destruction. Not necessarily the most positive form of art. Well, I appreciate you joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Terms to Know

To assign human form or attributes to animals, plants, or creatures.

Dark Romanticism

A genre of characterized by images of humanlike forms of evil i.e. Satan, devils, ghosts, werewolves, vampires and ghouls.


A style of Medieval art (painting, sculpture, stained glass, frescos and illuminated manuscript) characterized by themes of Marian devotion and architecture with pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses.


A spiritual belief in states of consciousness or aspects of reality beyond human perceptions including communication and insights with a supreme being.