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Transition to Romanticism

Transition to Romanticism

Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will explore the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.
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Exploring examples of artwork that describe the transition from the Neoclassical to Romanticism.

Video Transcription

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I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell and today's lesson is about the transition to 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 of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, compare and contrast the stylistic characteristics of Romanticism with Neoclassicism, and identify examples of romantic works of art. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Romanticism, a transformative late 18th century intellectual and artistic movement originating in Europe, characterized by imagination, exaltation of the common man, and appreciation of nature.

Sublime. An aesthetic quality in nature during the 18th century distinct from beauty, expressing awe and fear simultaneously. The exotic. Foreign, unusual and excitingly strange. And the big idea for today is that Romanticism is an age of feeling contrasted to Neoclassicism which is an age of reason. The artwork that we're looking at today dates from between 1804 and 1827. We'll be traveling to Paris, France today.

So Romanticism, in a nutshell, can be described as having the following characteristics. A strong sense of imagination and appreciation of nature, depictions of the sublime and a noticeable break from the ubiquitous scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. One of the major influences of this time was the work of Jean Rousseau. You may remember his name from our discussions of Neoclassicism and his role in the French Revolution. His ideas about individualism and the natural man, or natural human, were important influences on the development of Romanticism as well as his religious views in finding the presence of God in His-- meaning God's-- creation.

Now, this first painting is by a student of Jacques-Louie David named Antoine-Jean Gros. Although he's largely considered a Neoclassical painter, this particular example shows examples of a transition from strictly Neoclassical to something different. And that different thing becomes Romanticism.

Now, it's a history painting in that scene is based on an actual event, Napoleon visiting his troops dying of the plague in Jaffa, Israel. Now, the attention is pushed to the foreground creating a theatrical sensation like in David's Oath of the Horatii. The architecture is exotic and accurate-- as far as I can tell-- with the influence of Islam in this region. You can see the keyhole arch on the far left, which is a nice touch.

Now, Gros' palette is noticeably livelier than David's, using a lighting scheme that's closer to Romanticism in it's effect than to Neoclassicism. And then there's the subject matter. Napoleon is portrayed almost Christ-like in his heroism in how he's shown touching slash healing the sick. Now, Gros was ordered to create the painting as a supposed form of damage control. And rumor has it that Napoleon actually ordered the troops to be poisoned.

Now, it's been suggested that Gros may have been aware of this jerk move by Napoleon when he painted him as smaller in comparison to the sick and foreign doctors. Now, when taken in that context, the depiction of Napoleon feels even more artificial to me, almost as if the image of the officer behind them-- the one with the rag to his mouth-- is much closer in depicting Napoleon's true sentiments.

Now, as desperately as David's student Jean Ingres desired to be considered a classicist in the tradition of his idol Raphael, the spirit of the time was perhaps too influential. And we'll use two of his paintings as a way of showing the change from the classical inspired works of the Neoclassical to the more exotic influence that appears in Romanticism. Keep in mind that there is an overlap between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. It wasn't as if one started and the other stopped. Even in these two examples you'll see-- you'll notice that the more classically inspired painting that we're looking at here comes 14 years after the more romantically inspired painting.

We'll begin with the Apotheosis of Homer. And it appears as almost an example of a Christ or a Zeus enthroned image. Homer is seated amongst a veritable who's who of artists figures from history, being elevated from the status of a man to the level of a god. Now, at first glance it appears very classical in its composition, and it really is in many ways. One example is the backdrop which contains examples of classical architecture, possibly more Neoclassical in it's dark lack of ornamentation. There's no free sculpture and very little pediment sculpture.

However, the painting is very busy. The central figure of Homer and the personifications of his literary works-- the Iliad and the Odyssey-- form a triangle that anchors the composition. But it becomes rather chaotic as you move further away. There isn't this logical flow among the subjects like we see in Raphael's School of Athens, for example.

Napoleon's military campaigns reintroduced Western Europe to the culture of Islam, particularly from Northern Africa. Now the idea of a harem was quite exotic and appealing on some level I'm sure, and Ingres took this idea and blended it with a French interpretation of a pleasure slave. It takes the Classical notion of a reclining nude mythological figure, flips it-- literally and figuratively-- from a depiction and appreciation for the female figure to a tantalizing image of a nude woman. She has her back to us, and the lack of complete exposure is intended to heighten the eroticism of the painting. Now, some example of the exotic that came to be so closely connected with this stylistic characteristic of Romanticism from an artist who preferred the association with and the design ethic of the Neoclassical.

Now, notice the emotion and drama that returns in the next few images. Something we really haven't seen in paintings since the Baroque period. Now, this first example by Eugene Delacroix, an artistic rival of Ingres, is called the Death of Sardanapalus. Death hasn't actually occurred yet, but it will. Just you wait.

The entire composition is arranged on a diagonal with the apathetic Sardanapalus reclining on an elaborate divan while chaos ensues around him. Now, he has decided to burn himself and his prized possessions which include his slaves, horses and harem, rather than face defeat. One of the women throws herself on the bed pleading for mercy while the others are aggressively forced to remain inside as the area begins to fill with smoke. Now, it's an example of the sublime and the juxtaposition of the beauty of material possessions that human forms against the horror of the drama taking place and the sensation of impending doom from the room filling up with smoke.

Theodore Gericault's painting the Raft of the Medusa always reminds me of the work of the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens. The diagonally arranged composition forces the viewer to deal with the imagery of death and despair in the foreground that rises in a mass of people to the desperation and depiction of hope in being rescued shown in the figure of the man waving his shirt in the air to a passing ship. Now, the subject matter is based on a real historical event.

The ship The Medusa went aground off the coast of Western Africa on July 5, 1816. Over 140 people were forced to construct a raft in order to survive. But only 15 did after nearly two weeks at sea. It's another example of the sublime. The juxtaposition of the tear from the wave about to strike them, that the beauty of the sea and sky and the unspeakable horror-- the horror being the crew had to resort to cannibalism to survive-- taking that and contrasting it with the sheer awe and the relentlessness of the human spirit.

That brings us to the end this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, compare and contrast the stylistic characteristics of Romanticism with Neoclassicism, and identify examples of romantic works of art? Once again, the big idea for today is that Romanticism is an age of feeling contrasted to Neoclassicism which is an age of reason. And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Transition to Romanticism"

Key Terms


A transformative late 18th-century intellectual and artistic movement originating in Europe; characterized by imagination, exaltation of the common man, and appreciation of nature. 


An aesthetic quality in nature during the 18th-century, distinct from beauty, expressing awe and fear simultaneously.

The Exotic

Foreign, unusual, and excitingly strange.


Napolean Visiting Jaffa; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Antoine-Jean_Gros_-_Bonaparte_visitant_les_pestif%C3%A9r%C3%A9s_de_Jaffa.jpg Apotheosis of Homer; Public Domain: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/jean-auguste-dominique-ingres/the-apotheosis-of-homer-1827 La Grande Odalisque; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Auguste_Dominique_Ingres,_La_Grande_Odalisque,_1814.jpg Raft of the Medusa; Public Domain (PD-1923); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Theodore_Gericault_Raft_of_the_Medusa-1.jpg Death of Sardanapale; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Delacroix_-_La_Mort_de_Sardanapale_%281827%29.jpg; Image of Rousseau Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait).jpg