Drawing inspiration from mid 19th Century art movements like The Pre-Raphaelites, and from late 18th Century Romanticism, John Atkinson Grimshaw created indelible images that are imbued with Victorian Era ideals. Innocence. Romance. Beauty. These simple aesthetic tropes of the times are permeated throughout Grimshaw’s work. Whether depicting Gothic manors or urban streets lit by moonlight, faeries soaring through the night or ships in the harbor, Grimshaw’s paintings are almost photo-realistic and yet simultaneously elevated by his imaginative lighting and saturated by his use of Earth tones. Little is known about Grimshaw as a man, and little more is known about him as an artist, but his work on the other hand is quite recognizable even to those outside the art community. Our modern notion of what Dickensian London was like has been greatly influenced by Grimshaw’s work, which itself is just as timeless and unforgettable as the writings of Dickens.
When it comes to Gothic imagery, there are few artists so fundamental in the creation of an aesthetic as Caspar David Friedrich. Comprised of desolate landscapes, decrepit monasteries, haunted cemeteries, and gnarled forests, his iconic and often operatic paintings conjure up visions of German Romanticism. At once his compositions are simple in their depiction of the majesty of nature as it dwarfs all human endeavors, but his work is also far more complex than that, employing subtle symbolism and allegory in landscapes to comment on what were then political, social, and religious concerns of his time. Are the duo who appear to be admiring the moon, in fact, conspirators who chose this moonlight rendezvous for a clandestine meeting? Whose is the disembodied spirit that hovers above the uneven grounds of the graveyard? What do the trio of companions spot over the cliffs of Rügen? Friedrich’s paintings are more than epic depictions of crumbling abbeys and ancient trees. They are visual journeys into the heart of the past.
Steeped in allegory, religious imagery, and the darkness and fears within his own soul, the works of Francisco Goya speak much of the world he lived in and the way in which he viewed it. Inspired by the horrors of war, the cautionary tales of myth, and the disarming allure of woman, Goya’s works fit firmly into the Romantic tradition. His grotesque depictions of both real and imagined evils are as harrowing as any ever put on canvas. With his skillful employment of dark and muted tones, heavy brush work, and detailed embellishments of realism, Goya kept his work, even at its most violent and fantastical, grounded in the foundations of reality. He straddled both worlds with ease, just as he stood somewhere between the Old Masters and the New Masters as a legendary painter, perfecting the methods and subject matter of the past while introducing stylistic changed that would revolutionize painting in the 19th Century.
Philosopher. Poet. Artist. William Blake was all of these things. A central figure of the Romantic movement, and a precursor to Symbolism, Blake utilized Judeo-Christian concepts in his artwork and poetry, all the while exploring the ideas of classical philosophy as embodied by the pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and mining their mythological pantheon for creative metaphors. Throughout all of his work, the same themes resurface time and time again, suggesting a deep and ever-evolving commitment to his convictions of faith and social equality. Rebelling against the dogmas and rigidity of organized religion, Blake confounded his contemporaries who failed to understand why someone with such clear faith in God would reject the church and its doctrines. The Biblical imagery found in his poetry and art is as complex as Blake himself was and shows him often being at odds with himself and the world in which he lived. He was woefully misunderstood in his time, but as Western culture progressed, his work was reevaluated and he has become praised for his genius, if not fully understood. The iconoclast has become an icon to intellectuals, romantics, and rebel spirits, who find within his work an all-encompassing passion and gleaming gems of intelligence.
Few artists have delved so deeply into the darkness of the human psyche as Johann Heinrich Füssli, better known as Henry Fuseli, whose very works are like nightmares realized in oil on canvas. Painted with all the mystery, eroticism, horror, and symbolism that was typical of the Romantic movement, Füssli’s paintings are profound explorations of myth, memory, and dreams, and they provided inspiration for the latter Symbolist and Expressionist genres. As examples of both beauty and grotesquerie, these images fill the mind with simultaneous dread and desire, exciting the senses with a dichotomy of anticipation and apprehension. Modern day art scholars and psychoanalysts recognize the use of archetypal symbology in his work, which might explain the strange enigmatic allure of his grisly depictions of death and decay, violence, and sensual desire emphasized all the more by the stark contrasts of chiaroscuro. Whether this was Füssli’s exact intention or not is difficult to say, but he undoubtedly navigated his own world of fears and longings in the creation of his most impressive pieces, transcending Romanticism and essentially birthing Dark Romanticism. Füssli is, for me, a master of the macabre.
Controversial Masterpieces: Censorship Of Classical Art From The Renaissance Through The 19th Century
Whether the church’s chiseling the genitalia off of ancient statues or painting over blasphemous elements in a mural, art has been a contested territory, and there has been a long history of suppressing art that challenged the social mores of its day or expressed ideas deemed as obscene or heretical. Perhaps because art existed before the written word, before most other physical mediums of expression, it could be argued that art was the first form of communication outside of verbal speech to be censored. In the world of art, censorship often takes on three forms, either a work of art is expurgated (altered to exclude content that may offend), removed from public view, or destroyed altogether. The latter is rare since most cultures around the world hold art in high esteem and don’t wish to see its destruction regardless of its perceived objectionable qualities. Expurgation or obscurement has been more common.