Romanticism: Roots of
The Romantic Landscape in
European Painting
Landscape painting before the Romantic period
During the Renaissance, landscape often consisted of the
representation of nature as a setting for either human or
divine action.
It could take on symbolic significance, especially as a
metaphor of paradise.
It could also reinforce the subject matter in a painting by
reflecting its mood or echoing the emotional content of the
The Altar of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck, 1425-32
Detail of the Altar of the
Mystic Lamb, showing
precise and botanically
accurate representations
of plants and flowers.
Careful observation of
the entire physical world
during the Renaissance
led artists to recognize
the beauty of nature as a
subject coequal with
humans, animals,
mythological figures and
divine beings.
Isenheimer Altar, 1513-15, by Mathias Gruenewald
The desolate landscape
background underscores
the hopelessness of the
crucifixion and of the
deposition of the body
in the tomb.
An eerie light suggests
an impending storm.
The body of Christ on
the cross resembles a
gnarled tree trunk with
bare branches.
The Tempest by
Giorgione, 1505-10
In this painting, the
grouping of a
woman with infant
opposite a shepherd
enframes the lightning
and rolling clouds of
an approaching
thunderstorm. This is
an early instance of
nature as a subject
rather than only a
Landscape with Flight
into Egypt by Claude
Lorrain, 1663
The representation of
the natural setting is
justified by the
presence of the Holy
Family in the left
foreground; but the
biblical figures are
almost lost in the scene.
The painting is mostly
about the landscape.
Romantic painters in the early 19th century in Germany
developed a new interest in landscape as more than a setting
and as more than a passive agent within the painting. They
began to view landscape as the outward manifestation of the
larger realm of Nature with all its power, majesty, complexity,
destructive forces, and other awe-inspiring qualities as well as
its beauty. These qualities were often subsumed under the term
“sublime.” Nature was its most important expressive vehicle.
Among the most important painters were
Philipp Otto Runge (1770-1810),
Karl Blechen (1798-1840),
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).
Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Philipp Otto Runge, 1805-06
Times of Day: Morning
by Philipp Otto Runge,
Runge wished to reinstate
the innocence of childhood
with its purity and direct
communion with Nature.
Times of Day was planned
as an allegory of the cycles
of nature, human life on
earth, and transmutation of
matter into spirit. He died
before he could complete
the cycle of works.
Two Monks in a Cave
in the Gulf of Naples by
Karl Blechen, 1829
In this work, the figures sit
within the vault of a
shadowy cave that opens to
the vast expanse of the
Mediterranean Sea.
Is the cave a metaphor?
How do you react to the
contrast between the dark
recess of the cave and the
luminous atmosphere of the
Ruins of Cloister Oybin
by Karl Blechen, c.1830
The cloister almost seems
like the equivalent of the
cave near Naples, except
that it is a human
The loneliness and
isolation of the ruin
suggests that it is being
re-assimilated into Nature
as it disintegrates.
The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich are characterized
by a number of typical features that support Friedrich’s
larger vision of the linked relationship between humans
and nature.
• Isolated, small figures alone or in groups
• Humans viewing, contemplating nature
• Humans in nature but oblivious to it
• The use of ships to symbolize human life
• A sense of “self-revelatory” silence, often due to the
setting of the scene at dusk or at night under moonlight
• A sense of nature transcending all human life, sometimes
through unexplained circumstances or even tragic events
Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1809
Winter Landscape with Church by C.D. Friedrich, 1811
Evening by Caspar David Friedrich, c1820
The Chalk Cliffs of Rugen
by C.D. Friedrich, 1818
Woman at a Window by
Caspar David Friedrich,
Moonrise over the Sea by C.D. Friedrich, 1822
Wreck of the Hope is an extremely haunting and highly
popular work that exists in two versions. An
unexecuted third version was planned.
The work was inspired by a shipwreck that was
reported in the newspaper; it is also related to
Friedrich’s fascination with the breaking up of the ice
on the Elbe River. In addition, Friedrich, as a child,
had watched his brother drown in the icy river, an event
that left a deep impression on him.
Here nature is inextricably bound up with the
termination of life, the destruction of hopes, the loss of
energies, and the crushing power of destiny.
The Wreck of the Hope by C.D. Friedrich, 1823-24
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