Romanticism, also known as the romantic era, was an intellectual movement, complex in artistry and literature, which emerged in the mid 18th century, and drew much of its strength from its strong reactions against the Industrial Revolution. This era originated and spread from Europe. The reasons for the establishment of this movement were many. One of the reasons for the development of romanticism was to revolt or demonstrate against the norms and the characteristics that came with the Age of Enlightenment. These characteristics were in line with the emerging aristocratic political and social issues.
The movement was also against the rationalization of nature that science had come up with. Romanticism was mostly characterized by visual arts, literature, and music. It was also a form of art that was meant to celebrate and embody heroes (Renwick and Lindsay 101-107). The purpose of this paper therefore, is to look at some forms of romanticism, romantic paintings specifically, in which a number of paintings and their implications on heroism are going to be discussed. These paintings are ‘The Execution of the Third of May’ by Francisco Goya, ‘The Raft of the “Medusa” ’ by Theodore Gericault and ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugene Delacroix.
Francisco Goya’s The Execution of the Third of May, 1808
This is a painting by Goya that sought to depict some of the random executions from the war in Madrid, of the Spanish people. The moving painting shows the public executions on the day after the insurrection, of insurgents. This day was on 3rd of May in 1808. The French firing squad is shown in this picture executing a number of Spanish citizens in retaliation for the loss of the Napoleon’s troops in the hands of the Spanish people. It is said that the painter was in deed in Madrid when the executions happened and he even visited the area of executions. This was to take notes and make sketches in preparations for his depiction of the horrors of war he had witnesses in his city (Book Five. Romanticism, Realism, and Empire 1098).
The painting shows of the French soldiers carrying out the command they had received from their seniors, to shoot and execute several citizens who had been assembled from various streets of Madrid. These partisans had been caught taking part and participating in some campaigns and rallies that had been organized against Joseph Bonaparte in 1808, May. Joseph Bonaparte had been appointed into the throne by the Napoleon. They were shot at night at a place near the royal palace in Madrid. The French troops were supposed to capture and shoot any Spaniard found carrying weapons. It was an act of revenge on the side of the French (Renwick and Lindsay 98- 110).
Goya considered the executed Spanish citizens heroes of his country. This is shown when he approaches the provisional government in 1814, after the French soldiers are expelled from Spain, to request for permission to show by means of his paint and brush, of the most significant heroic actions of Spain’s glorious defeat against the French. He therefore, wanted to paint this painting to immortalize the most remarkable and notable heroic deeds his fellow country men had done in their bid to fight against and overthrow the rule of the European tyrants, the Napoleon. This shows that he considered it heroic for the Spanish people to die in the hands of the French for their country (Renwick and Lindsay 98-110).
The painting therefore, was Goya’s own way of epitomizing the spirit of the revolutionary heroism of the Spanish people. Through this painting, Goya was able to give an example of a radical shift of the Spanish people to reject Neo- Classicism. To show heroism, Goya paints a dark image of innocent Spanish citizens being executed by the napoleon soldiers as revenge against the killing of one of their own. His painting of this image was therefore, a way of honoring those who were executed in the rule of the Napoleon, heroes to the Spanish people because they died in the course of obtaining freedom from a tyrannical master (Renwick and Lindsay 98-110).
Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the “Medusa”
The Raft of the “Medusa” is an oil painting by Theodore Gericault, who was considered as one of the first romantic painters in France. This painting dates back to the period between 1818 and 1819. The piece of work is considered to be an icon of the French romanticism movement. This painting was completed by the painter when he was barely 27 years old and it was a depiction of the moment after the French naval ship, frigate Meduse, wrecked against the coastal shows. The ship wreckage ran against and collided with coast of what is known today as the Mauritania in 1816. In an attempt to save the lives of the people on the ship, a raft was hurriedly constructed on which 147 people were placed and set adrift (Book Five. Romanticism, Realism, and Empire 1104).
Only 15 people survived the ordeal, as it took the rescuers 13 days before they could find and rescue the survivors. The survivors however, endured and witnessed various monstrous acts within those thirteen days. These included dehydration, starvation, madness and even cannibalism. This tragic event became a scandal that became known internationally mostly because it was partly as a result of the French captain’s incompetence. The painting was highly controversial after its first appearance, earning both condemnation and praise from various spectators. It however, became a significant icon and representation of the French romantic movement of that era (Berger 77).
Gericault selected this subject for his painting for many reasons. One of the most apparent one is that he needed a subject matter that would generate a lot of interest from the public, most probably for the purposes of up lifting and launching his career. However, it can also be said that this painter chose this particular subject to depict the suffering and therefore, the heroism of the surviving fifteen victims on the raft. He probably considered these people as heroes because, unlike the other 250 survivors who got space in the rescue boats, they had to be piled on a hurriedly constructed raft which partially sunk once they were all aboard. Though the captain and those aboard the other rescue boats intended to pull the raft, and they did for a few miles, they gave up after the raft became loose (Berger 78).
The people on the raft were then left on there own with only few food and drink items with them. They only had a bag of biscuits, which they consumed and finished on the first day, a few wine casks, and two water casks, which they lost overboard while fighting for them. Their intent to survive is what the painter wanted to depict as heroism. Though some of the acts these survivors did are not considered heroic; like slaughtering and eating their dead companions and throwing the weak into the sea, what they went through is enough to consider these people heroes. They were starved, thirsty and crazed, not knowing whether they will survive to see the next day. This painter wanted to show how ordinary people, tried their best to react and respond to an unfolding tragedy in which they where faced with and had to endure a lot of difficulties (Renwick and Lindsay 63).
Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People
Liberty Leading the People is one of the most influential and romantic works of Eugene Delacroix. This image is in part an allegoric glorification of the painter’s idea of what liberty is. It is a painting that was inspired by the 1830 revolution in France, and is categorized under the name The Three Glorious Days. The image is of a woman, known by the name Liberty. Liberty is a name in French used to depict the female gender. She is shown in this painting to be leading the partisans armed with the Drapeau Tricolore, a flag used in the 1789 French revolution, and a weapon. She holds the weapon firmly in her left hand and the Drapeau Tricolore in her right hand (De La Croix, Tansey and Kirkpatrick 28).
In the painting Liberty seems fully guarded by her femininity, her firm convictions and believes and her charm. In that matter, the painter took it to himself the freedom to represent a very attractive woman, who is half naked, being followed by men who seem to be fully clothed. This imagery was done as a response to the political crisis that came about after the overthrowing of Charles X, the reigning monarch of the time (Book Five. Romanticism, Realism, and Empire 1132). He was the brother of Louis XVI who was the founder of the Bourbon throne after the eviction of the Napoleon troops. He was later beheaded. Delacroix wrote to his brother explaining that since he had not fought in the war and won for his fatherland, he was going to paint on behalf of his country as a reward. This was the reason why he painted this painting.
Heroism is one of the characteristics that the painter wanted to reflect in this painting. This is because Liberty Leading People is some kind of a political poster, one that the painter used to show and reflect on the day when the French people arose and overthrew the Bourbon king, therefore dethroning him (De La Croix, Tansey and Kirkpatrick 31). They opted for the rule of the ‘citizen king’, Louis Philippe who had promised the much more restricted constitutional way of governance. The heroism here is that common citizens took it upon themselves to liberate themselves from the tyrannical rule of the Bourbon king. The painter used this painting to show heroism where by, people from different social classes came together, led by Liberty to fight for their right of liberty and consequently their right to freedom. This is a right that was normally not assured for the French citizens; therefore, in their heroic acts they fought to conquer and re- conquer their rights through the argument of arms as Delacroix shows in his painting (De La Croix, Tansey and Kirkpatrick 28).
Berger, Klaus. Gericault and His Work. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1955. Print
Book Five. Romanticism, Realism, and Empire: 1098, 1104, 1132. Print
De La Croix, Tansey, Richard and Kirkpatrick, Diane. Art through the Ages. University of
Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Print
Renwick and Lindsay, William. The Rise of the Romantics 1789-1815: Wordsworth, Coleridge,
and Jane Austen / W. L. Renwick. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Print