Prof. Dr Johannes Grave at the university’s collection of paintings.

The new freedom of vision

On the tracks of Romanticism in the visual arts of Europe
Prof. Dr Johannes Grave at the university’s collection of paintings.
Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

The Romantic era came at a time of upheaval and change in which artists across Europe were confronted with social transformations that inspired their work. What similarities and differences can be identified in their pictures? This question is being investigated by art historians at the University of Jena—the place where Romanticism began.

By Irena Walinda

Is there such thing as »European Romanticism« in the visual arts? Or were there actually several independent Romantic movements across Europe? What do artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, William Turner, Eugène Delacroix and Francesco Hayez have in common?

»The question of a pan-European perspective on Romanticism has long been debated in literary studies,« says Prof. Dr Johannes Grave, »but this is far less obvious in the field of visual arts«. The professor of early modern art history refers to one single exhibition entitled »The Romantic Movement«, which was shown in London in 1959. This exhibition, along with a few other sporadic publications, have been unable to provide an adequate answer as to whether there was such thing as »European Romanticism«. That is why Grave and his team of researchers have set themselves the challenge of developing a European perspective in the framework of a project called »European Romanticism or Romanticisms in Europe?«.

The first rays of the modern age

Romantic artists travelled all over Europe. William Turner, a Romantic artist from England, walked along the Rhine and portrayed the river in many of his works. Most painters spent periods in Italy—that was almost a staple of the artist’s diet at the time. There were even connections and interactions beyond the realms of art—Johann Wolfgang Goethe knew and treasured the »Faust« lithographs created by Eugène Delacroix. »But regardless of whether the artists knew one another, they must have faced similar changes and challenges that may have prompted similar attempts at finding solutions,« suspects Grave.

»The French Revolution was certainly a binding and decisive event«. This is the first time it became clear that the centuries-old monarchical order could be supplanted by another form of society. After being shaped by princely rule and the Church in previous eras, society entered a period of dynamic transformation. »A further change in the ways people thought at the time can be observed in the field of philosophy, which was given a whole new foundation, especially inspired by Kant. What these historical and intellectual upheavals have in common is the fact that they changed people’s perception of time. The contemporaries around 1800 experienced their future as more open than before. It now seemed as though people could shape their lives to a much greater extent, but they also faced greater uncertainties«. Many artists experienced this upheaval together—regardless of the countries in which they lived. These new experiences seem to be reflected in pictures from the Romantic period. The artists no longer only attempted to convey a certain message, but challenged viewers to complete the work of art with their own perception.

The time of perception

So, it would seem that the focus of many Romantic artists was not to communicate a certain thought, but to stimulate personal reflection in the eye of the beholder. »A considerable number of artists around 1800 created images that demand a lot of time and do not elicit a clearly definable conclusion when viewed. Romanticists seem to have recognized the special potential of images to stimulate reflection and used this in a targeted manner,« says Grave. In his opinion, Romantic painters tried to keep the viewer’s attention for as long as possible. »The more time had to be spent looking at a picture, the stronger the impression that the picture held power over the viewer«. The painters would use different visual strategies for this. The research group is currently exploring these strategies based on case studies on individual artists.

Landscapes and the freedom of vision

The choice of pictorial genre may have played an important role. »As a pictorial genre, landscapes were more important in the Romantic period than in other eras,« says Grave. According to him, this was no coincidence. Grave posits that landscape art enables a new freedom of vision, because it is based on fewer narrative elements. Romantic pictures were not necessarily intended to »achieve an objective or provide the viewer with a message to take home, but rather to facilitate an aesthetic experience which, in and of itself, can be perceived as meaningful—not because it offers special insights, but because it unfolds on a personal level in the eye of the beholder«. This hypothesis is substantiated by the writings of artists such as Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich.

A similar demand for a new aesthetic experience can be found in the English landscape gardens, whose form and style were shaped in the 18th century. »For example, anyone who visits the Ilmpark in Weimar does not usually have a specific objective in mind, but simply wanders through the park and enjoys the moods evoked by their visit,« explains Grave.


Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)

English landscape gardens and the freedom of movement

The gardens were specifically designed to create a new freedom of movement. The routes are not very predictable, the views are evocative and surprising, the flora seems »more natural« and the park landscape is picturesque. Romantic artists were able to pick up on such experiences: While landscape gardens offered a new freedom of movement, pictures from the Romantic period opened up a new freedom of vision.

Grave and his team are exploring these hypotheses here in Jena – at the place where Romanticism in literature originated. The university, which has a European Romanticism Research Centre, is the perfect place for scholars to come together and exchange ideas on Romanticism. The development of a pan-European perspective on various aspects of the Romantic era is ultimately being facilitated by the cooperation between members of the research group, the Research Training Group »The Romantic Model. Variation—Scope—Relevance« and the »Practices of Comparing« collaborative research centre at the University of Bielefeld, in which the Institute for Art and Cultural Studies in Jena is involved. Their first attempt will be an international conference in autumn 2022.

Three questions to Prof. Dr Johannes Grave

What can we learn from Romanticism to tackle current challenges such as the climate crisis?

Grave: That’s a difficult question, so my answer here is a lot shorter than it could be… Perhaps Romanticism will help us gain a better understanding of our ambivalent attitude towards nature. We are part of nature and dependent on it, but, at the same time, we are also able do reflectively distance ourselves from it. We are potential »victims« of nature, as we are exposed to its forces, but we are also »perpetrators«, as we transform nature and sometimes make irreversible interventions. In our discussions on the climate crisis, we may be paying too much attention to one of these aspects to the detriment of others.

What role do images play in people’s interaction with reality today?

Grave: The flood of images with which we live and communicate may numb our senses in some way, but they also have a major impact on our perception of the world and our discussions. What is presented by an image often seems immediately plain to see—but that is by no means the case. This makes it all the more important that we learn how to deal with images critically, i.e. that we work on our »image literacy«. Then we will not only understand the problems and dangers of an all too naïve view of images–we will also develop a clearer impression of their potential. After all, images can do so much more than depict something—they can become real instruments of thought if you know how to use them.

How do you think today’s images will be viewed in 200 years’ time? What will people infer about us from our images?

Grave: We can’t really anticipate that because it is difficult to predict which images will actually be handed down and which (computer-aided) methods will be used to view images. However, it seems quite possible that many of our images today will be perceived as symptoms of problems that we are perhaps not yet able to see with such clarity. For example, where we currently see Instagram photos of people set against a landscape and feel like they have a special interest in being close to nature, we might perceive this as a disconnection from nature in the future.