“Who says romanticism says modern art – that is to say intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by all the means contained in the arts.”
– Charles BAUDELAIRE, Salon, 1846.
Baudelaire sums up the whole essence of the great cultural movement that shook Europe during the first half of the 19th century: romanticism. A phenomenon of revolutionary significance in the various fields of art, romanticism has its roots in the very heart of the Enlightenment. A phenomenon of revolutionary significance in the various fields of art, romanticism has its roots in the very heart of the Enlightenment. Romantic artists rebelled against the conservatism of academics and the moderation of neoclassicism. They give primacy to an unbridled imagination, emphasizing the importance of individual experience.
Drawing from subjectivity and listening to divine inspiration, romanticism gives way to intuition, feelings and torments. He favors disturbing subjects, tinged with melancholy, which underline man’s fragility in the face of the world. A new conception of art was born: the romantics claimed the right to be guided by their sensitivity.
School from the end of the 19th century
In painting, romanticism is distinguished by its variety of styles: it is in France – more than anywhere else – that romanticism is perceived as the antithesis of classicism. It is generally associated with the dashing brio and the brilliant colors of Eugène Delacroix and his disciples. In the 1820s, critics of exhibitions at the Salon opposed Delacroix and Ingres. In reality, the line between the two styles is quite blurry. Delacroix admires tradition, as for Ingres, his harem representations are undeniably romantic in spirit.
The New World & the magic of feeling
In the 19th century, all the land surfaces of the planet were discovered and many remained surrounded by a halo of mystery. America is the continent to which Europeans feel closest, even if the Old Continent cultivates a distant vision of these exotic countries. In the eyes of old Europe, America retains all its power of fascination, through the stories of cannibalism and the extraordinary descriptions of the Amazonian forests – as evidenced by the success of books dedicated to Indian tribes, such The History of the American Indians by William Hauley in 1775.
In the field of the arts, romanticism is reaching the New World. Romantic artists are seduced by orientalist subjects, with their promise of exoticism, novelty and passion. The figure of the Indian responds particularly to the taste of the time. Identified as “the good savage” by Rousseau’s theories, he is the ssymbol of a primitive civilization condemned by colonization to an imminent end. Subsequently,the native of America becomes a romantic hero: rebellious, fiery and freedom-loving. The artist intends to celebrate his virtue and his heroism, by representing him in an idealized atmosphere. Among romantics such as Chateaubriand, Girodet, or Delacroix, the history of the Indians is interpreted in its tragic dimension: the feeling of loneliness and melancholy dominates.
In the 19th century, the public became passionate about fantastic tales, love stories, and exoticism. The mysteries of feelings, love, affinities as well as the taste for the supernatural are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for literature and romantic painting.
Driven by romantic sensibility
Inspired by Chateaubriand’s famous novel published in 1801, this canvas describes its tragic outcome: Chactas, Indian of the Natchez tribe, mourns the death of Atala, the young Christian who committed suicide so as not to break her vow of chastity by giving oneself to love; helped by Father Aubry, he proceeds to his burial. From the New World, the artist restores the romantic vision, dominated by emotion. Chactas is no longer “the good savage” victim of civilization, but a being in the grip of the troubles of passion. The drama is complete – contained in the gesture of the young man hugging the legs of his beloved – while the monk, with downcast eyes, contemplates Atala’s face, illuminated by a warm, almost supernatural light.