Time Turns on the Psyche
I had a professor in college who said, “Look at the turn of every century and you will see turmoil and unrest.” He believed that the progress of time was hard on the human psyche. Historically, big change always happens at the beginning of a new century. On top of that, we are feeling the effects of the turning of a millennium.
I feel it is fair to say that in these present times the human psyche seems to be reeling in chaos. Previously we’ve had a look at the beginning of the 20th century, with the emergence of some breakaway art forms such as DaDaism, Pointillism, and Impressionism. Now let’s have a look at the 19th century as it commences on the Western European Art Stage.
In the early part of the 19th century, no one of note recognized colonial artists. The vast majority of portraiture and landscape painting was heavily influenced by England. Benjamin West is seen as the “Father of American Painting”. Born in America, his wealthy patrons sent him to Europe to guarantee him superb training. Although he never returned to his homeland, he is accredited with having trained and influenced many early American painters who came to study under him. Charles W. Peale, James Peale, John Trumball and Gilbert Stewart are a few Americans who benefited from his tutelage.
On the European stage, Napoleon Bonaparte was the predominant Military and Political figure. As the century began, the reverberations of the American and French Revolutions still echoed loudly in the minds of the people on both sides of the Atlantic. These two things, and theIndustrial Revolution, all fueled the evolution ofRomanticism. The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) pitted the French Empire against British and Coalition armies from Europe and Spain. Understandably the crowned heads of Europe were none too happy with the populous cries of Equality, Freedom and Justice for All. For some time the success of the French army brought a dramatic pride and glory to French Romantic idealism. In addition, the move from hand manufacturing to machine production along with the many changes accompanying the Industrial Revolution affected people’s lives in every way. The mid-18th-century discovery and excavation of the ancient Greek cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum gave birth to the Neoclassical Style employed by the painters of the previous era. The Romantics were breaking free of the calm stoicism of Neoclassicism that had imitated the Greco-Roman Art. Europe was a hotbed of change!
Gradually, painters began to focus less on logic and reason and more on the senses and the emotions. It was a poignant reaction to the constraints of Neoclassicism. Artists began to experiment with color choice, subject matter, and self-expression. From Spain, Francisco Goya, once known for his dignified portraiture of the royal family, began experimenting with images of the degradation of the human mind and body. From France, Eugene Delacroix’s ragged brushstrokes and the violent tones of his work helped create the onset of Modern Art. Jean Louis Theodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1818-1819) depicted a current event rather than a piece of history and was seminal in the early Romantic Movement in France. JMW Turner from England combined Romanticism with Realism and laid the grounds for the onset of Impressionism.
So in reaction to, or due to, revolutions both political and industrial, the artistic minds of the early 18th century were breaking free of old restraints and accepted mores. They encompassed new ideas to express emotional freedom and self-worth that hadn’t been seen since the glories of the Renaissance. The turmoil and unrest of a maturing society infected their minds like a 2016 Presidential Election: No holds barred and away we go! Art takes a turn in Time. – Kathy