Australian Fine Artist

The Romantic period occurred between circa 1750-1850 and was described by the German philosopher, poet, and literary critic Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) as imaginative and emotional depictions in art and poetry that fuse inspiration and criticism. An alternate theory describing the Romantic was posited by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who thought that the duality of the opposing good and darker side of human nature and the notion of the nature of beauty initiated by the Enlightenment could also be attributed to concepts of Romantic art (Vaughan 1978, 29). Also in 1757, Edmund Burke (1927-1979) wrote in his description of the nature of the sublime that it implied terror, pain, or obscurity and vastness, which may be closer to describing the paintings of Romantic artists. These emotional contrivances were used by Romantic artists to communicate their thoughts and feelings rather than the prioritising of duty, sacrifice and classical myth typical of Neoclassical art. Romantic artists like Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) were also seeking creative freedom and autarchy from traditional patronage from the aristocracy and churches as their primary sources of income. In England, Turner became a dominant force in Romantic art combining aspects of the Industrial Revolution and contemporary issues with dominant dramatic atmospheric effects. In contrast, his French contemporary Eugene Delacroix used colour and action to create allegorical scenes moved by poetry and a humanist interpretation of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire. This article will examine and compare Turner and Delacroix’s interpretations of the Burke’s notions of the sublime and the terrifying in Romantic painting, and the impact of contemporary issues on their paintings during the years circa 1824-1850. By comparing what each artist chose as their main focus of interest, and how it was composed, it will elucidate how each artist responded to social and historic events.

Turner was introduced to the Royal Academy as a probationary student in 1789 and visited the studio of Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) to copy his portraits. He also copied from other artists such as Gainsborough (1727-1788), and at night attended drawing classes held by Dr Thomas Monro (1759-1833). In 1799, Turner was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1802 became a full member after which he volunteered as Professor of Perspective. He also travelled through England, and Europe during its less turbulent periods, filling his large collection of sketchbooks. From his early representations of historic events, Gothic ruins, and atmospheric conditions, Turner’s dedication to experimenting with colour and light made his works distinctive from other artists of his time. A master of watercolour painting by his late teens, Turner is possibly best known for his atmospheric oil paintings. He was well known applying thick and thin glazing layers over each other to mimic watercolour effects, which often cracked in a very short amount of time (Messenger 2013). While Turner was producing traditional landscape paintings for the Royal Academy exhibitions, he began experimenting with methods of painting that incorporated atmospheric techniques and abstract blocks and swirls of colour, forming a visual vortex with very little detail that pulled the viewer into the painting; many of which failed to sell. Paintings such as War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet 1842, Wind, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844, and The Fighting Temeraire 1839, which were savaged by critics and previous devotees including John Ruskin (1819-1900), were to become some of his most iconic in later years.

Eugene Delacroix was a pupil at the Lycée Impérial in Paris in 1806 and was later apprenticed to painter Pierre Guérin (1774-1833). At the Salon of 1824 he was inspired by the work of John Constable (1776-1837) and travelled to England during 1825 to study the work of English artists including Turner; continuing to Belgium, Spain, Morocco, and Holland. In 1857 after several attempts, he was admitted to the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Marchiori 1969). Delacroix recorded information in his sketchbooks and was interested in early photography, known as daguerreotype (Boime 2004, 439). He collaborated with photographer Eugéne Durieu (1800-1874) for a series of nude studies exploring how artists could make use of the new medium (Naef 1980, 20, 31-32). Unlike Neoclassical painters such as David (1748-1825), Delacroix was inspired by poetry and tours to the East and has been identified by historians as a Romantic and Orientalist painter (Eitner 1970, 104). Edward Said (1935-2003) in his book Orientalism described it as the research, teaching or depiction of the Orient. Possibly due to his persistent poor health, Delacroix preferred to spend his time travelling on his Grand Tours; in his studio working on paintings; frequenting Paris theatres; or spending time with friends in the evenings. He wrote in his journals that he expressed his care for the People and patriotism in his paintings.

1-Turner-fire at sea

Figure 1.

2-Delacroix-the wreck of don juan

Figure 2.

What links Turner and Delacroix as Romantic artists are their depictions of the overpowering or the untamed, either by nature or human activity. They also embodied the goal of independence and autonomy of the Romantic Movement when producing and selling their artwork. Turner opened his gallery space in 1804 and turned it into his main source of income (Ackroyd 2006, 32). His success in attracting patrons and buyers proved that he was not to be swayed by critics regarding his innovative subjects and painting techniques. Delacroix, although recognised as successful, wasn’t the polished salesman that Turner was, often attracting low prices; but was able to live simply on a small inheritance, public commissions, and sales at the Salon, allowing him to persist with his exotic and emotive paintings (The Nation 1868, 131-132). In essence, Turner and Delacroix, similarly, both sought creative freedom to paint innovatively away from outside interference. Their differences become evident when comparing the predominance of human figures in Figure 2 compared to Figure 1. Turner (Figure 1) uses a vortex and subtle line of colour to draw the viewer into the painting. He used colour and texture as the dominant features in his paintings, with very little figurative work included, inviting a far more subliminal interpretation (Russel 1961). His main interest is the action of the sea and sky, whereas Delacroix (Figure 2) uses human figures to fill the space and draw the viewer into the story.

3-Turner-the slave ship

Figure 3.

4-Delacroix-death of sardanopolis

Figure 4.

In a comparison of Figures 3 and 4, the use of colour and texture by the two artists is apparently fresh and immediate and the desire for an emotional impact is implied by the use of different prominent subjects. Turner is distancing his style from early inspiration by the classical landscapes of Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), to Romantic representations of the natural environment and human tragedy (Cuddon 1991). A commentary on the slave trade still operating in 1840, though abolished in British colonies in 1834, Turner is pointing out the hypocrisy of the continued profiting off human suffering by traders (Shapero2008). His dominant features, however, are the atmospheric elements of nature. Delacroix conversely is telling a story of humans and animals expressing great fear of imminent death. This interpretation of Byron’s Poetry, with its dramatic lighting, and struggling mass of figures overpowers the surrounding environment. It has been argued by art historians that Delacroix was making a political statement about the restoration of the aristocracy, but it can equally be described as an exploration of brutality and cowardice (Fraser 2015).

9-turner-The exile -1842

Figure 5.

6-Delacroix-liberty leading the people

Figure 6.

Turner referenced industrialisation, natural disasters, and other contemporary issues such as the Napoleonic Wars and the slave trade in his paintings. Delacroix was in a position of dealing with continually changing political situations where confusion and uncertainty were pervasive (Clark 1982, 16). This difference in conditions would help to explain why each artist expressed the human condition differently (Sharp 2012). Turner’s impression of French politics can be seen in Figure 5. Unlike the paintings Napoleon Crossing the Alps 1801 or Emperor Napoleon in His Study 1812 by David, Napoleon is a minor part of a composition that is dominated by the elements of sky and sea. Colour and atmosphere take precedence over the human element. Turner’s other reference to the Napoleonic wars can be seen in Figure 9, which depicts the decommissioned HMS Temeraire being towed by a steam tugboat for breaking up in 1838. The sun setting in the background and reflected in the river symbolises the end of an era and industrial change from sail to steam (Gaunt 1975). Rather than a political agenda or an attempt for realism, the colour, atmosphere and theatrical sentimentality of the moment are of more importance as the sailing ship is presented, as it would have looked in its prime.


Figure 7.

Delacroix was neither bourgeois nor aristocrat, which is reflected in his painting Liberty Leading the People 1830. It was considered unacceptable to many bourgeois politicians because it depicted clearly the heroism of the People, and not a bourgeois interpretation (Clark 1982, 18). This painting demonstrates how Delacroix was moved by poetry rather than realistically depicting contemporary events; and how he created an allegory of the spirit of the French Revolution, using the symbols of the tricolour flag and the peasant girl rather than the Goddess of Reason to represent liberty (Rosenblum 1984, 147). Delacroix’s other major work included in the Salon in 1824 was titled The Massacre at Chios (Figure 7). His interest in the Greek War of Independence and Orientalism were strongly behind his move in the direction of Romantic art. Highly emotive, and condemned by art critics at the time, it reflects Delacroix’s alibility to portray aesthetics and social commentary on human suffering. Rather than a political statement, the painting is a plea for peace (Devetzidis 2014). In contrast to Turner, human events are dominant in Delacroix’s paintings, but similarly, the result is sublime.

5-Turner-burning houses of parliament

Figure 8.

7-Turner-fighting Tam-1839

Figure 9.

8-turner-steamer in a Snowstorm-1842

Figure 10.


Figure 11.

Turner’s dominant representation of the elements is repeated in Figure 7 where the fire and its reflection in the Thames River dominate the composition and the burning Houses of Parliament are barely visible on the horizon line. In Figures 9, 10 and 11 he has reduced the ships and train to minor points that complement the drama of natural effects. In these paintings, Turner is commenting on contemporary events and Industrialisation in England and using them as a part of his narrative. For example, for Turner the eruptions of Mt Vesuvius in 1807, 1819 and 1822 (Vesuvius 2015) and subsequent change in sunsets and sunrises for many years was a key reference along with raising awareness of human tragedy. His use of storm, mist, and swirling vortex in these later works reduce the emphasis on realistic depiction without neglecting to address contemporary issues and events and foreshadows the works of many Impressionists.

Rather than calling on historic references, which he had already covered early in his career, Turner’s later work experimented with abstract ideas, while including innovations of the Industrial Revolution and commenting on contemporary issues. The political and social differences between England and France during the early to mid 19th century were evident in his approach to portraying new technology, and human dramas such as war, fires, shipwrecks, storms and the slave trade. As a result of the growth of a wealthier middle-class Turner built up an independent arts business that allowed him to create innovative paintings that exhibited Burke’s concepts of the sublime, unfettered by critics or the Academy. Delacroix in contrast, who was sympathetic to the struggle of all the People, and was politically aware, was producing work in a schismatically charged environment during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire. As such he celebrated social change in allegory and human struggle by poetic interpretation in paintings that captured the essence of the sublime and the terrifying. Whether they considered themselves Romantic artists or not, both Turner and Delacroix produced paintings that live up to Burke’s hypotheses. In particular Turner, by ignoring the berating from critics, developed his artistic sensibilities through consistent observation and experimentation, which made him one of the most innovative Romantic artists of the 19th century.

Janice Mills

Originally published by Janice Mills as an essay towards Bachelor of Fine Art and Visual Culture at Curtin University, W.A. 2015.

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Illustration List:

Figure 1. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), A Disaster at Sea (The Wrecked Female Convict Ship, the Amphitrite Women and Children Abandoned in a Gale), 1835, Oil on Canvas. 171.4×220.3cm. Tate Gallery, London. Reproduced from Turner. Gaunt, William. 1975. Great Britain: Phaidon.

Figure 2. Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), The Wreck of Don Juan, 1840, Oil on Canvas. 77.17×53.15 inches. The Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from Eugene 2015.

Figure 3. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), The Slave Ship, 1840, Oil on Canvas. 90.8×122.6cm. Museum of Fine Art, Boston. Reproduced from A World History of Art, Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. 2009. Great Britain: Laurence King Publishing.

Figure 4. Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, Oil on Canvas. 3.92×4.96cm. The Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from A World History of Art, Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. 2009. Great Britain: Laurence King Publishing.

Figure 5. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, 1842, Oil on Canvas. 79.4×79.4.6cm. Tate Gallery, London. Reproduced from Turner from the Tate. Messenger, Jane. Et al. 2013. London: Tate Publishing.

Figure 6. Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), The 28th July: Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Oil on Canvas. 2.59×3.25cm. The Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from A World History of Art, Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. 2009. Great Britain: Laurence King Publishing.

Figure 7. Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), The Massacre at Chios, 1824, Oil on Canvas. 42x35cm. The Louvre, Paris. Reproduced from The Louvre. (accessed October 28, 2015).

Figure 8. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834, Oil on Canvas. 92x123cm. Celeveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. Reproduced from Turner. Gaunt, William. 1975. Great Britain: Phaidon.

Figure 9. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), The Fighting Téméraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken up, 1839, Oil on Canvas. 90x121cm. National Gallery, London. Reproduced from Turner. Gaunt, William. 1975. Great Britain: Phaidon.

Figure 10. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth making signals in Shallow Water and Going by the Lead, 1842, Oil on Canvas. 91x122cm. Tate Gallery, London. Reproduced from Turner. Gaunt, William. 1975. Great Britain: Phaidon.

Figure 11. Joseph Mallord William Turner RA (1775-1851), Rain, Steam and Speed-the Great Western Railway, 1844, Oil on Canvas. 91x122cm. National Gallery, London. Reproduced from Turner. Gaunt, William. 1975. Great Britain: Phaidon.

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