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Romanticism: Roots of Modernity The Romantic Landscape in European Painting Landscape painting before the Romantic period During the Renaissance, landscape often consisted of the representation of nature as a setting for either human or divine action.

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romanticism roots of modernity

Romanticism: Roots of Modernity

The Romantic Landscape in European Painting


Landscape painting before the Romantic period

During the Renaissance, landscape often consisted of the representation of nature as a setting for either human or divine action.

It could take on symbolic significance, especially as a metaphor of paradise.

It could also reinforce the subject matter in a painting by reflecting its mood or echoing the emotional content of the work.


Detail of the Altar of the Mystic Lamb, showing precise and botanically accurate representations of plants and flowers.

Careful observation of the entire physical world during the Renaissance led artists to recognize the beauty of nature as a subject coequal with humans, animals, mythological figures and divine beings.


The desolate landscape background underscores the hopelessness of the crucifixion and of the deposition of the body in the tomb.

An eerie light suggests an impending storm.

The body of Christ on the cross resembles a gnarled tree trunk with bare branches.


The Tempestby Giorgione, 1505-10

In this painting, the curious grouping of a woman with infant opposite a shepherd enframes the lightning and rolling clouds of an approaching thunderstorm. This is an early instance of nature as a subject rather than only a setting.



Landscape with Flight into Egypt by Claude Lorrain, 1663

The representation of the natural setting is justified by the presence of the Holy Family in the left foreground; but the biblical figures are almost lost in the scene. The painting is mostly about the landscape.


Romantic painters in the early 19th century in Germany developed a new interest in landscape as more than a setting and as more than a passive agent within the painting. They began to view landscape as the outward manifestation of the larger realm of Nature with all its power, majesty, complexity, destructive forces, and other awe-inspiring qualities as well as its beauty. These qualities were often subsumed under the term “sublime.” Nature was its most important expressive vehicle.

Among the most important painters were

Philipp Otto Runge (1770-1810),

Karl Blechen (1798-1840),


Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).


Times of Day: Morning by Philipp Otto Runge, 1809

Runge wished to reinstate the innocence of childhood with its purity and direct communion with Nature.

Times of Day was planned as an allegory of the cycles of nature, human life on earth, and transmutation of matter into spirit. He died before he could complete the cycle of works.


Two Monks in a Cave in the Gulf of Naples by Karl Blechen, 1829

In this work, the figures sit within the vault of a shadowy cave that opens to the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea.

Is the cave a metaphor?

How do you react to the contrast between the dark recess of the cave and the luminous atmosphere of the sea?


Ruins of Cloister Oybin by Karl Blechen, c.1830

The cloister almost seems like the equivalent of the cave near Naples, except that it is a human fabrication.

The loneliness and isolation of the ruin suggests that it is being re-assimilated into Nature as it disintegrates.


The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich are characterized by a number of typical features that support Friedrich’s larger vision of the linked relationship between humans and nature.

• Isolated, small figures alone or in groups

• Humans viewing, contemplating nature


• Humans in nature but oblivious to it

• The use of ships to symbolize human life

• A sense of “self-revelatory” silence, often due to the setting of the scene at dusk or at night under moonlight

• A sense of nature transcending all human life, sometimes through unexplained circumstances or even tragic events


Wreck of the Hope is an extremely haunting and highly popular work that exists in two versions. An unexecuted third version was planned.

The work was inspired by a shipwreck that was reported in the newspaper; it is also related to Friedrich’s fascination with the breaking up of the ice on the Elbe River. In addition, Friedrich, as a child, had watched his brother drown in the icy river, an event that left a deep impression on him.

Here nature is inextricably bound up with the termination of life, the destruction of hopes, the loss of energies, and the crushing power of destiny.