Transforming the canvas: Techniques
Romantic artists saw the painting surface as a mere canvas, unlike their predecessors, who saw the painting surface as a "pane of glass interposed between the artist and his subject" (Clay 25). The simplicity of "pure line" as opposed to the pomp and circumstance of the "sculptural relief" pushed the engraving in among the other great art forms (Clay 25).The transparency and freedom in color that the watercolor provided raised great interest. To expand the horizons of expression, artists experimented with new materials, such as wax, tempera, and oil. At this point it was evident that the traditional principle of technical categories in art began to lose its boundaries.
Caspar David Friedrich introduced the theme of the single, open window. The contrast between the inside and the outside was found thoroughly interesting by his contemporaries. In another painting, Friedrich made the impression of a hole, surrounded by fractured pieces of rock. Friedrich said of these paintings: "The painter should not paint merely what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him (Clay 69)." Caspar Wolf's paintings of caves and rock, depicting voids and shadows, were his own experiments with color and shape. They were successful in achieving a striking distance and volume through abstract strokes and variations in color. The landscape continued to broaden on the canvas; whole mountains, sometimes obscured by thick fog and mist, with no sparing of depth and dimension raised nature up to a colossal height, and man, with his limited view, strained his eyes to see it. Background and foreground collided as distance was brought forward and made more pronounced-the landscape being reduced to two dimensions. Perspective disintegrated, creating pre-mature impressionism. The freedom that watercolor provided made such work all the more provocative. Barren, isolated rock brought out the sublime. Trees were no longer mere decorations, they were impediments, their branches twisting to the sky and occupying the whole of the picture plane. Soil and earth were textured and in seascapes, the skies and the ocean pushed each other out of view along the horizon. Artists reintroduced a new object onto the seascape-the tragedy of a burning ship. Fire in the sky and fire in the water replaced the calm, lifeless sea. Masses of bodies melted into a dark, sinking craft, bringing forth disaster and drama. The sky, on one canvas calm and awe-inspiring, becomes stormy and terrible on the next.
Another innovation in form reduced the painting to mere curves and lines and masses of shadowy color. Henry Fuseli's method used broad, incoherent brush strokes to create a sense of chaos and motion. James Jeffreys and Henry Fuseli's pencil and ink washes fragmented Winckelman's sense of art through its depiction of the erotic and the macabre, where Greek and Roman art served only as a vessel. The "reserve" that watercolor brought to the painting surface was certainly ideal for this. William Blake's watercolor's The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca (1824) use of simple lines and masses of color create a frightening surreal and abstract mood. Curves struggled to break free of the rectangular canvas. In this simple world of lines, hatching became the means of establishing texture. The only symmetry on the canvas appeared in monuments, cemetery gates, and wooden crosses, so much that it became the counterpart of grave matters-religion and death. Delacroix's paintings of horses were his attempt to unite foreground with background; the energetic curves and musculature of a noble creature wavered in the wind and broke free of the ground. Delacroix's great masterpiece Death of Sardanapalus (1828) attempted to capture the gore and violence of Byron's play through use of little depth and much chaos.
At once, with the arrival of the gothic novel, monsters and unimaginable horrors plastered the imaginations of Romantic artists. Paintings began to contrast light from dark, sun from shadow, flesh from rock. From the darkness of the canvas, the dreaded unknown and the unconscious arose. The fogs and mists of Friedrich's landscapes conveyed mystery and melancholy. The blurring of shape and form gave rise to Turner's impressionism. Sea, smoke, and sky became one in his oil Snow Storm- Steamboat off a Harborm's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead (1842). Contrasts between color and background are defined and explored with Romanticism. Hubert Robert's oils of burning buildings are experiments with bright color as is John Martin's The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium (1841), where the fires of hell burn brilliantly to welcome its winged guests. Such contrast is also demonstrated in the paintings of figures against black backgrounds. The power of blending together contrasting colors is evident in the paintings of Turner, Blake, and Palmer.
The canvas expanded with an assemblage of buildings, people and objects; Jean-Baptiste Greuze's The Punished Son (1778) directly shares a story of sickness, anger, and despair with 8 characters displaying a variety of emotions. Quantity and quality were key. One could see giants and colossal buildings on the same lines as the miniature people in the foreground. Conventional and real size and scale vanished.
Romantic era, the canvas had turned into a tool only
as useful as the artist's brush.
Clay, Jean. Romanticism. New York: The Vendome Press, 1981