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Romantic art was a trend that started at the end of the eighteenth century and continued far into the nineteenth century. It was created mainly in Germany and by painters of Scandinavian countries. It is generally counted as a period going from 1790 to 1840. A German phrase that is often associated to Romanticism is "Sturm und Drang" for storm and striving. The word "Romanticism" itself came from "Roman". The word was first used in the seventeenth century by the English Thomas Baily, in 1650. Romanticism is however very difficult to define, and elements of Romanticism can be found also in other art styles. There existed many trends and schools in Romanticism. Hereafter we discuss briefly some of the movements.

Romantic landscape painting

Many German and Scandinavian painters sought inspiration in nature. Especially Norwegian landscapes were spectacular, intimate in their valleys bordered by high mountains.
Nature was looked at with an almost religious inspiration so that views of nature had the spiritual qualities of earlier devotional scenes and replaced these to some extent.

The Norwegian painter Johann Christian Dahl was one of the foremost landscape painters of the Romantic Movement. Scandinavian and German painters found symbiosis between their own inner sentimental feelings and certain forms and shapes of natural landscapes such as waterfalls, wild mountain scenes or marine scenes.

Norwegian and German landscape painting is well known in Europe. Less well known there, but equally formidable and interesting is North-American landscape painting.

The Hudson River School

Thomas Cole was an Englishman who had immigrated to the British colonies. He lived in New York, but after a voyage along the Hudson River he founded a movement of North-American Romantic landscape painters called the Hudson River School. Members of this group were Cole himself, Fitz Hugh Lane, Frederick Edwin Church, John Frederick Kenseth, Asher B. Durand and Jasper Francis Cropney with others.

In the 1860’s the work of some of these painters evolved to Luminism. This was more a style than a school. Luminist painters were Romantic landscape painters devoted to river scenes or to coastal scenes, in which they showed spectacular but often gloomy effects of light on the peaceful landscape.

Historical painting

Romantic painters often painted historical themes, until this kind could become a trend in its own right. The artists lauded the rich historical and heroic past of their countries in vast scenes on large to very large panels. This kind of subject was applauded by the new bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, sometimes of the newly independent countries like Belgium and Hungary. The new rulers sought an epic representation to mirror their own accomplishments in trade and industry.


Mainly French painters discovered North-African territories and painted the exoticism of the life in these countries. They also painted scenes of oriental history in the same trend of escape from the bleak reality of their own country and cities.


The Nazarenes were a group of Austrian and German Romantic painters. They worked together in the secularised convent of San Isidore in Rome. The school was formed in 1809 in Austria as the "Confraternity of Saint Lucas". But in 1810 already, the painters left Vienna for Rome. The artists wore long hair separated in the middle. Hence the Romans called them Nazarenes. The movement lasted until about 1830.
The Nazarenes wanted to build art on medieval basis. Hence they emphasised fresco painting again. Their representation was sentimental and nostalgic. They favoured Christian religious themes, and they had an outspoken patriotic tendency.
Few frescoes remain of the Nazarenes, and they also produced only few. Some of their rare works are in the Palazzo Zuccara in Rome, where the German Ambassador of Rome lived, the Prussian General Bartholdy. Painters were Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, Peter von Cornelius, Wilhelm von Schadow, Johann and Philipp Veit, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Friedrich Olivier and Ferdinand Olivier.


Biedermeier was a German evolution of its late Romantic period. It lasted from around 1815 to 1850.

The style was characterised by very bourgeois, homely, sentimental, moralising genre scenes and by idyllic pictures of bucolic landscapes. It showed ordinary middle-class life, with a touch of sentimentality, sly touches of humour, but without political afterthoughts, and it was always unpretentious and unheroic. Biedermeier artists also returned to themes of medieval history.
Painters of this style were Carl Spitzweg, Ludwig Richter, Moritz von Schwind, and Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.
The name "Biedermeier" may come from a character called Gottfried Biedermeier, invented by the writer Adolf Kussmaul in 1853. Kussmaul and Ludwig Eichrodt wrote poems from 1855 to 1857 called "Biedermeier Poems", which were published regularly in the Munich satirical magazine "Münchner Fliegende Blätter" (Munich Loose Pages). Biedermeier was the quintessential gentle, simple-minded German bourgeois of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Romanticism in general

Although Romanticism was a reaction against Classicism, this trend retained strong and clear lines in drawing. Jagged lines appeared in landscapes.

Romanticism was very free in the use of forms and compositions, but many painters also used strong underlying structure in their paintings. All sorts of compositions were used. Ernst H. Gombrich (1909-2001) wrote, "Romanticism has taught us to talk of art in terms of inspiration and creativity. It was only interested in what was new and original".

Romantic painters used a very broad scale of colours and colours, in as well high as low tones.

Originally, Romanticism mainly communicated the divine inspiration of nature. It underscored the solitude of the soul. It was a very sentimental art. Romantic pictures showed melancholia, longing, and silent suffering of the soul, interiorism and solitude. Emotions primed. Romanticism had an aspiration for the far and the unreachable, which led sometimes into fantasy and the bizarre. The experience of nature could be compared to spiritual and almost religious feelings and in this way, by contemplating nature, man could elevate himself to transcendence just as he or she could do by religion. Certain forms of Romanticism also proposed a return to Christian religious values.
Imagination was projected into the cosmos to find harmony between man and nature. Romanticism aspired therefore to an elevated sense of reality, to the mysterious and to the unbounded. Individual expression of the artist was emphasised.
Romanticism was inspired by subjects such as nature, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance (Dante often, Shakespeare also), religion, and the Christian traditions of Europe. Especially Norwegian landscapes were admired, and often painted by northern painters.
Romanticism was opposed to the academic rigour of form that was the basis of Classicism. Late Romanticism evolved to an escape of the world. The economic realities of the industrial revolution and the poverty of many people in the cities broke its early ideals. Painters escaped completely into a non-fertile interiority and refusal to confront the social realities of the period.
The Romantic art form in fact continued in many manifestations way into the twentieth century such as in the dream images of Marc Chagall.

The Romantic landscape painters dramatically exploited volume and space.

Romantic painters of this period were William Blake, Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, John Constable, William Turner, Théodore Géricault, Francisco de Goya, David Martin, Eugène Delacroix, Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, Johan Christian Dahl and Caspar David Friedrich.

Romanticism was a reaction against the formality and rules of Classicism. It was a reaction of artists against academic rules and ruling. It was a reaction mostly against dominant bourgeois values, and it was directed towards individual freedom. It was a longing for the spirituality that seemed somehow lost since the Enlightenment. Hence, Romanticism was a movement of society, in which artists led the movement. It was a reaction towards a change in content, and not so much in form or composition.

View from Stalheim on Naerdalen

Johann Christian Dahl (1788-1857). The National Gallery. Oslo. 1842.

View of Fortundalen

Johann Christian Dahl (1788-1857). The National Gallery. Oslo. 1836.

Stetind in Fog

Peder Balke (1804-1887). The National Gallery. Oslo. 1864.

We are on a journey in Norway. We have been travelling over the fjords, where the sea, the sky and the barren, harsh rocks have impressed us finally with feelings of gloom and loneliness. Here we found awe of nature as in no other country. We have travelled from the long Sogne fjord inland to Stalheim. We arrived in that valley on a warm morning. The fog and rain of the night have just disappeared and the young sun is rising behind us. The sun has not yet reached the more orange warmth of Late Summer. Now the light is bright, and still low behind the mountains. The view from Stalheim over Naerdalen shows us the hidden peaceful landscape and a small village in a valley that opens before us.

We are seeing a valley caught between naked mountains. The mountains are eroded to soft contours by the gletschers of thousands of years of ice ages long past. The mountains are now high round masses, hilltops that are the solidity in between which the valley is imprisoned. A small river flows from the mountains with its cold, fresh, clean, rapid waters. The small turbulent river has conquered the mountains however. It created the green life of meadows, allowing the harvests on which a village can survive. Life and death are very close in this picture, but life seems protected. Life was protected for the Norwegian country that remained poor and forgotten, but also without wars, for a long time in history.

The rainbow contains the round forms of the massive hills. The rainbow is a symbol of hope and catharsis, a link between heaven and earth, the sign of the covenant that land would not be destroyed again. So, the rainbow protects and is firmly based on the valley flanks, on the hills, connecting the mighty slopes. The rainbow closes the valley from the outside. So does the central spire that blocks the path of the river in the background, where one suspects the valley would continue and be opened to intrusion. No one will disturb the peace here. The closed valley thus can correspond to the inner self into which romanticists found refuge, even though it was not always a too secure haven.

There are people in this painting, but they are so small. A shepherd girl in the traditional colourful dress of the Sogne Fjord herds her goats in the foreground right. On the left are two travellers, which might be the viewers, approaching on a small earthen path. One traveller is on a horse. The small paths wind through the valley and connect two parts of the village. The village consists of a few low, wooden log houses. People are walking around, there is some activity, and blue smoke slowly rises out of the chimneys. The wind does not disturb the peaceful life of this hidden village. This is a time when life has fully resumed after the hard winter. All people have come out of their homes, to revisit the village. The result is a very pastoral image of simple rural life. The painting inspires feelings of rest, protection, and peace, far from the rapid life of towns. It is good to live here, even though death is not far. Nature is wild and menacing and at the same time gentle, the soft hills are cuddling the village.

In the picture "View from Stalheim", all elements of nature are painted to full and accurate detail. This is true even for the furthest mountaintops, which normally should be less clear because of the distance. These details so far off cannot be discerned in a real view of nature. The obtained effect enhances the overwhelming nearness of the barren mountains. It brings them closer to the people. The effects of light in the painting are dramatic, adding to the contrasts. The pastures are opposed to the boulders, the rocks are opposed to the flowing water, the river disappears behind the trees, the trees are cut to serve for the building of the log-houses and for heating by fire. A lonely birch in the middle has become a dead bright brown trunk. But behind the dead tree are new green bushes, full of the life of new green leaves.

The "View from Stalheim" is an eminent Romantic painting. Romanticists sought escape from the daily dreary life in dreams, in untouched nature, in loneliness and in the heroic, chivalric times of history when purity, love and innocence were still the main motives for action. Although Romantic ideas such as these had been implied in pictures of any century, this Romantic nostalgia became the main pervading drive for artists in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Romanticism was a reaction to the rational period of Enlightenment. Painters and writers revived Roman Catholicism in this period. Romanticism was especially the way of visual representation applied by northern painters like the Norwegians Dahl, Fearnley and many others, and by the German landscape painters. Scandinavians and Germans found romantic escape in landscapes. Of course the finest, lost and wild, uncorrupted scenes of unbridled nature could be found in Norway. Here, all the elements of nature clashed: sea, land, mountains, and sky. The Norwegian landscapes could therefore generate the most magnificent pictures of Romantic landscape. Landscape was so obvious, that the Norwegian painters did not need to express exuberant emotions or exoticism. They had all the escape from urbanism and industry and politics close to home.

Romanticism and unbridled emotions do not mean absence of structure or lack of intellectual sophistication of the painters. The composition in Johann Christian Dahl’s picture of Naerdalen is very strong. The solids of the mountains to right and left are balanced; a fertile middle ground is shown in the full light of the sun. A dark band of trees, in a small wood, is painted in the foreground. The shadows on these trees can indicate danger. We know the many folklore tales of trolls or angry, hideous monsters living in the forests of Norway. Protection can only be gained in the sunlight, against mountains with uncovered slopes, or in the low of the valleys where the meadows are.

In the National Gallery of Oslo, in its main hall, hangs on one side the "View from Stalheim" and on the other side the "View from Fortundalen". These are the pride of Norway. In the same room hang the "Labro Falls" of Fearnley, and many other great landscape paintings of Johann Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley.

The "View of Fortundalen" is a fine picture, although less impressive than the "View of Stalheim". It is again a view of a village in the middle of Norway’s mountain region. A larger river shows its white foams on the left of the picture. The right lower part is in shadows, because here lays a dead tree. But just as in the "View from Stalheim", a full-leafed green tree is nearby, in fact occupies most of the foreground in the middle. On the two sides of the green but dark tree, are two patches of light, which show the openings in forest and mountains where the people dwell. In the left patch stand the few houses of a small wooden village. It is a High Summer view, the haystacks stand proudly in the full sun to dry. In the right patch are cows and farmers. A shepherd sits with his dog on the rocks. Again, this is a Romantic landscape, but J. C. Dahl was a master in his art and knew how to use delicate symmetries and symbols in his work. He also plays here on the feelings of the viewer: quietness, rest, peace are inspired by the protecting mountains in the background and the lightened patches of the pastures and the fields. The dark forests in the foreground are to be avoided lest security in wild nature be endangered.

The paintings we have admired until now are of very Romantic subjects: wild, untamed but idyllic landscapes, isolated and hidden in the Norwegian fjords. But the pictures still represent nature very realistically, and mostly refer back to real nature as seen by the painters.
Peder Balke was a student of Johann Christian Dahl, but for the largest part of his art an autodidact with an own, very individual vision. He mainly painted marine sights instead of landscapes from 1840 on. The painting "Stetind in Fog" drives romanticism and landscape entirely into a new mysterious, mystic realm.

"Stetind" is a view of the coast of Norway. The mountains have no soft contours anymore. The knife of an uneroded peak rises abruptly out of the fog. It is a fantastic, alien menace suddenly created by the Gods, risen out of earth to crush a miserably small sailing ship in the storm. Balke experimented with paints, using different utensils to put white paint in layers on the canvas, sometimes using his bare fingers. The thick uneven layers of white and white-grey paint in the foreground of the picture, in the waves and on the mountain slopes, add a dramatic palpable effect. In this picture, nature is menacing and we feel the breadth of the revenging Gods all too near. Stormy are our feelings. Our emotions are carried to the mystical skies by the mountain peak.

Johann Christian Dahl was born in the town of Bergen on the West Coast of Norway, in 1788. Norway belonged to the Kingdom of Denmark at that time. Its capital was Copenhagen, on the other side of the Sund. Norway’s main town was still called Christiania instead of Oslo, named after a Danish King Christian. Around the towns of the nineteenth century, the country was very poor, almost devoid of industry. The Danish Kings hardly bothered about their northern possessions. But Norway is an enormous country. If you turn the land around the fixed point of Oslo, so that the most northern place tips South, then Hammerfest reaches Rome in Italy. There are enormous distances and space in this country, yet its population currently is only 4.4 million people of which almost 450.000 live in Oslo. In 1811, when Dahl started to learn painting, there was no Academy in Norway. It had to wait till 1919 until a true academy would be founded. 1811 was the year in which the country had for the first time a university, which was then organised in Oslo. Norway had no Royalty, no Court and few nobles on its territory. Serfdom had luckily not developed; it was a country of small, independent farmers.

Denmark had sided with France in the Napoleonic wars of the beginning of the century. So, Denmark had to be punished. At the Treaty of Kiel of 1814, Norway was taken away from Denmark and handed over to Sweden. Norway retained an own parliament, the "Storten", and nationalistic feelings started to grow. An economic crisis on timber and iron, about the only possible exports for the country, drove away the last merchants and money. The country only came out of recession after the 1830’s. The number of inhabitants of Christiania illustrates this: Oslo had only 8.900 inhabitants in 1801, and 18.300 in 1818. In 1860 however, 47.000 were living in the town. The National Gallery of Christiania/Oslo was founded in 1836, and Dahl’s works were of course among the first to be brought to the new Museum. Norway’s nationalism grew. In 1905 Sweden granted Norway independence. Christiania was called by the old name of Oslo again in 1924.

There were in Norway no maecenasses rich enough for Johann Christian Dahl to be able to make a living by painting in his home country. So, Dahl immigrated to the continent, as did all important subsequent Norwegian painters of the century: Thomas Fearnley, Peder Balke, Hans Gude, Tidemand and many others. Dahl first studied in Copenhagen, which was then still the capital of Denmark-Norway. He went to Italy, then stayed in Dresden and married there. He remained in Dresden, and became a Professor at the Academy of Arts there until his death in 1857. When Dahl arrived in Dresden in 1818, he met there Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich, was the most well known Romantic landscape painter then, and Friedrich had the greatest influence on Dahl who had all the magnificent landscapes of his home country fresh in mind. Friedrich’s tastes rapidly matched Dahl’s, so it was no wonder that Dahl continued the Romantic style of landscape painting.

Friedrich’s landscapes however are mostly imaginary, whereas Johann Christian Dahl returned several times to Norway to study and sketch the natural views of the fjords and northern valleys. Dahl was also a marine painter. He painted the views of Larvik and Bergen, of Frederiksborg Castle and he painted the occasional shipwreck, which in romantic symbolism represented the end of life.

The "View from Stalheim" was painted in Dresden. Dresden was the meeting place for other painters of Norway. Thomas Fearnley, born in Frederikshald, also travelled to Dresden in 1828, and met Friedrich and Dahl there. Fearnley travelled all through his life, working in various European cities: Munich, Rome, Paris, London, and Dresden. He died rather young from typhus in Munich in 1842. Peder Balke, born in Helgoya, also began his schooling in Copenhagen. But in 1836 he became a pupil of J. C. Dahl in Dresden. He too met Caspar David Friedrich and turned to romantic landscape painting. Balke travelled a lot, but also stayed in Norway for long periods. His style is very personal; he experimented with ways of using paint on the canvases that were quite remarkable for his days.

Dresden lost some of its influence to Düsseldorf, and it was there that Adolph Tidemand, born in Mandal and likewise schooled in Copenhagen, arrived in 1837. He stayed the rest of his life in Düsseldorf, but also travelled in Norway. He made some of the few historical pictures of Norway, that other genre based in the nostalgia of past centuries. Tidemand was a painter of figures, of people, so it was quite natural for him to be the one who painted the figures in one of the most famous pictures of Norway, the "Bridal Voyage". In Düsseldorf, Hans Gude joined Tidemand, who was also born in Christiania, but Gude became a student in Düsseldorf of other prominent German landscape painters and that was the style he continued. Hans Gude remained abroad, first in Düsseldorf and then in Karlsruhe where he became a Professor. Gude also painted Norwegian landscapes.

As we have shown, Norway had thus important painters in the nineteenth century, who studied with each other. Christian Krohg studied with Hans Gude in Karlsruhe. The great expressionist Edvard Munch studied with Krohg. So did Nikolai Astrup. Eilif Petersen equally studied with Gude in Karlsruhe, as did Frits Thaulow and Kitty Kielland. Kielland also studied with Petersen in Munich. Harald Sohlberg worked with Petersen, as did Harriet Backer. In this way, the tradition and style of Norwegian landscape painting continued throughout the remarkable Norwegian nineteenth century.

The Recapture of Buda Castle in 1686.

Gyula Benczúr (1844-1920).The Hungarian National Gallery, Magyar Nemzeti Galéria. Budapest. 1885-1896.

This painting is monumental. Gyula Benczúr’s picture measures 3.56 meter by 7.05 meter. What is its economic selling value? The picture might be offered for sale at Sotheby’s, but which private collector would acquire such huge painting? Many historical paintings of the nineteenth century were such massive works. Their subjects were epic, showing important scenes of the national history of the countries of the artist. They were not idyllic, and not of nature. The scenes called for grandeur, for energy, for deeds larger than man. They showed proud men, conquerors, Emperors, Kings. The men were shown fighting, sometimes losing a battle, sometimes winning, but always fighting. This was the new virtue of society: fight always, and even in losing be always proud and always surpass yourself. Then you can achieve anything you want, conquer new territories, master new ideas, be independent, and be your own man. The paintings inspired an enormous dash and spirit. Dare and we’ll succeed.

This, of course, was the spirit of the times. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the beginning of man really bringing nature’s enormous hidden powers to the surface and used: coal, oil, fire and water. Ores were smelted, poured in forms and beaten to huge beams that were turned into bridges and railroads. The power of steam was harnessed and directed: huge locomotives could be made to run on rails at more than fifty kilometres per hour. People started to fly in the airs in machines of wood and iron. The old art of the alchemists yielded stupendous transforming results and new compounds like Bakelite, the first plastic, were produced. Adolf von Bayer and Ernest Solvay founded chemical factories and invented new chemical processes. The structure of matter was investigated, the effects of its inner forces applied. Werner von Siemens built the first electric tram in 1879.

The triumphs of industry and science were displayed in world exhibitions. The first one was held in 1851 in London, then followed almost every five years by Paris, London, Paris, Vienna, Philadelphia, Paris, Sidney, Brussels, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Paris, Chicago and so on. Distances were conquered too: industry, money, science were world phenomena for the first time. It had all been done before, but never on such a scale, at such speeds, with so much power. Man began to apprehend that there were no limits to what he or she could do with these powers. Brunel dug canals of hundreds of kilometres long in England. Alexandre Eiffel built a slender iron tower of more than 300 meters high for the world exhibition of Paris of 1889. He also worked a lot in Hungary: he built the bridge of Szegedin and the West Railway Station of Budapest, which is a masterpiece of iron and glass. And some like Jules Verne dreamed far out of what might be achieved by science: voyages in balloons around the world, to the interior of the earth, living in the seas. "Twenty miles under the Seas" of Jules Verne dates from 1869.

Heroic times for Titans were to be matched by pictures of monumental dimensions. But the new industrialist men were simple, humble of character, modest. They were no aristocrats, no Dukes, Earls, and Kings. They did not yet think of having themselves painted leading their workmen. Some portraits were made, and certainly the first photographs, but no heroic paintings of themselves. Examples of heroism and grandeur could be found in history. To match the times, the new industrial rich and the political powerful that supported the arts commissioned large works of painters who were naturally inclined to look to the themes of their own education. Which was history. Since the commissioners were mostly politicians wanting to decorate the new large public halls, parliaments, exhibition halls, the first theme to be found was national history.

Gyula Benczúr‘s painting tells the history of Hungary. We have to go back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, to 1520. Mary of Hungary, sister to Emperor Charles V, was married to Louis II, King of Hungary. In those years, the Turks had advanced far into Western Europe. Sultan Soliman had first taken Belgrade, which was Hungarian then, and came to a great clash with King Louis II at the battle of Mohacs in Hungary. The Turks won the battle, fiercely killed twelve thousand prisoners. Louis II was just over twenty at that battle. The husband of Mary of Hungary was killed at Mohacs. Mohacs meant the end of independent Hungary, and the end of a dynasty of proud Jagiellon Kings.

In 1521 Ferdinand received Austria from his brother, Charles V, so Ferdinand who was already King of Bohemia (now Czechia) became Archduke of Austria. Mary of Hungary had no children with Louis. Louis’ sister Anna however, was married to Ferdinand. Ferdinand became now by inheritance also King of Hungary. From then on till in the twentieth century, Hungary and Austria’s fate would be linked.

The largest parts of Hungary were occupied however, and in 1526 after the battle of Mohacs, the Turks occupied Buda castle. The Turks even attacked Vienna with 300.000 men, but Ferdinand could hold the city. In 1532 they came back again, but now Emperor Charles V lent help, so that the Turks were driven back once more. Budapest and more than half of Hungary would however remain over a hundred and fifty years under Turkish reign.

Many Hungarian painters take their themes of the heroic struggle of the Magyar people against the Turks. Hungary suffered incredibly under the Turks; tens of thousands of people were killed when the Turkish Sultans ran their armies against Western Europe. Yet, in times of peace, the Turks were tolerant in the countries they occupied. Catholic cathedrals were spared, some like the sacred Matthias church of Budapest where Hungarian kings were crowned, were turned into mosques, but religious tolerance was better than in Germany or the rest of Europe.

Hungary has fathered many excellent historical painters which are far too less known. One reason of course, is that their paintings are either frescoes or too large to travel much and far. So these painters are not represented in the major museums of the world. One has to visit the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest to discover them. Amongst these painters, Victor Madarasz is one of the best. He won a gold medal on the Paris exhibition or Salon of 1859 with a picture of the Mourning of Laszló Hunyadi, a scene of 1457 telling of the killing of Hunyadi who fought the Turks. Other painters of historic scenes are Sandor Liezen-Mayer, Mor Than and Bertalan Székely. Bertalan Székely for instance made a painting of the "Discovery of the Body of King Louis II at the Battle of Mohacs".

Gyula Benczúr continued the typically Hungarian historical tradition. He became the favourite painter of the rulers of Hungary and of the Hungarian aristocracy in the last years of the nineteenth century.

"The Recapture of Buda Castle" dates from 1896, but Benczúr started to paint it as early as 1885. It was completed for the Millennium Celebrations in Hungary H2 . These festivities celebrated the thousandth birthday of the Hungarian nation, since the first Magyar King Arpad had then entered the land that was later to be called Hungary. From May to June 1896, the festivities amazed Hungarians and the world. In one regal procession, the Royal Crown of Hungary was placed in a crystal carriage, escorted by military guards and by the Keepers of the Crown with halberds, and in this way brought to Saint Matthias Church and to the Royal Palace of Buda.
In another procession, mounted escorts of officials of the 89 municipalities and of the National Assembly rode in full regalia of panther skins, shakos, plumes, and swords, preceded by heralds holding silver trumpets. The procession saluted the King and Queen in the Royal Palace, lowered the colours, and then marched back to Saint Matthias Church to escort the Crown back to Parliament. A National Exhibition was held in the City Park. There were pavilions of Budapest history, ethnographic exhibitions, military displays, pavilions of commerce, and of monetary business. The festivities hosted an agricultural exhibition and a pavilion of public education. Most astounding was the Hall of Industry, in which stood huge cast iron columns, leading to and iron-supported all-glass roof, and wide glass windows. Gyula Benczúr’s "Recapture of Buda Castle", displayed at the exhibition, proved the capital’s patronage of the arts.

The Hungarians are a proud and old people. The Magyar tribes came in the tenth century from central Russia, pushed to the West by other Slav tribes. They were called in as mercenaries by a German Emperor to help fight other Slav tribes. They stayed on the Danube, because their home territories had been occupied while they came to the Carpathian Basin. Together with the Fins, they were of a different breed than the other people of Europe. And they longed for independence since very old. Benczúr worked for the Imperial civil servants of Budapest. So, this painting emphasises the necessity of strong links with Austria that had freed Hungary from the Turks.

"The Recapture of Buda Castle" tells a heroic story of Hungary’s past.
In 1663, the Turkish Empire had been so strengthened by the Grand-Viziers Mohammed and Ahmed Köprili, that the Sultan decided again to attack the West by Vienna. But the Italian general Montecucculi could hold them. A peace was made at Vasvar, well against the hopes of the Hungarian noblemen. These were partly Protestants, so that a religious war broke out in Hungary between the Protestant Hungarian and the Austrian Catholics. Hungary was divided; the rebel nobles were supported by the Sultan, considered his vassals.
In 1683, a new Turkish army of more than 200.000 men, led by Grand-Vizier Cara Mustafa and the Hungarian insurgent king Imre Tököly appeared before Vienna. The Viennese defenders had only 15.000 men, led by Count Ernst Rüdiger von Stahremberg. But when the first battles started, another army appeared before Vienna. Duke Charles of Lorraine, who held command of the Imperial Army for Leopold I, led that relief army. It had 21.000 Austrians, 10.500 Germans of Bavaria, 9.000 from Saxony, 7.000 from Franconia. And especially 15.000 Poles arrived, mostly splendidly clad Hussars, under Johan Sobieski, King of Poland.

Sobieski defeated the Turks before Vienna. Western Europe and Christianity was saved once more. The Turks were now attacked from all sides. The Venetians, under their general Morosini, recaptured island after island; town after town. From all over Europe men were sent to join the army that would continue to fight in the East. It was the last crusade.

In 1686, an enormous European army thus tried to recapture the city of Buda, which was now the most western stronghold of the Sultan. Buda Castle, or Osen as the Austrians called it then, was built on a steep hill close to the Danube, a real promontory as it still is today, dominating Budapest. The castle was attacked four times and on September 2nd of 1686 it fell. Many knights distinguished themselves, among them was Eugene of Savoy, who would later continue to lead the Austrian and allied armies to new victories until the whole of Hungary was relieved. Eugene of Savoy’s huge monument stands now in front of the entrance of Buda Castle. This same Eugene of Savoy would be the general who fought against the armies of Louis XIV with the Duke of Marlborough. Eugene was one of the greatest generals ever.

The Hungarians reconciled themselves with the Austrians, so that the Hungarian parliament declared the Hungarian throne to be hereditary in the house of Habsburg. Nationalism continued however. In 1711 Franz Rakoczi led another revolt against the Habsburgs, lost, and went into exile. He became a national hero, and the Rakoczi march composed in his honour became the anthem of Hungary. At the end of the nineteenth century, Hungary still formed a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But nationalism grew steadily. Habsburg armies had suppressed an uprising in 1848. Sixteen-year-old Francis-Joseph I became Emperor, and he subdued the Hungarians with the help of Russian troops. A compromise was sought, and the Austrian-Hungarian dualism started. Francis-Joseph and his wife Elisabeth were crowned Hungarian King and Queen in Saint Matthias Church in 1867.

Gyula Benczúr’s painting shows the moment when Duke Charles of Lorraine and Prince Eugene of Savoy enter the captured Buda castle H2 . A Hungarian herald who trumpets the liberation of the capital of Hungary precedes them. Turkish soldiers lie dead all around, the Turkish colours are taken from the last defender, and prisoners are led out. Charles and Eugene are accompanied by their staff, among which also Hungarians. Their white horses are central in the painting, and they attract the viewer immediately. Thus one cannot miss Charles of Lorraine in the middle, the conqueror of the Turks and the liberator of Hungary, acclaimed by all soldiers. The Duke looks haughty, maybe the only feature by which Benczúr marks the difference between the Austrians and the jovial Hungarians, accentuated by the Hungarian wounded soldier on foot next to Charles. He looks down at Abdurrahman Pasha, the defender of the castle, who is just now uncovered from under the Turkish main colours. To the left from Charles, hidden behind a Hungarian hussar is a Catholic priest holding up the cross: Hungary would be Christian again. The costumes, flags, armoury, are all meticulously painted to seventeenth century historical verity. The painting is intelligently set up. The open arch on the left forms a natural line over Charles’ generals to the herald. Two other bands are painted on the right and the lower left, where the defeated Turks are led away.

This is a grand, marvellous painting, hanging currently in the first floor of the prominent entry hall of the Hungarian National Gallery in the Royal Palace of Buda. Benczúr could not but paint for the reigning class of Hungary a scene that emphasised the historical necessity of Austrian reign over Hungary. While Hungarians revolted and fought each other, the Austrian army had liberated Buda from a worse fate. The Hungarians would have to wait until the twentieth century to become an independent state again.

Historicism is a genre of painting that emerged in all its splendour out of Neo-classicism and Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Famous battles had been painted long before: Paolo Uccello painted the San Romano battle, Albrecht Altdorfer the battle of Alexander the Great. Classical scenes of Roman and Greek antiquity were common since the beginning of the art of painting. Schools of historical painters existed in all the centuries before and historical scenes were quite popular already in the eighteenth century. In the second half of the nineteenth century however, emerged the painting of scenes of more recent history, of medieval times and later.

The motives behind the paintings were various. Bertalan Székely used the historic motive of the death on the battlefield of King Louis the Second as a Romantic theme: escape to earlier ages, loneliness, sadness, and expression of gloom. Gyula Benczúr was an honoured Court painter, although the Court was formed by the powerful dignitaries and rich industrialists who commissioned their large epic canvases to glorify the deeds of the country. Thus, Louis Gallait painted for the Belgian Senate, Daniel Maclise for the English Parliament, Jean-Paul Laurens for the Légion d’Honneur, and Gyula Benczúr for the anniversary of the Hungarian State.

These painters were no flatterers. They did not directly paint to please alone, but what they did and how they did it indeed was acclaimed by the wealthy among whom they lived, and in whose circles they moved. Daniel Maclise combined both: he painted for the eminent politician establishment and yet applied Romantic expression to the historical scenes. Jean-Paul Laurens could find in history examples to illustrate his anti-clericalism. The motives were different, the results also different in how they appeal to our senses: we can truly love Székely’s paintings, feel intimately involved in it. We can like Maclise’s scenes and the skilled Romantic expression of pathos. We admire the skill and are impressed by Gallait and Benczúr’s paintings. We look in awe at the coldness by which such powerful emotions are expressed in Laurens’ "Robert the Pious".

Historicism of the nineteenth century was an all-European phenomenon, not limited to one country. Historical paintings are found first and foremost in Hungary. These paintings are too less known in the other European countries and the New World. Székely, Benczúr, Than, Liesen-Mayor and Madarasz made wonderful paintings that are waiting to be more acclaimed. The movement existed almost independently in Belgium, where it was most used by the Walloon, French speaking Belgians like Gallait but also Barthélémy Vieillevoye, Auguste Chauvin and others. Pietro Benvenuti, Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Gaspero Martellini, Enrico Fanfani, Stefano Ussi and others very well represent Italian historicism. These Italian painters have also been somewhat forgotten by our times, they deserve better recognition. Austria had Hans Makart. France was first still in the ban of the imposing Neo-classicists David and Ingres, but Delacroix in the more rash Romantic way and Laurens in a Neo-classical style especially applied the genre. The nineteenth century remains too much the century of the French Impressionists and of the Romantic English Victorian painters, the Pre-Raphaelists. We tend to forget that this century was rich in many styles.

The historical paintings are marvellous, although less to our taste of the moment. We ought to learn to love them more, because they were the expression of powerful feelings of pride, magnificence, recognition of heroic deeds of the fathers, and a new faith in man’s accomplishments

The Virgin ascends the mountain

Joseph von Führich (1800-1876). Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. Vienna. 1841.

"The Virgin Mary ascends the Mountain" of Joseph von Führich is a picture of the theme of the road to holiness of the Virgin. Other images of this kind are Mary ascending the stairs of the temple and of course her proper Ascension and Coronation in the heavens. The theme also symbolised the road to spirituality in a life of love of the pious. The symbolic value of Führich’s painting is heavy, and the artist brought full romantic sentimentality in his scene.

Mary is on the path that leads to the mountains. She will visit there Elisabeth, who is also pregnant. Mary could not be more traditionally dressed. She wears the red robe for love, her blue cloak for the heavenly, and a white headdress for purity. She wears a staff to keep her steady, and she supports the child in her. The staff helps her on the road, but it is also a symbol of the sceptre of her dignity and place in the church. A group of angels precedes her. They are singing from a large, open book of musical notes. One of the small angels looks upwards, and brings our eyes to three hovering, elder angels. These angels too are three, like the Trinity. They are flying in the air and they let roses and rose petals fall gently over Mary. The roses fall on the path, and Joseph behind Mary picks up one of the roses. Here also we find obvious symbolism. Joseph picks Mary’s rose, since he is her husband. Behind the whole scene is a beautiful soft mountainous landscape.

Mary is entering the woods; she walks into a protective environment and a more closed world. This is a frequent theme and symbol associated with the Virgin. Mary and Joseph are leaving the open, dangerous world into an intimate mystic land. Right behind Mary in the background is an enormous tree, and Mary is shown walking just in front of its large trunk and plain, green foliage that reaches upwards. Bringing such mass behind the main figure of a scene was an image used by many painters to indicate the importance of the figure.

The tree divides the picture exactly in two halves, in the open world and in the closed world. Führich painted symmetrically the group of children-angels to the left and the stooping Joseph on the right. Now we understand why Joseph had to pick up a rose. The stooping Joseph also seems to kneel to Mary, but by this gesture Joseph’s figure remains of the same height and mass as the singing angels. The effect brings balance of surfaces on the figures, and also a solid grounding to the mass of the tree. The angels flying in the air fill the surface of the tree foliage above Mary, so that Führich tried here also in a natural way to build his composition to nice harmony.

The whole picture is in soft tones, in which the browns and soft reds dominate. These colours hardly contrast the indefinite green of the slopes of the hilly landscape. Führich thus made a picture of sweet composition and colours. But of course, we are only barely touched by the sweet feelings of tenderness and immediate sentimentality that pervades this painting. We perceive no force of spirit, no power of representation. Führich’s picture comes to us as a tender image of feelings that do not go deep. We see his painting as an exercise in sensibility.

Joseph Führich was a Romantic artist. He was born in Bohemia, Czechia, in the town of Kratzau in 1800. He studied in Prague and Vienna. Bohemia was then part of the Austrian Empire and Führich received a grant from Prince Metternich to study in Rome. He stayed there with the Nazarene community of artists.

The Nazarenes were a group of German and Austrian artists of the romantic generation. Led by Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869), this group had left Vienna, where they had already founded a Guild of Saint Lucas in the old tradition of painters’ guilds. In Rome they lived in a secularised abbey, the abbey of San Isidore. They wore their hair long and plaited in the middle, so that the more pragmatic Romans soon called them "Nazarenes", the name by which they became known in the history of art. Overbeck wanted to revive fresco painting, and Führich worked in Rome also with other Nazarenes at a project of decoration of a Roman villa, in this case the Villa Massimo. Führich did not stay long in Rome, however. He returned to Prague in 1832, and then back to Vienna in 1834 so that his picture of "Mary ascends the Mountains" was a painting of his later Vienna period. Führich taught at the Academy of Vienna. He was also the conservator of a gallery of paintings in the Austrian capital. Emperor Franz-Joseph even knighted him in 1861.

Führich’s painting "The Virgin Mary ascends the Mountain" shows one of the reasons why the Nazarenes returned to Rome. These Romantic artists were not in search for classical Rome, its ruins, its sculptures and imperial past. The Nazarenes returned to the spiritual values of the Christian Middle Ages and of the Renaissance and they thought to impregnate themselves with spirituality in the core of Roman Catholicism. They sought to renew a mystical contact with a past in which society was built on Christianity, in which Christianity was the basic framework of European civilisation. The Enlightenment had broken this framework, so the Nazarenes reaffirmed the values and images of old.

Many of the Nazarenes like Overbeck, Peter von Cornelius and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld painted clear messages in which the old Florentine "designo" was emphasised. Führich also drew before he coloured. His picture is crisp in lines like a neo-classicist painting. But he obviously accentuated the sentiment. In that, he either linked to past German traditions of rococo decoration, or he was a precursor of the later Biedermeier style. Because of this, Joseph Führich holds a separate position among the Nazarenes with whom he was connected in Rome for a few years, from 1827 to 1829.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: July 2010
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