Art of the Neoclassical and Romantic Ages

Around 1800, Europe was in transition, reflected in two art styles. First, we visit Europe's great cities with their stately Neoclassical buildings of columns and domes. Meanwhile, the Revolution has unleashed a call for freedom, both political and personal. We see dramatic Romantic canvases depicting extreme emotions and awesome Nature, and tour dreamy castles — virtual theme parks of Romanticism.


[1] Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time, rather than a particular place, we're going thematic and traveling wherever that theme takes us. In this episode, it's the art of the 19th century — Neoclassical and Romantic. You know — Revolution, Napoleon, poets hugging trees, and painters climbing mountains. Thanks for joining us!

[3] For Europe, the 19th century was a conflicted time…modernity versus tradition, politicians and poets were pulling society in different directions. Art captured the cultural dynamic: Neoclassical was calm and calculated while Romantic was emotional and dramatic. And in the next half hour we'll dive right into the fray.

[4 Montage] The architecture of the Neoclassical period gave us facades and domes that ancient Romans would recognize and statues and paintings that stir the revolutionary's heart. It was so cerebral and logical, that Romantics finally had to say "enough." In response, artists embraced melodrama and made the love of nature almost a religion. This was Romanticism. It gave voice to struggles for freedom. And it cheered on wannabe nations, helping give them legitimacy with architecture that reached back, celebrating their historic roots. The artistic foundation for all this was the earlier art of kings and nobles…art that promoted the status quo: the frilly age of Baroque…and the even frillier Rococo.

[5] Rococo art was a symptom of an excessive decadence among Europe's increasingly out-of-touch elites. But the world was changing. There was a growing belief that science and reason could lead to progress. This led to a new and ultimately revolutionary age, the Age of Enlightenment.

[6] Science was booming as new frontiers — from gravity and electricity to the solar system — were explored. New technology was celebrated — practically an art form in itself, with jeweled microscopes, intricate timepieces, and finely crafted telescopes. People were fascinated by the wonders of the natural world. And philosophers even floated the radical idea that ordinary people could rule themselves — planting the seeds of modern democracy.

[8, Madame de Pompadour, 1756, Boucher, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] As the 1700s progressed, the aristocracy was going one way, but the rest of society was headed another.

[9] This reaction to the excesses of the age led to an enlightened style of art which stripped out the Baroque drama and Rococo frills. As in the Renaissance, it looked back to classical times for inspiration — to ancient Greece and Rome. And because it was a new version, it was called "Neo-classical."

[10, Pantheon, Paris] Architects revived the style of classical temples. Using columns, triangular pediments, and soaring domes, these buildings — with their clean, straight lines — looked ancient but were actually modern, built in the 17- and 1800s. They were Neoclassical.

[11, The Death of Socrates, 1787, David, Louvre Museum, Paris; Oath of the Horatii, 1784, David] Painters celebrated ancient scenes with clear-eyed realism and sharply drawn lines. Greek, Roman, sober and intellectual themes — it's pure Neoclassicism.

[12, Madame Récamier, David, 1800, Louvre Museum, Paris] They painted portraits of contemporary Europeans in classic colors and ancient garb. This young Parisian socialite — reclining on a Roman couch, with a Greek tunic and a Pompeii hairdo — perfectly in vogue.

[13, Pauline Bonaparte as Venus, 1808, Canova, Borghese Gallery, Rome] In sculpture, subjects — like Napoleon's sister for example — were featured pure and calm as Greek gods — with smooth clean lines carved from the same white marble as the ancients.

[14, Cupid and Psyche, 1793, Canova, Louvre, Paris] Greek myths now came without all the Baroque drama. This Cupid flutters down to awaken his lover with a kiss. As their arms intertwine, they form an intimate circle — a circle of love — focusing all the attention on the center of the composition: the charged atmosphere between their anxious lips.

[15] Soon, this classical style could be found all over Europe — with Greek- and Roman-inspired façades, stately columns, and logical, grid-planned streets.

[16] Much of London was remade in this style — from palaces to churches to museums. While on the Continent, the art of this period was called Neoclassical, England named the style after its king: "Georgian."

[17, The Circus and the Royal Crescent, Bath, England] The Neoclassical, or Georgian, style spread across Britain. Towns like Bath enjoyed a Neoclassical makeover. This circular square feels like an ancient coliseum turned inside out, complete with classical columns — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Nearby, its Royal Crescent, the first Georgian "condos," came with a broad promenade perfect for strutting your high society stuff. With its elegant symmetry and classical ornamentation, progressive residents of Georgian England got to stroll as if the vanguard of an enlightened new age.

[18, Senate Square, Helsinki] And, the Neoclassical style spread to Europe's far north. In Helsinki — in the early 1800s — an entire ensemble of buildings — political, religious, and commercial —was designed in this new artistic style.

[19, Lutheran Cathedral, Helsinki] The cathedral, with its stately dome and statues of twelve apostles, overlooks the city. With that striking centerpiece, this is perhaps the finest and most cohesive Neoclassical square in Europe.

[20] With its clean, cool lines and focus on reason, Neoclassicism was more than a period of art — it represented a whole new way of thinking. It stood for Enlightenment, science, progress, and…the future.

[21] While enlightened thinkers and artists were forging the future, Europe's political order remained dangerously stuck in the past. Kings and nobles clung stubbornly to their power. The world was changing, but the conservative elites were not…in fact, they were digging in. Common people were demanding a voice, and revolution was in the air.

[22, Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun] Meanwhile, back at the heart of the Old Regime — the palace of Versailles — the royals ignored cries for change. The queen, Marie Antoinette, retreated ever deeper into her fanciful gardens to this petite peasant hamlet — a charming farm with a dairy, a water mill, and domesticated animals…a fairytale escape of carefree country pleasures.

[23] In spite of rising tensions, artists still captured nobles at play. The queen lived in her wealthy bubble while, all around her, the long-suffering peasants struggled and starved.

[24, The French Revolution, 1789] Finally, in 1789, the common citizens of France rose up and attacked. They overthrew the king and queen and marched them to the guillotine. As the crowd gathered, one managed the blade, one caught the blood, and one raised the head of Marie Antoinette. Vive la révolution!

[25, Oath of the Tennis Court, 1791, David, Louvre Museum, Paris] As the Revolution raged, the fast-moving events were chronicled by artists — effectively the journalists of the day — in the politically correct style for the age…Neoclassical.

[26, Jacques-Louis David, 1748–1825] The leading painter, Jacques-Louis David, was a Revolutionary himself. Celebrating patriotism and self-sacrifice, he compared his follow patriots to heroes of antiquity. He painted the Revolution's turning points. When his friend and Revolutionary leader was assassinated — knifed while taking a bath — David portrayed him as a tragic martyr to the cause.

[27] Soon, the reins of the runaway Revolution were in the capable hands of a charismatic young soldier — a leader who kept his eyes on the horizon and a hand in his coat — Napoleon Bonaparte.

[28, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800, David, Louvre Museum, Paris] As Napoleon rose to power, artists idealized him like a Roman conqueror, as he led France's Revolutionary army across Europe, toppling royal families and instituting reforms.

[29, Coronation of Napoleon, 1807, David] At the peak of his power, Napoleon staged a ceremony to be crowned not king but "Emperor" of a new Rome. This canvas by David, the biggest in the Louvre, is a fine example of how the victor gets to tell the story the way he wants it told. Napoleon's mother was painted in a prime spot even though she wasn't there at all. The pope himself traveled from Rome to Paris to crown Napoleon. But Napoleon took charge — crowning his wife Josephine, and then himself. The pope was painted looking a little neglected. And Napoleon was now the most powerful man in all of Europe.

[30, Fontainebleau, outside Paris] Ironically, Napoleon — the man who'd fought the Old Regime — now moved into the same lavish mansion that housed its kings. He enjoyed the same sweeping staircases, opulent Baroque ballroom, and giddy apartments. The revolutionary hero that once battled pampered tyrants had become one himself.

[31, Napoleon's Tomb, 1861, Les Invalides, Paris] Ultimately, Napoleon's megalomania got the best of him. All of Europe ganged up on France, defeated Napoleon and, again, great art and architecture told the story: Napoleon was later buried in a grand tomb surrounded by art that, to this day, glorifies his reign.

[32, Arc de Triomphe, 1836, Paris] Though the Revolution was eventually over, the revolutionary spirit lived on — celebrated with triumphal arches, stirring reliefs, and heroic statues. Europe had been changed forever, pointing society toward an unknown but exciting future.

[33] In the early 1800s, in the wake of the French Revolution, Europe's masses were hungry for freedom, both political and personal. That urge expressed itself in art that was not cerebral, but about letting hearts run wild. It was called Romanticism.

[34] Sure, Romantic art embraced traditional romance. But it was much more. It expressed the full range of human emotions: from the highest of highs…to the lowest of lows…the awe-inspiring grandeur of nature…a dreamy nostalgia for times past…and a fascination with the exotic. The Romantic style is melodramatic, with epic-scale canvases, and images that stir the emotions.

[35] The Neoclassical and Romantic styles seem like opposites. Yet, both styles coexisted for decades, mirroring the conflicting social trends of the times.

[36, Oath of Horatii, David; Death of Socrates, David; Pauline Bonaparte, Canova] As we saw earlier, in Neoclassical paintings, heroes were posed…death scenes were stoic…and idealized nudes sat calmly while deep in thought.

[37, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1826, Delacroix, Louvre Museum, Paris] But, the Romantic-style art which followed — like this supercharged orgy of drama and violence — was an unruly explosion of emotions.

[38, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Delacroix, Louvre Museum, Paris] This fearless Romantic heroine storms the barricades in the cause of liberty as guns blaze, smoke billows, and bodies fall…as she leads the common people to victory.

[39, Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Géricault, Louvre Museum, Paris] And what could be more stirring than shipwrecked souls lost at sea. It's a human pyramid of emotion, from the depths of despair…to a hope-filled pinnacle of ecstasy as they spot the rescue ship. If Romantic art controls your heartbeat, this is a masterpiece.

[40] Some of the strongest passions of the 19th century were stoked by the struggles of ethnic groups — rising up to form their own nations. Romantic artists had a natural affinity for these patriotic underdogs. And galleries were filled with art that cheered on freedom.

[41] In Germany — still little more than a patchwork of medieval dukedoms — patriots began imagining a united country. By embracing their common German roots — the dreamy medieval legends…heroes fighting for the fatherland — artists stoked idealistic dreams of a glorious German-speaking future.

[42] In Scotland, as patriots chafed at English rule, artists celebrated its independent spirit with a romanticized blend of myth and history. Proud warriors sport clan regalia, as if emboldened by kilts and plaid. In spite of tragic losses, a downtrodden yet resilient nation survived, spirit intact.

[43] In Norway, salt-of-the-earth locals reveled in their Norwegian-ness, celebrating traditional dress, heading for a country wedding, while engulfed in the majesty of the fjords.

[44] And in Italy, patriots united passionately behind dynamic leaders against their foreign oppressors. All across Europe, art illustrated how the modern forces of social progress battled old values, as Europeans demanded freedom.

[45] This era of revolution and nationalism propelled the spread of Romanticism and its ideals throughout Europe. One of the influential masters of the movement was from Spain.

[46, Francisco Goya, 1746–1828] Francisco Goya was an artist with a social conscience and a political agenda. As a successful painter of royal portraits, he dutifully recorded their extravagant finery, but also their famously clueless faces. He painted the idle rich at play.

[47, Saturn Devouring His Son, c. 1823, Goya, Prado Museum, Madrid] …while also branching out into more serious subjects. He explored the most extreme of emotions — grotesque scenes of madness and pain, revealing the dark side of the human condition.

[48, The Second of May 1808, Goya, Prado Museum, Madrid] And he boldly depicted the painful reality of foreign oppression. First, the brave Spanish resistance, and then…

[49, The Third of May 1808, 1814, Goya, Prado Museum, Madrid] …the brutal aftermath, when the soldiers of the French emperor — a faceless firing squad — mow down the revolutionaries — idealistic freedom-fighters — one by one. Bodies fall…blood stains the ground. Men cover their eyes in horror. In the darkness, Goya throws a dramatic light on the next victim, a nameless peasant — the common man — who becomes a hero. He spreads his arms and asks, "Why?" This masterpiece of the Romantic style — vivid brushwork, stark shadows, distorted features, so full of human drama — expressed the anguish of Europe's masses, longing to be free.

[50] Even amid Europe's surging national movements, another revolution was transforming the landscape — the Industrial Revolution. Europe built more in the 19th century than in all previous centuries combined. But all this had a downside: an increasingly machine-like pace of life. Artists — with their free spirits — pushed back. Nature was appreciated as never before: painters were climbing mountains, poets were hugging trees.

[51] Here in the English countryside, artists retreated to take long walks and commune with nature. Romantic painters captured the majesty of soaring clouds…an almost supernatural power, charged from within…and soul-stirring mountains and rainbows that say: Nature is big, we are small.

[52, J. M. W. Turner, 1775–1851; The Fighting Temeraire, 1838, Turner, National Gallery, London] The English artist William Turner infused his canvases with the Romantic forces of Nature — burning sun, swirling clouds, churning waves, storm-tossed souls. His old sailing ship being towed into the sunset by a steamship was a metaphor for the coming of the modern world. As he aged, Turner's brushwork became frenetic and more intense, capturing the stormy and tumultuous inner passions that defined the Romantic Age.

[53] In England, around 1850, the energy of Romanticism was channeled by a spirited brotherhood of artists. Turning away from the frenzy of the Industrial Age and inspired by the dreamy medieval world before the great Renaissance painter Raphael, they called themselves…the Pre-Raphaelites.

[54, The Lady of Shalott (Waterhouse), The Bride (Rossetti), The Mirror of Venus (Burne-Jones)] The Pre-Raphaelites reveled in medieval damsels, mythical goddesses, and legendary lovers…all immersed in the fertile serenity of nature, captured in radiant colors and luminous clarity. They created melancholy visions of pure beauty.

[55, Ophelia, 1852, Millais, Tate Gallery, London] In this quintessential Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, tragic Ophelia, who's fallen while picking a garland of wildflowers, is singing before she drowns. Her body, open and skyward, is somewhere between saintly and sensual…and the nature engulfing her is so fertile while decaying at the same time. So pale in contrast to the richness of nature, she had finally found happiness on the verge of death.

[56] Dreamlike beauty…medieval themes…the wonder of nature…these elements of the Romantic style also came together — all across Europe — in fairy-tale castles.

[57, Pena Palace (1854, Sintra, near Lisbon), Peleș Castle (1883, Romania)] Built during the same generation, fanciful architectural dreams like these capped hills from Portugal…to Romania…to the foothills of Bavaria's Alps.

[58, Neuschwanstein Castle, c. 1880, Bavaria] Neuschwanstein — which looks medieval — was built only in the late 1800s. When Bavaria's King Ludwig wanted an escape from the grinding reality of governing, he found it here.

[59, Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, reign 1864 to 1886] Ludwig — a romantic's romantic — had grown up in this castle. From his bedroom chair, reading medieval legends while surrounded by the grandeur of nature, he dreamed up the ultimate castle. And, just up the hill, he built it.

[60] His medieval fantasy was completely modern — with all the comforts of the 1870s. It sits on a hilltop not for defensive reasons, but because the king liked the view. Ludwig slathered the interior with misty medieval themes taken from operas written by his friend, the Romantic composer Richard Wagner. The golden throne room, saintly kings, and crown-shaped chandelier placed Ludwig among the great kings of old. With its natural setting, exotic décor, and joyous spirit of freedom, Ludwig's castle is a virtual theme park of Romanticism.

[61, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna] Ludwig's historic-looking castle was an example of an architectural style called Historicism. The style spread widely in the late 1800s, when Europe was prosperous and confident. In England it was the Victorian Age, in France, the "Belle Époque" or beautiful age. And here in Vienna, they built this. With the changes of the modern world, many were like King Ludwig…nostalgic for an idealized past. Historicism showed itself in a Romantic mix of both old and new.

[62, Berlin Cathedral, 1905, Berlin; Hungarian Parliament Building, 1902, Budapest] Nineteenth century architects looked back into history for inspiration. Taking a little from here and a little from there — and employing new advances in iron enabling bigger and more decorative architecture — they cobbled it into something that looked old but was a "new," or "Neo."

[63, Austrian Parliament building, 1883, Vienna; Sacré Coeur church, 1914, Paris; Houses of Parliament or Palace of Westminster, 1876, London] Neoclassical like here in Vienna, Neo-Byzantine here in Paris…and when London's medieval parliament building burned down, they rebuilt it in Neo-Gothic style, complete with a bell tower to match.

[64, Týn Church, Prague; The British Museum, London] The most elaborate medieval-looking architecture — like this the spires of this church in Prague, or this castle in Segovia — is not 800 years old like you might think. It's actually Neo-Medieval — about 150 years old: all of this was built or rebuilt in the same generation as the Eiffel Tower. Whether neo-this or neo-that, this style was a romantic way to hang onto a nation's historical roots while embracing the fast-changing times.

[65] By the way, I love how art, as it journeys through the ages, swings like a pendulum from emotional to cerebral: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Romanticism…

[66] Think about it: Gothic speaks to your heart…to your soul, while Renaissance was calculated and logical, then Baroque was emotional again — with such exuberance. All that drama resulted in the cool and intellectual art of the Neoclassical Age, which inspired artists to unleash their hearts and then embrace Romanticism.

[67] Europe offers a lifetime of artistic treasures. And the more you understand its art, the more you'll appreciate the society that created it. I hope you've enjoyed our sweep through the art of the 19th century. And, while exciting, that was just a warm-up for what comes next: Impressionism and the wild and crazy art of the 20th century. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'!