History has shown us that man moves in pendulous ways. From nature to divine, from reason to feelings, from private to public, from objective to subjective. Art is the ideal illustration for these movements, and this essay will discuss the contrasting values manifested in two paintings belonging to the historical movements of the Enlightenment and Romanticism: William Blake's Newton (1795), and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. Although Blake is considered usually a romantic precursor in art, in this particular painting, he depicts precisely the most characteristic values of the Enlightenment era. I will also include a typically enlightenment-era painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough (1748-49), in order to directly contrast the different movements.The Enlightenment era, which belonged to the Age of Reason, describes a historical intellectual movement of the 18th century, which advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. "The intellectual leaders of this movement regarded themselves as courageous and elite, and regarded their purpose as leading the world toward progress and out of a long period of doubtful tradition, full of irrationality, superstition, and tyranny now denominated as the Dark Age". (Cassirer, 1992).The Enlightenment believed in a rational, orderly and comprehensible universe. It extolled the ideals of liberty, property and rationality which are still recognizable as the basis for most political philosophies even in the present era. Science came to be the new man's religion, and based on the revolutionary ideas like Newton's, it was thought that all the truths of the world could be known by a systematic way of applying uniform laws.
William Blake, an English poet and painter, made a series of pictures of Newton as a divine geometer while living in Lambeth in the late 1790s.
Newton is portrayed here as a scientist, but at the same time as a divine figure, a creator. He is deciphering the laws of the world with his compass. The compass symbolizes the creation. We can clearly understand that rationality becomes the highest quality of human beings, and it challenges the existence of a divine being responsible for the creation. The enlightenment was a rebellion to the Middle Ages where faith wasn't to be questioned.
Likewise, Romanticism was a rebellion to this age of reason. The Romantics found the Enlightenment worldview excessively dispassionate. With reason being the base for humanity's progress, the emotional side of man was set aside. Romanticism stressed strong emotion-which might include trepidation, awe and horror as aesthetic experiences-"the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom within or even from classical notions of form in art, and overturning of previous social conventions, particularly the position of the aristocracy". (Romanticism, article by Wikepedia)
Here is a painting of this artistic movement, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German painter. His paintings portray the untamed power of nature; this is in sharp contrast to Enlightenment-era painters who used nature to bring out qualities in their human subjects.
Mr and Mrs Andrews
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
What we can appreciate in the left painting is the power of nature versus the vulnerability of a man, a man who is alone against the world, a wanderer. The romantic worldview is charged with emotions such as fragility, drama, passion, and fate. The character here depicted seems to be at the edge of an abyss. In the second painting, nature is used on the opposite way, to bring out the qualities in the human subjects, the aristocrats.
The colors of Friedrich's painting express the feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and vulnerability. While in, Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrew, there is more a sense of confidence and stability. Nature is definitely more