It is a powerful and romantic idea about past artists that they were visionaries starving in garrets, in some ways outside society. This image – deliberately created in part by artists themselves – can, if unpicked, tell us a great deal about how individuals responded to a rapidly changing world during the 19th century, and something about that world itself.
A new exhibition at the National Gallery in London follows the changing role and self-description of the artist, from pillars of the establishment to rebels and martyrs.
It includes around 70 paintings and aims to view the evolution in the artist from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ pride in acceptance by the establishment in the late 18th century to the tortured outsider status of the likes of Egon Schiele in the years immediately before the First World War.
Covering 130 years, many of the paintings – often portraits and depictions of artists at work – tell part of the story of the dramatic social changes between the French Revolution and the First World War. Artists struggled to make sense of them and expressed their contradictions in different ways.
Emerging in the late 18th century in Europe, Romanticism was a response to the tremendous hopes of the French Revolution turning to disillusion with the rise of Napoleon and the return of tyranny. For many who had welcomed the revolution’s promise of freedom, its outcome was a bitter blow.
Many rejected the Enlightenment ideas of reason associated with the revolution and replaced them with a frequently mystical glorification of an illusory ancient past.
Romantic painting is characterised by an emphasis on nature and the individual expression of emotion and imagination. The ethos of Romanticism stressed that artists should not paint for money or glory, but to release an inner creativity at whatever cost. It is this movement which gave birth to the notion of the tortured individual artist.
But Romanticism was contradictory, not simply a reactionary rejection of reason. It was also a formal challenge to the attitudes and forms of classicism in art, to pre French Revolution conservatism and to establishment painting.
In reclaiming popular or folk traditions and stories, Romantic artists could symbolise a rebellion against tyranny, and in their own lives they often flouted social conventions.
The 1848 revolutions across Europe impacted on Romanticism and altered it. Some of the paintings in this exhibition may not seem explicitly political, but they are inescapably part of the politics of the time.
The revolution in France, drawing in artisans and workers behind the demands of the liberal middle classes, threw off the monarchy and established the Second Republic.
The jubilation dwindled as the republican government turned on those who had made the revolution. This in turn would lead to their overthrow by the right under Louis Napoleon, who re-established the monarchy.
Eugene Delacroix, the great painter of Liberty Guiding The People, his famous picture celebrating the 1830 revolution in France, was initially enthusiastic about the events of 1848 – but horrified by the June insurrection.
His treatment of Michelangelo alone in his studio was painted between 1849-50 and is not a terribly good painting. According to art historian TJ Clark, it is bad not because Delacroix was reactionary towards the events of 1848 but because he was grappling with absorbing his changing political attitudes into his work. Even the apparently least political painting, in other words, is deeply political.
Delacroix’s Michelangelo In His Studio illustrates the Romantic myth of the isolated artist. Michelangelo, however great, is depicted depressed and idle in his studio between two massive sculptures. Delacroix is clearly identifying himself with Michelangelo and making a statement about the loneliness of his vocation.
Contrast that work with Gustav Courbet’s Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (below) and the diverse ways in which Romanticism was moulded by social change become clear. Painted in 1854, Courbet represents himself as a Wandering Jew, deliberately choosing an archaic image from popular culture, meeting his patron Bruyas.
The artist is self-confident, fully the equal of the man whose money and power he is dependent on. The painting illustrates the entire social situation and its changing nature.
The altered social circumstances of 1848 gave a glimpse, however brief, of the potential to upset ancient hierarchies and a sense that art could contribute to the struggle against oppression.
Courbet, a passionately socially engaged painter, was a bohemian. He needed to live outside established convention and reject patronage in order to paint for the people. He said, “I must free myself even from governments. My sympathies are with the people. I must speak to them directly, take my science from them and they must provide me with a living.”
Following the 1848 revolutions, the dynamism of modern capitalism transformed European society economically and socially. Class identifications shifted with the growth of the working class and the new middle classes.
Cultural forms were transformed along with this, including the self-depiction of artists and the role of art itself.
Edouard Manet is the great describer of this process. His Music In The Tuileries Gardens both reflects bourgeois society’s leisure pursuits and describes the changing role of the artist.
There is an exhilaration and an identification with the modern life of the “bourgeois” and a sense of dislocation and estrangement of the individual within the crowd.
He paints himself as part of bourgeois society and also slightly subversive, recording the insecurities and uncertainties of the new order as well as celebrating its bright lights.
The materialism and superficiality of capitalism was not celebrated for long. The resurgence of Romanticism in the 1880s was part of an intellectual “crisis of reason” in the years leading up to the First World War. Ideals of collective progress seemed to have failed and irrationality and individualism returned.
Paul Gauguin’s Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin deliberately echoes Courbet’s in its title. But its subject – the painter meeting an old woman in the country – while sharing the idealised landscape of Courbet’s, illustrates none of the latter’s confidence.
The painter appears alienated, isolated, bereft. Symbolism, Romanticism’s revival, emphasised the expression of inner spirituality.
In this painting social engagement is broken, the spirituality is hollow, suppressed by a world which has seemed to triumph over the individual.
In the years before the First World War, Gauguin’s depictions of himself as a suffering Christ and Egon Schiele’s painful self-portrait speak of emotional desolation and tortured souls.
They express indirectly the spiritual pain and suffocation that for many accompanied the growth of industrialisation and militarism. Rejecting the priorities of society became internalised and therefore doomed, but deeply affecting nonetheless.
The exhibition, taken together with a basic grasp of events, offers an important insight into artists’ relationship to society. The artists who lived through these times absorbed them, and their self-expression was profoundly affected.
Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century is on at the National Gallery in central London until 28 August. Go to www.nationalgallery.org.uk