We are used to think of Paris as the main bastillion of modern art. However, there is another, as important alternative interpretation of art history according to professor Robert Rosenblum as he writes in the book Modern Painting and the Romantic Tradition, from Friedrich to Rothko (1975), claiming that many symbolist artists, mainly in Northern Europe, share a long romantic tradition.

 Joseph Mallord William Turner; Norham Castle Sunrise, 1845

Searching for Soul

Caspar David Friedrich: Winter Landscape with Church,1811

Outside of France, as David, Manet and Picasso were working their way into fame and history, there was a longing for an art that could free itself from the empirical world, and instead mirror the mystical and spiritual.

In protestant christianity, religion no longer satisfied the need for mystical connection; this mystery was to be searched for in nature.

Not being able to access a vital, spiritual art, the holy was transferred to the worldly. The divine power came to be expressed in the sublime landscapes in the art of Friedrich, Turner, Runge and Palmer.

As realism came into vogue around 1850, it overshadowed the romanticists search for spirit, emotion and symbols. Nature did not cease to reveal the transcendental mystery for those who still chose to look. Turner and Friedrich were still seeing angels during the first half of the century, but Courbet did not. Not even the supernatural interpretations of light could bring forth any supernatural beings, according to Rosenblum.

Emotion vs reality

Michelangelo Buonarotti: Pietà, 1498-99

Even Michelangelo, in the 1400′s, was one of the artists keeping this symbolist tradition alive, according to M.T.H. Sadler, who translated Kandinsky’s Ûber das Geistige in der Künst – On The Spiritual in Art. This tradition was inherited from Giotto, the primitive Greeks and Egyptians, who all sought to express inner emotion rather than a so called reality.

Many northern European and American artists, continued the research of their own relationship with the Big Unknown, outside of traditional, religious art; outside of realism and other later styles. The art of the Romanticists was unified by the same feeling and intention; to find a way to communicate with the supernatural mysteries.

In Europe this stayed around longer in the protestant North than in the catholic South.

Edward Steichen: The Pond Moonlight, 1904.

A pictorial photographic print sold at an auction in 2006 for 2.9 million USD. Link to his bio and work here.

Read online:

Robert Rosenblum: Modern Painting and the Romantic Tradition, from Friedrich to Rothko 


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