Ye Romantic Young Geniuses

August 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

I don’t generally talk about my working life here, but I will now skirt dangerously close to outing myself (okay, not really) by saying that one of my current projects has taken me from the part of the nineteenth century I like to think of as home, i.e. the last three decades of it, to less familiar territory… Romanticism.

The focus is landscape, but as I’ve been researching the artists involved, I’ve come across their self-portraits, and I thought I’d share a few here…


JMW Turner, Self-Portrait (c. 1799)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Self-Portrait (c. 1799)

John Constable, Self-Portrait (1806)

John Constable, Self-Portrait (1806)

Samuel Palmer, Self-Portrait (1826)

Samuel Palmer, Self-Portrait (1826)

Caspar David Friedrich, Self-Portrait (1800)

Caspar David Friedrich, Self-Portrait (1800)

Carl Philipp Fohr, Self-Portrait (1816)

Carl Philipp Fohr, Self-Portrait (1816)

Theodor Rehbenitz, Self-Portrait (1817)

Theodor Rehbenitz, Self-Portrait (1817)

Looking at them gathered together like this, it strikes me that they all have something in common. (Whoever said ‘they all look young and tortured’, go to the back of the class.)

It’s the eyes.

All of the artists have made their own wide, luminous eyes noticeably larger in proportion to the rest of their features than those in any self-portraits from earlier periods (at least, that I can think of – I’m happy to be corrected). None of that narrowed, inscrutable sidelong glance, the result of looking at oneself in a mirror, seemingly endemic to earlier self-portraits – think of Jan van Eyck’s at the National Gallery and you’ll see what I mean. Even Fohr and Constable, who depicted themselves in profile, gave themselves huge eyes.

Why is this? I have a couple of theories. One, the more obvious, is that the eyes were considered the windows of the soul. The other is perhaps more of a stretch, but here goes: all of these artists specialised in landscape. This was an era when they, and many of their contemporaries, were starting to call into question the validity of academic formulae for creating landscapes and go directly to nature, sketching in the open air, seizing hold of every detail with startling avidity. (Even Palmer, the visionary, spent countless hours exploring the environs of his beloved Shoreham, sketchbook in hand.) Are their eyes meant to suggest this insatiable hunger for the natural world?

Just a theory.


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