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19th Century (1760-1859) is a period in the history of art which includes a number of movements, from Realism and Genre painting in France, England and the Netherlands to Romanticism (1750-1860), Neo-Classicism (1750-1880), Pre-Raphaelitism (founded in 1848) and Symbolism, whose term was coined for the first time by Jean Moreas’ Symbolist Manifesto published in 1886 on Le Figaro.

Realism and Genre painting

Strongly swayed by the philosophical and literary current of Enlightenment, combined with the novelty of the Industrial Revolution, the artistic production of the 19th Century features the contemporary human conditions dealing with conflicting ideas about the role of tradition and hierarchy, both in nature and society. Accordingly, the early stage of what will lead to 19th Century art is characterized by the Realism and Genre painting in France, England and the Netherlands. These works were made with any of various media and represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes and street scenes. Such representations could be realistic, imagined, or romanticized by the artist. Because of their familiar and frequently sentimental subject matter, Genre paintings have often proven popular with the bourgeoisie and this is also the reason why Genre painting successfully spread across many European countries.

Key Artists: David Allan (1744-96), Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Jean-François Millet (1814-1875).

Romanticism (1750-1860)

A further movement strongly connected to the above mentioned romanticized version of genre painting, is Romanticism (1750-1860). This current started in Germany and quickly expanded to England and France in the 1780’s; initially begun by a group of German writers and poets, the Romantic style in art became strong, lasting and very inspiring for painters and sculptors. The Romantics exalted courtly love and sought only poetry and truth. They refused to be restricted by the traditional approach to still-lifes, seascapes, and landscapes. They explored a classical and increasingly decorative painting style in which structure, forms and luminescent colours were seen as having the power to evoke an emotional, and even spiritual, response in the viewer.

Key Artists: William Blake (1757), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), John Constable (1776-1837), Kaspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

Neo-Classicism (1750-1880)

Chronologically aligned to the two artistic strains previously mentioned, is the Neo-Classical style (1750-1880). The heart of the Neo-Classical movement was centred in Rome, where the local and expatriate artists gathered around the German classical archaeologist and art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann. This latter praised the ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur of ancient Greek sculpture’, which he considered to be the fundamental inspiration for the perfect canons of beauty ever created in the history of art. Hence, he fervently recommended that artists emulate these classical forms – indeed, the period is defined neoclassical because of the inspiring models of classical Greece and Rome the artists transposed in their works. Characterized by clarity, structure and to a certain degree, realism, the forms of Neoclassicism were a counter response to the frivolity and decorative fashion of the Rococo style.

Key Artists: Jacque-Louis David (1748-1825), Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Berthel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).


Conversely, Neoclassical art also found its challengers in the Pre-Raphaelite movement: founded in 1848 by a group of English poets, writers and critics, the movement embraced the spiritually infused works of the Early Renaissance, Byzantine and Gothic era painters. They created a new artistic style using biblical, mythological, and literary imagery as the subjects of their paintings. The main pre-Raphaelite exponents and also founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, were Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896). Pre-Raphaelite Paintings often included obscure visual symbols, as for instance snakes—standing for the presence of evil or the fall of men—also various typologies of fruit, whose significance could go from carnal pleasures and sin to the typification of lustful thoughts.

Key Artists: Edward Robert Hughes (1849-1914), John William Godward (1861-1922), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).


The Symbolist movement was an artistic uprising opposed to Realism and Naturalism. The term was coined for the first time by Jean Moreas’ Symbolist Manifesto published in 1886 on Le Figaro. In his writing the critic stated that Symbolism was against “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”. The belief of this aesthetic and artistic movement, which indeed also reflected on other arts as for instance literature, conveyed that the passing tangible world is not true reality, but a reflection of the unseen Absolute. Hence the resulting art was based on an imagery made of magical, sacred and occasionally mythological themes.

Key Artists: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), William Blake (1757-1827).