What is the importance of biographical details in understanding the creative efforts of Romantic artists?
Because an artist’s finest works are a reflection of his or her experiences and personality, it is reasonable to suggest that the artist’s biographical information is important to understanding his paintings (or writings, in the case of literary romanticism). J.M.W. Turner was essentially groomed for the life of a painter and remained a largely isolated figure for much of his existence. His exposure to a variety of styles and influences, and extensive travel around Europe, combined with his alienation from society at large can be seen in some of his more noteworthy paintings, especially those depicting boats weathering dark stormy skies, but also his distant landscapes, such as Chichester Canals and Wrecker’s Coast of Northumberland. Caspar David Friedrich, the German romanticist, grew up in a melancholy existence, with the death of loved ones a too-common occurrence, including his father and sister, the former when Caspar was only seven years old. Most dramatically, he saw his younger brother fall through ice and drown, an event that is believed to have deeply traumatized Caspar David and influenced his emotional and intellectual development. A gifted artist, his most well-known painting is probably Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, which depicts a solitary figure standing atop a very high peak gazing out at the vast and infinitely lonely world beyond. Friedrich’s painting is the very embodiment of social alienation, which is not a characteristic of romanticism per se, but does reflect both the artist’s biographical background and the investment of emotional influences. Were his paintings depicting solitary gravesites and cemeteries (Graveyard under Snow and Monastery Graveyard in the Snow) and the solitary cross atop a small hill (The Cross beside the Baltic) influenced by his personal history? One could reasonably surmise that the artist’s visions were heavily influenced by his personal experiences and emotional development.
Were William Blake’s paintings and writings influenced by his personal life? Reading his morbid, gothic adaptation of the Biblical Book of Genesis, The Book of Urizen, one can only wonder whether some deeper philosophical perspective born of personal experience shaped his visions. As with Friedrich – and it should be noted that high infant mortality rates and death by easily-treatable causes today were common throughout much of human history, so these individuals were certainly not alone in experiencing such sorrowful events – Blake experienced the deaths of siblings while growing up in one of the developed world’s more depressing climates, with cold, grey skies the norm. Depression was not uncommon among romanticists, and there is no question such states of mind influence art, and Blake was no exception. Blake’s visual artwork is vastly different than that of Friedrich and Turner, and is far more heavily influenced by his religious foundation. Hunched over individuals – The Ancient of Days, Isaac Newton, and Nebuchadnezzar – are a theme, and his Great Red Dragon series could certainly be seen as influenced by his personal life.
None of this, as noted above, is unusual. Separating an artist from his personal background is a dubious proposition. Many authors, painters, poets, etc., are heavily influenced by their experiences and psychological framework. That such was the case with romanticists should be expected.
Given that the Romantic movement placed such an importance on the articulation of self, Romanticism demands that one understand biographical details. In order to fully appreciate the impact of the Romantic work samples, personal biographical details become important. Unlike their predecessors, Romantic artists did not see a distinction between artist and art. There is no division between the construction of work and the individual who constructs it. In this light, the Romantic artist injected themselves into the work. For example, when reading Wordsworth's poem, "The Solitary Reaper," the speaker in the poem is presumably Wordsworth. It makes sense because of the personalized nature of the work samples. The strong and zealous embrace of the personal subjective makes understanding the biography of Romantic artists extremely important in grasping the full force of Romanticist art.