Romantic & Modernist Art and Poetry in 19th and 20th Centuries Critical Essay

Your task in this critical essay is to revisit the material and ideas you’ve encountered in our class discussion of Romantic and Modernist art and poetry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the addition of material and works from the earlier Neoclassical period of the 18th century.

In your essay, you will explore the individual aesthetic works in a more formal manner than we did in our conversations in Discussion 2. Below, you will find links to three poems and three paintings. Some of these (the Romantic and Modernist works) are poems and paintings you should be familiar with from our class discussion, while two of them (the Neoclassical works) are new to you. Each set below includes one Neoclassical work, one Romantic work and one Modernist work, in that order.

Poetry Selections:

To His Coy Mistress (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. — by Andrew Marvell (Neoclassical)

Annabel Lee (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. — by Edgar Allan Poe (Romantic)

anyone lived in a pretty how town (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. — by E. E. Cummings (Modernist)

Painting Selections:

Intervention of the Sabine Women — by Jacques-Louis David (Neoclassical)

Notes on the subject of the painting: Among the tales and legends of early Rome, there is a story that, at one point, the city had too few women to make wives for its men. Their solution was to raid a neighboring city (Sabine) to kidnap some of its women, carrying them off to be their wives. Several months later, after recovering from the raid and repairing their city, the Sabines attacked Rome to retrieve the women, who had by this time been married and begun having children. Led by Hersilia (daughter of the Sabine king and now the wife of Romulus, leader of Rome), the Sabine women, recognizing that nothing good for them can come of this battle (either they lose their own fathers and brothers or their infant children lose their fathers), step between the combatants and appeal to them to find a more reasonable solution to the dispute. According to the story, the women were successful in their effort. David began this painting while in prison during the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. The different factions that initiated the revolution began to fight among themselves after their initial success. The faction of which David was a part ended up on the wrong side of this struggle. While he was in prison, the only person who helped him or came to see him was his wife (from whom he was separated). He believed the story reflected in the painting contained a useful message for his fellow French citizens (embroiled in a social conflict that was tearing his country apart) and would also be a way for him to acknowledge and thank his wife for her support during his prison stay.

Massacre at Chios — by Eugene Delacroix (Romantic)

Notes on the subject of the painting: Delacroix’s subject is an attack on the island of Chios, in the Mediterranean Sea, in the early 19th century. The attackers were troops of the Ottoman Empire, which had held control of most of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean for a few centuries. However, the residents of the island were Greeks, who had inhabited many of these Mediterranean islands since the time of ancient Greece. A revolution was brewing among the Greeks (not for the first time) to attempt to throw off the political control of the Ottomans, and the leaders of the Empire suspected Chios of harboring some of the leaders of this revolution. The massacre (in which tens of thousands of Greek residents were killed and many more thousands were either deported or sold into slavery) was intended to send a message to those participating in (or thinking about participating in) the revolutionary effort. Reports of this event had reached most Europeans through newspaper accounts a few years before Delacroix begins the painting.

Guernica — by Pablo Picasso (Modernist)

Notes on the subject of the painting: Guernica is a town in northern Spain. In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, an aerial bombing attack was carried out upon Guernica by German and Italian military aircraft at the request of General Francisco Franco, a general of the Spanish army who was leading the Nationalist side of the civil war, attempting to seize power from the elected Spanish government. (Franco would eventually be successful in this effort, winning the civil war and holding political control in Spain for the next 40 years.) Franco suspected that Guernica was either a base of support for government forces or was assisting government forces in some way, and as with the Ottomans (above), Franco intended to send a message. Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish government to create a wall mural for the Spanish exhibition hall at the World Exposition to be held in Paris the following year. Upon hearing news of the attack (in which hundreds of mostly women, children and elderly victims were killed or injured), he paints over the work he had already completed and starts over, this time using the attack as his subject. (Today, a copy of this very large wall mural can be seen in the entrance lobby of the United Nations building in New York City.)


For the purposes of the essay, you will choose only one set of examples to work with – either the poetry or the paintings (not both, as we did in our class discussion). For each of the three works in your chosen set, you will analyze the work in terms of how it reflects the stylistic tendencies, the thematic concerns, and the general cultural priorities of the style and time period it represents. For instance, what features and details of the Edgar Allan Poe poem called “Annabel Lee” reflect Romanticism and the Romantic style? (And so on for each of the three poems or each of the three paintings.) Support your analysis with clear references to specific details from each work to illustrate your claims.

After analyzing each work in turn (ideally, in chronological order, unless you have a good reason for using a different approach), you’ll also be expected to draw comparisons and contrasts among the three works, with your analysis of those juxtapositions informed by the information you have regarding the respective styles and time periods. For instance, each of the poems deals in some way with a love relationship; each also implies something about the passage of time. In each case, however, the attitude to these themes is different. What are those differences, and how can those differences be traced back to the differing motivations and concerns of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, or Modernism (as reflected in your course readings and in the “general principles” document below)?

Similarly, in considering the paintings, each one deals with some kind of conflict. The way in which they each represent those conflicts, however, differs significantly. How do those differences in appearance reflect the stylistic commitments of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, or Modernism? What sort of theme or themes get highlighted in each case, and how can you trace those decisions by the artist or poet to the concerns of the respective time periods from which the works originate?

In addition to the contextual information on each of the three time periods available to you in the Unit 3 reading material, I’ve made additional information available below. The document titled Some General Principles includes both general information about each of the three cultural periods and some specific aesthetic (artistic) characteristics pertinent to each of the three styles.

Some General Principles

Also, you must supplement your analysis with citations to reference sources I’ve provided in the Critical Essay Resources on the next page (use the Next button at lower right to advance to that page). At least three of those provided reference sources must be usedand cited in your essay (at least one source for each time period or style). You’re also required to provide a Works Cited page for the sources you use and to provide internal citation notes at those points in your essay where you draw upon information or ideas found in those sources. Use the MLA format and citation style to document your use of these sources. Near the bottom of the Critical Essay Resources page (again, the page following this one), you will find a set of links that lead to resources that can assist you with implementing this citation style correctly.

Note: As a general guideline, you should expect to need approximately 1200-1300 words to do a respectable job of fulfilling the requirements of the essay. (Even a semi-decent job will probably require at least 1000 words.) Some students may find they need more than 1300 words to complete the task in a manner that they feel satisfied with, which is fine. However, I ask that you try not to go too much over 1500 words, if at all possible.

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