Quoth the voters, Nevermore! A recent Art Fund poll asking “Which of these people has captured your idea of romance in art?” came up with the answer of Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore (pictured, from 1897). Voters could choose from among five thought-provoking selections picked by a diverse team of experts. It’s more ironic than romantic, and fascinating, that the winner of a Valentine’s Day-themed poll reflects a much different view of Romantic than the hearts and flowers variety.
British artist and art writer Matthew Collings came up with the inspired choice of Gauguin’s Tahitian lovely stretched out in the foreground with the title-providing raven straight out of Edgar Allan Poe in the rear. “For me the word ‘romantic’ in a painting context means feeling. It has nothing to do with subject matter,” Collings says in explaining his pick. “The romantic ideal is summed up for me by this painting because of its sense of restless change within an overall order, shifting registers, and many possible points of focus backed up by a feeling of confident constant unity.” “Romantic” may be the most elusive of all artistic labels to define—stretched to fit everyone from dark, brooding Byron to easy, breezy Renoir.
Perhaps even more interesting among the choices was a darkhorse among the big-name stallions— Samuel John Peploe’s 1920 painting, Roses. Peploe garnered 26% of the vote, outpacing Jan van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait(19%), Nicolas Poussin’s 1629 Rinaldo and Armida (14% ), and Titian’s 1520-1523 Bacchus and Ariadne (12%) while falling just three clicks short of Gauguin. Kirsty Young, Presenter and Art Fund Prize 2010 chair of the judges, explained her relatively obscure choice by calling Roses “heavy with romantic intent.” “Who are the exquisite roses from?” Young asks. “The perfectly painted well-thumbed book that lies beneath the wilting flower could be a volume of romantic poetry or a diary of a broken heart. The composition, the colour, the cast of light—to me this is a painting heavy with beauty and love.” Almost enough voters agreed with Young to pull it to the top.
Usually the results of such polls linked to a corporate-sponsored prize, as this one was, champion a conventional choice or choices. Would a poll of Americans be as sophisticated? I wish it were so, but sincerely doubt it. We’ve been Hallmarked into roses and chocolates predictability in all things romantic and rarely recognize the dark Romanticism of our heritage in such figures as Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Alas, I can’t think of an American painter worthy of the title Dark Romantic. We’ve got our Hudson River School of grand Romantic landscapes, but those looked outward rather than within. Wouldn’t it be Romantic if we could fill that gap and bridge the distance between heart and soul?