Romanticism: romantic love
In 1769 James Usher, in Clio, or, A discourse on taste, expressed the ideals of romantic love:
'Innocent and virtuous love…inspires us with heroic sentiments, generosity, a contempt of life, a boldness for enterprise, chastity, and purity of sentiment…People whose breasts are dulled with vice, or stupified by nature, call this passion romantic love; but when it was the mode, it was the diagnostic of a virtuous age'.
In his fifth Discourse on Art, delivered in 1772, Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, warned that
'If you mean to preserve the most perfect beauty in its most perfect state, you cannot express the passions, all of which produce distortion and deformity', and continued 'we need not be mortified or discouraged at not being able to execute the conceptions of a romantick imagination. Art has its boundaries, though imagination has none'.
While classicists drew back – on grounds of propriety – from extremes of emotion or flights of the imagination, romantic painters colonised this new territory, pushing their subject-matter to the limits of the portrayable: dreams, nostalgia, desire and despair. Initially, these themes were drawn from the Bible, the classics and medieval legend. From the earlier 19th century onwards, keeping pace with the continuous expansion in the reading matter of the middle classes, there was a shift towards more modern stories drawn from contemporary novels and poems.
'Disappointed Love' was the first painting Francis Danby exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1821, and it became one of his best-known works. A heartbroken young woman is depicted in the traditional attitude of melancholy, with her bonnet, shawl and a miniature portrait of her lover beside her. Discarded fragments of a torn-up letter float away on the lily pond before her.
The subject has affinities with two poems by S.T. Coleridge, The Picture: or the Lover's Resolution, and To an Unfortunate Woman, Whom the Author Had Known in the Days of Her Innocence, both of which were published in 1817. Danby was also familiar with the poem The Loves of the Plants by Erasmus Darwin, which suggested that plants could experience pleasure and pain, and the foreground vegetation seems to echo the woman’s forlorn attitude.Abridged from the catalogue of the V&A touring exhibition The Romantic Tradition in British Painting 1800-1950 (2002-2003). All the works illustrated are from the collections of the V&A, and many are on display in its Paintings galleries.