Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



Sheldon Museum of Art, 2009-2010


All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 2010 The Regents of the University of Nebraska


In Northern Europe during the early 1800s, artists began departing from the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the realism of traditional artwork. Their desire to express the mysterious and unseen essence of the divine through their artwork transformed the way we think about art. Called Romanticists, these artists valued subjective experience over reason and the individual experience rather than the collective. They abandoned conventional religious iconography and produced private, intensely meditative images, depicting the divine as something eternal and infinite. These artists believed that material reality hindered experiencing the divine. They sought to fracture the shell of physical reality to access an inner truth.

Historical factors contributing to this transformation included the diminished influence of the Catholic Church, improved education, and foreign travels. Intellectually, they were guided by historically far-ranging philosophies. Pythagoras, for example, taught them that there was only one substance, "the absolute," from which all things, from the minutest particle to the farthest star, were composed and that a world soul animated this unified reality. Spinoza also proclaimed that everything is a manifestation of the one substance, his concept of God. Jacob B6hme, a German mystic, had a vision of this unitary reality when he saw divine energy shining forth from every object around him. Madame (Helena Petrovna) Blavatsky in the 19th century introduced Theosophy; its doctrine asserts that all cultures and religions strive for spiritual awareness and would unite in the universal absolute when they evolved to a higher consciousness.

While the Romanticists were active in Germany, New England Transcendentalists inspired the Hudson River School artists. Influenced by Swedish philosopher, scientist, and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg,Transcendentalists also saw a spiritual world underlying nature. American artist Ralph Albert Blakelock, for instance, maintained a Romantic artistic style, mystically reordering reality. Dusky evening scenes with luminescent moonlight became his signature style. Heavy Woods -Moonlight communicates a spiritual essence that envelops the viewer in a meditative stillness. Norman Geske, Blakelock biographer, notes that the artist "proceeded with an imagination that was singularly free of any allegiance to established procedures" and was "critically and tragically" ahead of his time in his abstract impressionistic style.