Curator's Corner

Rethinking Romanticism Part 1

By Karl Cole, posted on Aug 17, 2020

Since we’ve taken a broad look at the idea of classic art, let’s do the same thing with romantic/dramatic/theatrical art, otherwise known in the Western art history mind as Romanticism. For Western art historians, there seems to have been only one period of Romanticism, and that would be the one in Europe (naturally) that had its origins in the late 1700s. It was in part a reaction—in art and literature, and ultimately architecture—to the severity, simplicity, and “order” of the Neoclassicism movement. It was also a reaction, in part, to the rationalism and scientific advancements of the Enlightenment, and the materialism of the royal courts in Europe. 

Romanticism emphasized personal feelings (subjectivity), the irrational, the emotional, the visionary, and the exotic. I would like to expand on these definitions in the Oxford dictionary:

1. a movement in the arts and literature that originated in the late 18th century (1700s), emphasizing inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual.

2. the state or quality of being romantic.

If we can agree that a romantic person is one prone to drama, theatricality, and edgy extremes, then I think we could call a lot of art throughout history “Romanticism,” and not just in the West. In the West, however, and aside from individual artists over the centuries whose work has had romantic tendencies, I would propose the following movements/periods as having romantic qualities: Hellenistic Greece (ca. 320–146 BCE), the Mannerist strain of the Renaissance (ca. 1530–1600), the Baroque period (ca. 1600–1750), German Expressionism (first quarter of 1900s), and Neo-Expressionism (1980s).

Throughout the week I will present a few more periods in the history of art that fit the Romanticism bent toward drama and theatricality.


Ancient Assyria, Dying Lion, wall relief from the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, North Palace, Nineveh, present-day Iraq, 646–635 BCE.
Ancient Assyria, Dying Lion, wall relief from the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, North Palace, Nineveh, present-day Iraq, 646–635 BCE. Gypsum, height of lion: 13 ¾" (35 cm). British Museum, London. Photo by Matt Neal. CC BY 2.0.


Very few cultures in ancient Sumeria (Mesopotamia) had the obsession with strength and bloodshed like the Assyrians. Imagine decorating your palace with reliefs of the “brave” killing of captive lions in a walled-in arena. What manhood! Not only did Assyrians laud male musculature in their reliefs of males (most of their reliefs were of males), but they even stress the muscles in this poor dying lion. If this isn’t drama/theater, I don’t know what is.

This detail is from a scene of unbridled animal carnage, all in the name of aggrandizing a cruel and ruthless monarchy (fortunately for the Middle East, a short-lived dynasty). In the series of reliefs, King Ashurbanipal (685–627 BCE, ruled 669–627 BCE) is shown shooting arrows from a chariot in an arena full of lions that had been released from cages for his sport. He has left behind dying and dead lions, depicted in low relief with a marked amount of realism. The artists have carefully studied the various attitudes in which these lions died. Typical of Assyrian reliefs is the emphasis on flowing and gushing blood in this large lion hunt scene.

The dying female lion, paralyzed from an arrow through her spine, is one of two panels in Room C of the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, a long, narrow room on the north side of the palace that contained only scenes of Ashurbanipal hunting on both sides of the room. The panels follow the king in his chariot, a trail of dying lions behind the "mighty" ruler. The scenes are arranged vertically on short ground lines to establish space, because all the figures in the relief are depicted in stark profile. The reliefs are shallow, with contour lines establishing many of the details like the oozing blood.

The relationship between lions and kingship had a long tradition in ancient Mediterranean art. The idea may have been brought to western Europe because of the Crusades in the 1100s and 1200s CE. This was the period when lions began to decorate the heraldry of European rulers. Naturally, lions were not native to western European lands.

The Assyrian dynasty evolved with the enriched trading princes of the city of Ashur (after which "Assyria" was taken), northeast of Babylon in Mesopotamia (mostly present-day Iraq). Ashur, named after the Sumerian solar and war god and head of the Assyrian pantheon, was a city-state that probably grew prosperous during the late 2000s BCE. The current ruins of the imperial city date to about 1900 BCE. The wealth of the city through trade encouraged the people of Ashur to expand their influence and ultimately establish an empire by force. A kingdom was established in the 1790s BCE by the Assyrian ruler Shamshi Adad I (died ca. 1791 BCE).

Although kingdoms such as Babylon rose and fell around Ashur, the early kings of Ashur were, for a time, unable to establish a larger kingdom. Through the efforts of kings like Tiglath Pileser I (died 1076 BCE), the Assyrians rose to dominance in northern Mesopotamia and established a powerful kingdom having conquered the Mitanni, Kassites, and Bablyon (in later centuries an ally of Assyria). The kings who followed Tiglath Pileser I conquered further surrounding cultures including present-day Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. By the 800s BCE, they were in control of all or most of Mesopotamia. In the early 600s BCE, they extended their influence all the way to Egypt.

Ashurbanipal was the last great (both militarily and culturally) king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. By the end of his reign, he had brought Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Syria, and Palestine under Assyrian rule. While he was barbaric to his enemies, he was munificent to his people. He was a great patron of the arts, establishing a library of more than 30,000 tablets of cuneiform text in Nineveh. Ashurbanipal considered the library—not his military conquests, surprisingly—the ultimate achievement of his rule.

In the end, it was his extensive military conquests that doomed the Assyrian Empire. It had become too large to manage properly, and great revolts started up almost immediately after his death. In 612 BCE, the major Assyrian cities of Ashur, Nimrud, and Nineveh were sacked and set afire by many of the constituent cultures of the empire Ashurbanipal had subdued, among them the Babylonians, Persians, and Medes.