A sustained commitment to the tenets of neoclassicism persisted after the French Revolution, and artists such as Jacques-Louis David and his school continued to adhere to the sculptural and archaeological approach to form that they had helped popularize in the previous century. However, their style was soon challenged by romanticism, which proposed a radically different kind of representation. Its development over the first half of the nineteenth century produced myriad reformulations and contradictions in its definition. But at its height, romantic painting was characterized by a bold and vibrant palette and by loose and expressive brushstrokes that often obscured any careful preparatory drawing beneath the composition. Nature, as a powerful force and stimulant for extreme human emotions, was a favored focus, as were literary subjects and the poetry of William Shakespeare and Lord Byron. The artist was viewed as a unique conduit for those elements through his work.
The years 1823–24 marked a watershed moment for romanticism in France, with the publication of the first part of Stendhal’s Racine and Shakespeare, which enumerated the limitations of the classicist tradition, and with the Salon of 1824, where critics compared history paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix, and there, too, found classicism wanting. Adopting the terminology of the German critic Friedrich von Schlegel, who had earlier pitted romanticism against classicism, critics heralded Ingres as a classicist and Delacroix as a romantic—figureheads of antithetical styles, even though many of the same concerns underpinned both artists’ approaches. Delacroix, in fact, claimed he was not a “romantic” at all.