19th Century Western Art

Module code: AE1014

Module co-ordinator: Dr Miriam Gill

From Constable and Turner to Monet and Van Gogh, the artists of the 19th century are well-known and well-loved. It is easy to forget that these famous artists - and movements such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists - were considered revolutionary, even shocking, by contemporaries. In the context of the profound and rapid change witnessed during the 19th century, they sought a new role for art. As technological developments such as railways and photography transformed people's experience of the world, artists strove to convey more than the outward appearance of things, exploring the impact of emotion, imagination and the very nature of perception. 

This module offers you the opportunity to understand these familiar artists and their works in their historical context. In-depth study of works of art naturally develops an ability to analyse visual images. Attention to subtle nuances of composition, colour and detail creates a sensitivity which illuminates our 'visual age'. The interaction between art and society in the 19nth century is key to understanding ongoing debates about the nature of art and its role in the modern world.

From this period of passion and experimentation emerged our modern concept of the artist as a gifted individual pursuing their personal vision. The 19th century also saw a succession of movements, brotherhoods and associations between artists, united by common aims and often characterised by a rejection of existing types of art and established institutions. New patterns of training and exhibition challenged the dominance of the national academies of art and the conventions they upheld. These changes also enabled individuals from a wider range of backgrounds - women as well as men - to develop their artistic potential. The paradigm of the self-conscious artistic movement was a 19th century creation and one which went on to dominate most of the 20th century. This model has also had an enduring influence on the way the History of Art is studied and understood.

As society changed, new audiences for art emerged and new forms of display and patronage developed. A variety of new contexts for the public display of art emerged: municipal galleries were opened, famous paintings went 'on tour' across the British Empire. Some innovations, such as the Great Exhibition of 1851, were understood as performing an educative function, raising standards of taste and design. Public writing about art developed and prominent critics could establish or destroy the reputations of artists.

For many artists the fundamental question remained whether they should engage with and celebrate the novelty of industrial advance and city life, or provide a radical alternative to the miseries of poverty, pollution and factory mass-production. Some artists viewed the modern world with seeming detachment, others sought to expose its injustices in order to prompt political and social change. In a period which saw the study and 'revival' of every preceding historical style, the search for new forms of art appropriate to the 19th century century often existed alongside the desire for romantic escape into a lost world of damsels and knights.

A chronological survey of 19th century western art reveals the interaction between artists and art movements as the century developed. It sets creative individuals in the context of the challenging impact of changes such as urbanisation, mass-production and photography and opens up historical debates about the interaction between artist and context. It asks searching questions about the relationship between art and the society which remain relevant today. Is the artist only an observer or does art change how we see things?

Topics covered

  • Art and institutions in a changing world
  • Constable and Turner
  • Romantic art: Delacroix and CD Friedrich
  • Realism: Courbet and Manet
  • Victorian painting
  • The Pre-Raphaelites
  • The Great Exhibition and art and design
  • Impressionism
  • Pointillism and the art of city life
  • William Morris and Arts and Crafts
  • Rodin and sculpture
  • Gauguin and Van Gogh
  • Cezanne
  • Art and society in the 19th century




  • An analysis of a nineteenth-century work of art
  • A critical commentary on an academic article
  • An essay chosen examining the relationship or response of an artist or movement to their artistic and historical context