Literature and history

Eugène Delacroix Charles VI and Odette de Champdivers about 1825

Eugène Delacroix
Charles VI and Odette de Champdivers c.1825

Private Collection, courtesy of Richard L Feigen & Co, New York

One of the most striking aspects of the French craze for British culture was an enthusiasm for British literature and drama.

Writers from Stendhal to Victor Hugo revered Shakespeare, while painters took up themes from Lord Byron and Walter Scott. Byron’s oriental tales enthralled a generation disgusted by the French government’s belated support for Greek independence from Ottoman Turkey. Scott’s novels fuelled a parallel taste for historical subject matter.

Conservative French critics attacked the new ‘Shakespearean Romantic’ painters, whose bravura brushwork was alien to the French Academy. By contrast, the meticulous style of the ‘Troubadour’ artists, who painted medieval scenes in an appropriately archaic manner, signalled loyalty to the restored monarchy. At the same time, parallels between English and French history, such as the Civil War and the Revolution, Cromwell and Napoleon, were studied for clues to the successful evolution of a democratic state. French interpretations of both literature and history were influenced by British artists.