Artists seeking to glorify the sublime in nature itself naturally chose ruins or ravines to convey a dizzy sense of falling into an abyss. Paul Huet, Carl Friedrich Lessing and Thomas Ender favoured icy crevasses and craggy precipices beneath stormy skies, and used plunging obliques to strengthen that impression.
The same menacing sense of a slide towards the void hangs over Géricault's Wounded Cuirassier and Delacroix's Hamlet in the Graveyard. Epic glories give way to doubt, cowardice and melancholy, and nature reasserts its power over vanquished heroes and their disinherited descendants.
The nocturnal seascapes of Géricault and Friedrich give us a different, horizontal view of the abyss. Here, the viewer gropes his way forward in the darkness, advancing into an image with no boundaries or landmarks, where an indeterminate glow radiates from a hidden source.
In the very centre, like a pivot, the horizon supports a heavy sky, whose weight threatens to capsize the composition. It is this exhilarating sense of the infinite, coupled with the threat of its being subverted, which imbues these pictures with the Dark Romantic spirit.
Rejecting scientific analysis and straightforward imitation of externals, and seeking new ways of expressing life's deepest mysteries, the Symbolists found that Dark Romanticism gave them the freedom they longed for – and unlocked the power of the subversive, magical and mysterious. But they also moved in new directions, and sought new references.
Where the Romantics had found inspiration in Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, the Symbolists turned to Mediterranean and Nordic mythology, as well as the Old Testament, for cruel and terrifying protagonists. They also feminised evil, giving it the features of Medusa, the Sphinx and Salome, rather than those of masculine models of malevolence, like Satan.
Raped by Poseidon, Medusa – her face contorted, screaming and surmounted by a seething crown of snakes – turned everyone who looked at her to stone. Even before the psychoanalysts linked her to the castration complex, the Symbolists – fascinated and appalled by the vision of sheer horror she offered them – had made her a part of their aesthetic.
Both victim and aggressor, she was the ideal medium for an art that sought to make viewers confront their own fears and obsessions.