Damien Hirst learned his bad-boy posturing from the Romantics, finds Sue Hubbard
The image of the artist as a tormented genius and outsider is a persistent archetype. From Van Gogh cutting off his ear and Jackson Pollock allegedly peeing in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace to Tracey Emin drunkenly mouthing expletives on TV, we have come to expect artists to be passionate, iconoclastic, temperamental. But where does the idea of the rebel artist come from?
There have always been bold and individualistic artists - the drunken, bellicose Caravaggio and the towering Michelangelo, for instance - but, before the 19th century, artists were largely regarded as craftsmen and artisans. It was during the social and political upheavals in Europe at the end of the 18th century that artists, in keeping with a general disenchantment with neoclassicism and the decline in conventional religion, began to adopt personae driven by Romantic notions of the self, individuality and creativity. It is this development that is charted in Rebels and Martyrs at the National Gallery in London.
The artist was seen and saw himself (Roman ticism was, with a few exceptions, essentially a male position) as the heroic, misunderstood outsider: a seer and prophet battling against the strictures of philistine society, one who had a special hotline to essential truths not understood by mere bourgeois mortals. Madame de Staël coined the term "vulgarity" to describe debased middle-class taste, satirised in an 1846 lithograph by Honoré Daumier, in which a would-be picture buyer can be seen measuring a painting - no doubt to fit into his newly decorated salon - with his cane. The business of art had taken off with the rise of the new class of merchants and entrepreneurs. Yet the demands of these very markets, and the increase in exhibitions as a method of selling, were viewed with dismay by artists who did not want to pander to bourgeois taste. This brought about a split between easy populism and the avant-garde, and the image of the rebel artist was born.
The exhibition opens with a self-portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy of Art - an establishment created to raise the status of the artist - resplendent in the scarlet robes of a doctor of civil law, with a bust of Michelangelo behind him. It is an image of confidence and authority that suggests a long line of artistic precursors. Compare this to the haunted gaze of the boyish Samuel Palmer in his Self-Portrait, painted around 1825, or to Self-Portrait at the Easel by the German Victor Emil Janssen, painted about 1828, which shows a sickly young man stripped to the waist, with tousled hair and draped shirt suggestive of a loincloth. The allusion to Christ's Passion is inescapable, along with the implication that the artist must suffer for his art, misunderstood and alone on the margins of society. But it was Courbet above all who came to represent the defiant and independent bohemian. "In our oh-so-civilised society," he said, "it is necessary for me to lead the life of a savage …" In The Meeting (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet!) he depicts himself on a country road, staff in hand and bearded like a prophet or 19th-century Jack Kerouac, in a secular reworking of Christ meeting his disciples.
This redefinition of the artist from artisan to prophet had complex causes. Perhaps most important was the reaction to the excessive rationalism of the Enlightenment; there were also the effects of the French revolution, which loosened conventional hierarchies. Nietzsche then came off his mountain and announced that God was dead, leaving a void at the centre of human existence that could be filled, many believed, by these new secular prophets: artists and poets.
Creativity, imagination and suffering were their tools. Such ideas found early expression in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, whose solitary heroes stare from rocky peaks, surveying the wilderness and contemplating the ether beyond. For many, this was a period of youth- ful optimism - one akin in spirit, perhaps, to the 1960s. As Wordsworth recalled, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!" The vision of the young artist or poet, inspired, impoverished and standing alone against a corrupt and uncaring world, is encapsulated in Henry Wallis's 1856 painting of Thomas Chatterton. The boy poet and forger, spurned by society, lies white as marble on his deathbed, having taken his life by swallowing arsenic.
So deeply rooted is the image of the tortured genius in the popular imagination that such posturing has almost become de rigueur for "celebrities", affecting not only the Britart generation of Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas but footballers (and their wives) as well as pop stars. For the Romantics, however, placing themselves outside 19th-century society with its strict hierarchies, rigid class structures and moral codes was a way of embracing real artistic and political freedom. For Elstir in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, his studio was "the laboratory of a sort of new creation of the world". Now, when the japes of artists are reported in the social diaries of tabloid dailies and their work is routinely appropriated into advertising imagery, the role of the artiste maudit has run its course to become simply the new orthodoxy: empty, vacuous, self-indulgent and pointless.
Rebels and Martyrs the image of the artist in the 19th century at the National Gallery, London until 28 August 2006