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Artists are fascinated by the hybridizations, metamorphoses and chimeric beings that characterize mythology. This is why we find the same themes and subjects in fantasy artwork, which vary in originality, depending on the era and artist. For example, the Twelve Labors of Hercules is a recurring theme throughout art history: Lucas Cranach (Hercules and Omphale), Rubens (Hercules and Cerberus), and Eugene Delacroix (Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar).
English literature inspired English, German, French and Spanish romantic artists who, unlike neoclassical artists, enjoyed emphasizing color rather than lines and strove to express deep feelings instead of the cold nobility of the historical subject represented, a few famous fantasy paintings illustrating this include Johann Heinrich Füssli's The Nightmare, The Abbey in the Oakwood by Caspar David Friedrich and Saturn devouring his son by Francisco Goya.
The combination of reality and the extraordinary began to appear in the fantasy paintings of Gustave Moreau, who drew on the literary and religious imagination. The absurd and the fantastic are expressed with unprecedented originality in the fantasy artworks of surrealist artists (ex: Salvador Dali, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening).
Fantasy artwork is not a movement in itself, but represents an artistic trend inspired by onirism and literary romanticism. Religious narratives, such as the Bible, texts based on mythology (Metamorphoses by Ovid), and collections of poems (Ossian’s works collected by James Macpherson), were the main source of inspiration for artists behind fantasy paintings.
Even if fantasy artwork is more prominent among romantic (Turner, Friedrich, Delacroix), symbolist (Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, etc.) and surrealist (Salvador Dali, René Magritte, etc.) artists, it can be dated back to the Middle Ages with Hans Baldung Grien (The Witches) and to the Renaissance with Jerome Bosch (Garden of Earthly Delights). These artists tackle themes such as death, fear, strangeness and absurdity in their fantasy paintings.
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