Romanticism: its impact on art, literature, thought; Romantics and Romanticism, by Michel Les Bris. Translated from the French by Burbar Bray and Bernard C. Swift. New York: Rizzoli. $85.

This is a remarkable and frustrating book. To my knowledge, no volume can rival its pictorial representation of the Romantic period. Such lavish treatment is usually reserved for impressionism or the works of a Picasso or da Vinci. "Romantics and Romanticism," nonetheless, offers 214 plates, many full page, 90 in color, some of such surpassing, almost tactile beauty one wants to touch the page.

Unfortunately, the accompanying text is uneven. It does not attempt to introduce the pictures or artists, or explain in layman's terms this complex movement, which dominated European sensibilities from 1770 to 1830 and perhaps beyond. Instead, the author, a French journalist, tries something more adventurous: examining the relevance of Romantic literature and art to certain persistent problems in the modern world.

In itself, this approach is certainly a reasonable subject for a book: the Industrial Revolution, French Revolution, and Napoleonic Wars crisscrossed the Romantic era, and during this period anxiety over science and technology, egalitarianism, and nationalism surfaced, not yet to subside. As author Les Bris shows, moreover, Romantic writers and painters also responded to the denial of religious values implicit in some deterministic philosophies of the Enlightenment. The Romantics, he argues, worshipped liberty and a "world soul" "because Reason needed to be rescued from its demons" -- political terror and materialism. This is heady stuff, which becomes provocative when illustrated by plates of David, Goya, Delacroix, Turner, and -- supreme above all in this interpretation -- the German painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Such material, however, requires control and clarity in presentation and argument. And unfortunately, Les Bris gets carried away now and then by his own romanticism, using occasionally overlong sentences, contorted syntax, a declamatory style of forced rapture or indignation, and a liberal sprinkling of avant-garde terms. Together, these mar his strong argument.

Les Bris does, however, provide some clear and exciting readings of key paintings. David's "Oath of the Horati" is examined as an illustration of loyalty to the modern nation state even though presented in antique Roman guise. Goya's nightmarish execution scene "May 3, 1908" is read not just as a protest against Napoleon's invasion of Spain, but a criticism of the fact that the so-called "Age of Reason" could spawn such savagery.

Les Bris also places Turner alongside other 19th-century masters of the catastrophe genre, as he does the neglected artist John Martin, whose weird, blue "The Bard" is the most beautiful reproduction in the book. More conventionally, Les Bris links Wordsworth with Constable; Blake with the German religious visionary Runge; Byron with Delacroix.

Les Bris regards Friedrich as the foremost example of "natural supernaturalism," choosing works of his for the book's first analysis, for a two-page reproduction in the middle, and for five other exquisite prints. In particular, Les Bris notes how Friedrich used moonlight to symbolize the intuition of a spiritual world threatened by materialistic philosophy.

The author's analysis exemplifies a kind of critical approach currently popular in France and becoming influential in the United States. According to the theory, critics should adopt a poetic tone to engage the passions as well as understanding of their audience. The theory assumes the audience already knows the essentials and does not need to be generously and patiently informed.

Given the superb quality of these plates, it is sad this approach prevailed for an American audience ill equipped to benefit from it. As a result, this book is likely to be admired for its illustrations, but not read.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.