Art History Reader: Romanticism

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It’s important to note: the Romantic Art Movement has nothing to do with romantic comedies or our contemporary ideas of love and romance. It deals with much headier topics such as Freedom, Nature, Justice, Humanity, Emotion, Imagination, and the Sublime. While you may say that modern romance is sublime, during the Romantic movement, the word “sublime” had specific connotations other than just “excellent” or “great.” The romantic notion of the sublime in the 19th century was more like this: you are small, nature is big and powerful and can kill you. The awe and power of nature is a force to be reckoned with. Romantic art, as well as literature and music, is founded on this notion, not cringing at awkward romantic moments or swooning at couples finding love. 


There’s no specific point in time when Neoclassicism stopped and Romanticism began. They rubbed shoulders together in the late 18th century, and many artists, like Turner, Corot, Girodet, and Ingres, produced work that reflected both movements, generally moving from a Neoclassical style to a more Romantic one as the 19th century wore on. The word “romantic” began to be used in 1798 to describe poetry and Gothic literature that was inspired by Old French medieval tales, which were known as “romanz.” It has since been applied to the art, music, and literature produced from around 1800 to 1850, but its influence can still be felt today in art, music, and cinema.


Romanticism has at its core a profound disillusionment with the Enlightenment. “What did all that thinking and scientific detachment and “progress” get us, anyway?” Romantics asked. And to them, the answer was bloodshed, instability, war, and oppressive working conditions. The French Revolution had been spurred by Neoclassical ideals of democracy and fraternity, but it resulted in thousands dead and conservative backlash as monarchies reeled in fear of revolution. The instability in France created a hole that allowed Napoleon to rise and bring war to most of Europe. And to fuel those wars, people began slaving away in factories in what would become known as the Industrial Revolution. Living conditions remained awful for the poor. Society was still plagued by social ills. Science and rationality had not saved the day. Quite simply, the enlightenment had not solved all of the West’s problems. This made people think that maybe truth and meaning weren’t found in logic and empirical evidence and societal discourse, after all. Maybe they could be found within oneself--in one’s emotions, dreams, and imagination--and in Nature. Look to Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” or Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters to get into the Romantic mindset.


Unsatisfied with the Enlightenment, the Romantics eschewed the formal rigidity, emotional restraint, and cool intellectualism of the visual language of Neoclassicism in favor of art that expressed the mysterious depths of the human psyche and the unknowable power of Nature. In the late 18th century, artists like Henry Fuseli in Rome and William Blake in England began producing work that was completely idiosyncratic, abandoning the expectations of the Academies in favor of dramatic scenes with strange, supernatural, or heroic subject matter. It was goodbye virtuous Romans frozen in perfectly balanced compositions, hello visions of demons crouching on sleeping maidens. With dramatic lighting and unique subjects, the work of the Romantics was powerful and arresting.


In England, the stirrings of Romanticism can be deciphered in the Cult of the Picturesque and the subsequent Gothic Revival. Theorists believed that a landscape could be beautiful, not because you rationalized that it was so, but because you felt it to be beautiful on an instinctive level. Medieval ruins dotting the English landscape became prime picturesque subject matter because of their moody, melancholy, and Gothic appeal. This is the time when Ann Radcliffe was writing “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and Sir Walter Scott was penning “Ivanhoe”--stories of mysterious castles and knights and adventure. 


At the same time, the Industrial Revolution made people hanker after a simpler way of life, and many found solace and inspiration in Medieval Gothic art. As Europe saw borders being drawn and redrawn in the many wars over the course of the nineteenth century, countries sought to establish their identity by exploring traditional folklore, often looking back to Medieval sources instead of to Ancient Rome or Greece. This would be the first stirrings of Nationalism. Look to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People or the music of Edvard Grieg to see the influence of Nationalism on the arts and music of the Romantic era.  

While the Romantics sought comfort and drama in the Medieval past, they also looked to the East for inspiration in a trend called “Orientalism.” While Ingres never set foot farther East than Italy, that didn’t stop him from conjuring up imagined Middle-Eastern harems and concubines in his paintings. Other artists, like Delacroix, actually did go to places like Morocco to find inspiration, but most European artists at the time were more interested in the sensuality, exoticism, and escapism of Northern Africa and the Middle East than they were in accurate representation. If it feels like there’s such a vast array of subjects favored by the Romantics that it’s hard to group them all together, just look for this common theme running through it all: an emotional resonance. Romantic art was all about the emotions and senses. As the poet Charles Baudelaire said, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.”


As can be seen, the Romantic movement was connected to a host of ideas. The picturesque and the sublime created a new vision of nature as something both beautiful and horrifying, and consequently landscape painting rose in estimation at the academies. From the quaint scenes of Constable, to the majesty of the Hudson River School, and the drama of Caspar David Friedrich, nature was finally getting some attention after playing second fiddle to history painting. Romantic artists also touched on themes of national concern, from questions of identity to the fight for liberty and equality. In riot-ridden France, as in war-torn Spain, art was used to highlight the struggles of the poorer classes in countries that were flailing after too much upheaval. 


But one of the most influential things about the Romantic movement was its insistence on individualism and that one’s own subjective experience and imagination was a valid font of aesthetic creation. This belief in individual genius would have a lasting influence on art, from the Post-Impressionists having faith in their own brightly colored visions of the world around them, to the Abstract Expressionists letting their brushstrokes fall where they may to express their own inner turmoil. 




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For additional information about this movement, see Sartle School of Art History: Romanticism



This reader is part of a larger series of introductory texts about art and art history. Each has been written under the direction of Rick Love. This reader was co-authored by Jeannette Sturman.

Rick Love

Director of Education

Comments (1)

Eric Cartman

Love the opulence of this movement.