Romanticism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Romanticism
The term Romanticism was first used in Germany in the late 1700s when the critics August and Friedrich Schlegal wrote of romantische Poesie ("romantic poetry"). Madame de Staël, an influential leader of French intellectual life, following the publication of her account of her German travels in 1813, popularized the term in France. In 1815 the English poet William Wordsworth, who became a major voice of the Romantic movement and who felt that poetry should be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," contrasted the "romantic harp" with the "classic lyre." The artists that considered themselves part of the movement saw themselves as sharing a state of mind or an attitude toward art, nature, and humanity but did not rely on strict definitions or tenets. Bucking established social order, religion, and values, Romanticism became a dominant art movement throughout Europe by the 1820s.
An early prototype of Romanticism was the German movement Sturm und Drang, a term usually translated as "storm and stress." Though it was primarily a literary and musical movement from the 1760s to the 1780s, it had a great impact and influence on public and artistic consciousness. Emphasizing emotional extremes and subjectivity, the movement took its name from the title of the play Romanticism (1777) by Friedrich Maxmilian Klinger.
The most famous advocate of the movement was the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) became a cultural phenomenon. Depicting the emotionally anguished story of a young artist who, in love with the woman who is engaged and then married to the artist's friend, commits suicide, the novel's popularity caused what came to be called "Werther Fever," as young men adopted the protagonist's clothing and manner. Some copycat suicides even occurred, and countries like Denmark and Italy banned the novel. Goethe himself renounced the novel as he later turned away from any association with Romanticism in favor of a classical approach. Nevertheless, the idea of the artist as a solitary genius, emotionally anguished, whose originality and imagination was spurned by the rational world, gripped public consciousness, becoming a model for the romantic hero of the subsequent era.
In the 1800s the British poet Lord Gordon Byron became a celebrity upon the publication of his Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812), and the term "Byronic hero," was coined to denote the figure of the lone and brooding genius, torn between his best and worst traits.
Romanticism in the Visual Arts
Both the English poet and artist William Blake and the Spanish painter Francisco Goya have been dubbed "fathers" of Romanticism by various scholars for their works' emphasis on subjective vision, the power of the imagination, and an often darkly critical political awareness. Blake, working principally in engravings, published his own illustrations alongside his poetry that expressed his vision of a new world, creating mythical worlds full of gods and powers, and sharply critiquing industrial society and the oppression of the individual. Goya explored the terrors of irrationality in works like his Black Paintings (1820-23), which conveyed the nightmarish forces underlying human life and events.
In France, the painter Antoine-Jean Gros influenced the artists Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix who subsequently led and developed the Romantic movement. Chronicling the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte in paintings like Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (1804), Gros emphasized the emotional intensity and suffering of the scene.
Théodore Géricault's painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) and Eugene Delacroix's The Barque of Dante (1822) brought Romanticism to the attention of a larger public. Both paintings scandalized the Paris Salons that they were exhibited in, Géricault in 1820 and Delacroix in 1822. Deviating from the Neoclassical style favored by the Academy and using contemporary subject matter outraged the Academy and the larger public. The depiction of emotional and physical extremity and varied psychological states would become the hallmarks of French Romanticism.
Following Géricault's early death in 1824, Delacroix became the leader of the Romantic movement, bringing to it his emphasis on color as a mode of composition and the use of expressive brushwork to convey feeling. As a result, by the 1820s Romanticism had become a dominant art movement throughout the Western world.
In England, Germany, and the United States, the leading Romantic artists focused primarily on landscape, as seen in the works of the British artist John Constable, the German Caspar David Friedrich, and the American Thomas Cole, but always with the concern of the individual's relation to nature.
A Revolutionary Movement
Largely developing during the French Revolution, Romanticism was allied with a revolutionary and rebellious spirit. The rule of reason and law of the Enlightenment was perceived as confining and mechanistic. As a result, artists turned to scenes of rebellion and protest. Géricault intended The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), inspired by a true account of a shipwreck, as an indictment of the French government's policies that led to the tragedy. Similarly, Turner's The Slave Ship (1840) was intended to influence the British government into a more active abolition policy. Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) was created to support the uprising of the people of Paris against the restoration government of Charles X. Delacroix also painted a number of works depicting the Greek fight for independence against the Ottoman Empire. His Scène des massacres de Scio (Massacre at Chios) (1824) depicts the survivors of a massacre that occurred when the Ottoman Empire conquered an island of rebellious Greeks and killed or enslaved most of the inhabitants.
In 1756, the English philosopher Edmund Burke published A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and in 1790, the German philosopher Emanuel Kant, who explored the relationship between the human mind and experience, developed Burke's notions in Critique of Judgment. The idea of The Sublime came to hold a central place in much of Romanticism in order to counter Enlightenment rationality. Burke explained, "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." To experience the sublime, one does not just experience something beautiful but something that overtakes one's rational sense of objectivity. The awe and terror experienced by observing a great storm or an infinite vista make the individual contemplate his or her place in the natural world. This state, though, necessitates that one is at some remove from what one is seeing, that one is not in danger of being physically harmed by the storm or lost in the wilderness. When one tries to comprehend the boundlessness, or formlessness, of nature's power, one feels overwhelmed emotionally. The experience of the sublime triggers self-examination that was crucial to Romanticism. Many Romantic painters sought to evoke the sublime in their landscape paintings, portraying stormy seas and skies witnessed by a solitary individual.
As early as the Renaissance, artists depicted the Middle East through exoticized images, as reflected in The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus (1511) by an anonymous Venetian painter. As the art critic Andrew Graham Dixon described, the painting attempted to compress all that made Damascus "vivid and strange, to Venetian eyes, within the scope of a single canvas: figures in turbans; a laden camel on its way to the bazaar; the great Mosque; the citadel; the public baths; private houses and their distinctive, lush walled gardens." In the 19th century a fascination with Middle-Eastern subjects overtook both Neoclassical and Romantic painting, as seen in treatments of the nude like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' Grande Odalisque (1814), or the popularity of harem scenes like Delacroix's The Women of Algiers (1834). Romantic painters projected desires, fears, and the unknown into their depictions of African and Middle Eastern scenes.
Subsequently, scholars have reevaluated these depictions of an exoticized Middle East. The cultural critic and historian Edward Said coined the term "Orientalism" with his influential book, Orientalism (1978). Said argued that in its depictions of the Middle East, Western art and literature showed a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." This prejudice was reflected in stereotypical depictions of Middle Eastern culture and people as primitive, irrational, and exotic.
Romanticism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Romanticism in Germany
During the Enlightenment, or The Age of Reason, German Romantic painters turned their sights to interior emotions instead of reasoned observations. They looked to previous eras, including the Middle Ages, for examples of men living in harmony with nature and each other. The Nazarenes, a group of painters founded in Vienna in 1809, favored medieval and early Italian Renaissance painting, repudiating the popular Neoclassical style preferred at the time. The leading German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich worked predominantly in landscape painting and explored man's relation to the land. Landscape painting became an allegory for the human soul as well as a symbol of freedom and boundlessness that subtly critiqued the political restrictedness of the time.
Romanticism in Spain
In the midst of the Peninsular War raged by Napoleon and the Spanish War of Independence, Spanish Romantic painters began exploring more subjective views of landscapes and portraits, valorizing the individual. Francisco de Goya was by far the most prominent of the Spanish Romantics. While he was the official painter for the Royal Court, toward the end of the 18th century, he began exploring the imaginary, the irrational, and the horrors of human behavior and war. His works, including the painting The Third of May, 1808 (1814) and the series of etchings The Disasters of War (1812-15), stand as powerful rebukes of war during the Enlightenment era. Increasingly withdrawn, Goya made a series of Black Paintings (1820-23) that explored the terrors held within the innermost recesses of the human psyche.
Romanticism in France
After the Napoleonic Wars ended with Napoleon in exile, the Romantic painters began challenging the Neoclassicism of Jacques Louis David, the foremost painter during the French Revolution, and the overall Neoclassical style favored by the Academy. Unlike their German counterparts, the French had a larger repertoire of subjects that included portraiture and history painting. Artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Eugène Delacroix created many genre scenes of North Africa, ushering in a vogue for Orientalism, and their dramatically staged compositions of light and color highlighted the horrors of contemporary events and tragedies.
The French also developed a strong sculptural rendition of Romanticism. Géricault experimented in sculpture, creating Nymph and Satyr (1818), a piece that depicted a suggestive and violent encounter between the two mythological figures. He also created works like his Flayed Horse I (c. 1820-24) that combined his anatomical knowledge with the horse, one of his favorite subjects, within a dark and disturbing vision. Romanticist sculpture was drawn to scenes of beasts of prey and fighting animals in which the animals were depicted as a writhing surge of bodies. Portraying a savage beast overwhelming delicate beauty, such works were meant to convey the Romantic sense of terribiltà, the feeling of awe or terror created by the sublime. The most famous of animal sculptors was Antoine-Louis Bayre, whose bronze works like Tiger Surprising an Antelope (c. 1835) became popular among the ruling class.
Romanticism in England
With the exception of William Blake, who practiced a more visionary art, the English Romantic painters favored landscape. Their depictions, however, were not as dramatic and sublime as their German counterparts, but were more naturalistic. The Norwich School was a group of landscape painters that developed from the 1803 Norwich Society of Artists. John Crome, was a founding member of the group and the first president of the Norwich Society, which held annual exhibitions from 1805-1833. Working in both watercolor and oil painting, Crome, like other members of the group emphasized en plein air painting and scientific observation of the landscape. Nonetheless, his work and the work of other artists in the group reflected a Romantic sensibility, as seen in his Boys Bathing on the River Wensum, Norwich (1817), which depicts a precisely observed scene along the Wensum River yet conveys the feeling of human harmony with the sublime beauty of the area.
John Constable was the most influential of the English landscape painters, combining close observation of nature with a deep sensitivity. Rebelling against standard practices of the academy, he wrote to his friend, "For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand .. I have not endeavored to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men .. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth." His use of color was influential on the young Eugène Delacroix, who delighted in the way Constable used dabs of local color and white to create a shimmering light. Color was most radically explored by J.M.W. Turner. Turner was a prolific, yet eccentric and reclusive, artist working in oils, watercolors, and prints. Turner's application of color in rapid strokes created an impastoed and dynamic surface that earned him the epithet "the painter of light." He would be very influential to the Impressionists in the later 19th century and even the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko in the mid-20th century.
Romanticism in the United States
American Romanticism found its primary expression in the landscape painting of the Hudson River School, between 1825-1875. While the movement began with Thomas Doughty, whose work emphasized a kind of quietism in nature, the most famous member of the group was Thomas Cole, whose landscapes convey a sense of awe at the vastness of nature. Other noted artists were Frederic Edwin Church, Asher B. Durand, and Albert Bierstadt. The works of most of these artists focused on the landscape of the Adirondacks, White Mountains, and Catskills of the Northeast but gradually branched out into the American West as well as South and Latin American landscapes. Working from sketches that they made outdoors, the artists would create the paintings later in their studios, sometimes using composites of various scenes to create an image of a somewhat imaginary location. The emphasis in such paintings was often upon awe-inspiring, dramatic vistas, where the human figure would appear to be dwarfed, and where an overwhelming and sublime sense of nature's beauty would be conveyed.
Romanticism in Architecture: The Age of Revivals
Romanticism in architecture rebelled against the Neoclassical ideals of the 18th century primarily by evoking past styles. Styles from other periods and regions in the world were incorporated, all with the purpose of evoking feeling, whether a nostalgic longing for the past or for exotic mystery. Accordingly, architecture was dominated by "revival" styles, like the Gothic Revival and the Oriental Revival.
Though the incorporation of Gothic design began in the 1740s, the Gothic Revival became a dominant movement in the 1800s. In France, the historian Arcisse de Caumont's writing provided an intellectual foundation for the interest in antiquities, but it was Victor Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) that popularized the neo-Gothic craze. In England The Houses of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster, designed and rebuilt by A.W.N. Pugin with architect Charles Berry, exemplifies the Gothic Revival style.
The famous example of Oriental Revival style is the Royal Pavilion (1815-1822) in Brighton, England, built by the architect John Nash. The seaside home of King George IV includes onion domes and minarets and variations on crenellations in the building to create an imposing but exotic presence which includes elements of Asian and Middle-Eastern styles. Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign to Egypt inspired an interest in ancient Egyptian culture, leading to the use of Egyptian columns, obelisks, pylons, and sphinx sculptures. The detention complex "The Tombs," called originally the Houses of Justice, built in New York City in 1838 is a good example of the Egyptian substyle of the Oriental Revival.
Later Developments - After Romanticism
Romanticism began to fade at various times in different countries, but by the 1830s, with the introduction of photography and increasing industrialization and urbanization, artistic styles start trending more toward Realism.
The Romantics' return to earlier styles, such as Medieval art, greatly influenced the later 19th-century British Pre-Raphaelites Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais. These artists depicted medieval, religious, and Shakespearean subject matter filtered through a Romantically-tinged naturalism. They emphasized the imagination as well as the connections between the visual arts and literature.
Turner's and Delacroix's Influence
Turner's and Delacroix's studies and uses of color as well as their vigorous brushstrokes had a significant influence on Impressionism. Their emphasis on color rather than line as a primary mode of composition particularly influenced Georges Seurat's development of Neo-Impressionism and color theory, which became a foundation for later movements like Fauvism and Orphism.
Goya's unsentimental representations of Spanish life influenced many Realist artists of the next generation, including French avant garde painter Édouard Manet. Some of Pablo Picasso's most noted works like Guernica (1937) reflect the continuing influence of Goya on his fellow countrymen. The gruesome results of war and abjection found a new audience who had experienced their own brutal wars in the 20th century.
William Blake's Influence
William Blake's use of image and text to convey a single vision was influential in many modern art movements; Italian Futurism, Orphism, Russian Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism all combined text and image in a variety of ways. Blake's visionary mysticism and rebelliousness also influenced the Beat generation of the 1950's, including the writer Jack Kerouac.
Caspar David Friedrich's Influence
Caspar David Friedrich's symbolic landscapes and their evocation of the sublime had lasting influence among modern artists from the Expressionist Edvard Munch, to the Surrealists Max Ernst and René Magritte, to the later Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Friedrich's inspiring visualization of the German landscape was taken up by the Nazis in the 1930s to promote their ideology of Blood and Soil, which espoused racialism and a romanticized nationalism. As a result, it took many years for Friedrich's reputation to recover.
The tenets of Romanticism, emphasizing the primacy of the individual, and, within that individual, the power of the subjective imagination and feeling, became the bedrock of much of modern culture. Surrealism's emphasis on dream life and the subjective subconscious, Expressionism's emphasis on emotional intensity, and the contemporary emphasis on the artist as a cultural celebrity, all derive from Romanticism. The movement has become part of how we think about the individual, one's individual experience and its expression in art. The concept of the artist as a visionary in tune with the deeper nature of reality, which has been part of any number of avant-garde movements, is essentially a Romanticist view.