Romanticism (late 1700s-mid 1800s)

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art

Romanticism was a major international movement that was influential in shaping modern views of art, literature, and music. It was at its height between 1798 and 1830. But it came later in some countries, such as Italy, Spain, and the United States. It occurred first in art and literature and later in music. In part, romanticism was a reaction against the artistic styles of classical antiquity. These styles had been revived in the 1600's and 1700's as neoclassicism. Neoclassicists placed great importance on the power of reason as a way of discovering truth. That is why the neoclassical era is often called the Age of Reason.

The romantics, in contrast, hoped to transform the world into a new Golden Age through the power of the imagination.

Themes and Ideas

When the English poet and painter William Blake was asked whether he saw a round, shining ball of fire when the sun rose, he replied, "Oh no, no. I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying [single_quotation_mark,_left]Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty![single_quotation_mark,_right]" His response shows the importance the romantics placed on the imagination. For them, it was the quality that set artists apart from other people. It allowed them to express their emotions in their art. As exceptional individuals, artists were free to pursue their creativity, unrestrained by the demands of society.

The romantics developed a deep love of nature. They thought it to be mainly good and kind, in contrast to the corruption of society. Many romantic works take nature for their theme or setting. The dark side of nature, such as storms and fire, also fascinated the romantics. Through nature, artists could escape from an unsatisfying present into a better world.

Another escape route was into the past. The romantics were strongly attracted to the distant, the exotic, and the mysterious. They were drawn to the supernatural and to real and imaginary lands of long ago and far away. They rediscovered the heritage of the Middle Ages, collected folk songs and tales, and tried to understand dreams. In this way, romanticism opened up a wide range of new interests. It injected into the arts a vitality and urge to experiment that laid the foundation for many later developments.

Romanticism in Art

Romanticism was more prominent in painting than in sculpture or architecture. Subjects for paintings were often taken from nature. But biblical, mythological, and supernatural subjects were also used. Romantic painters generally used radiant colors and unrestrained, expressive brushwork. They also showed a preference for curving lines and shapes.

Romantic art differed from place to place, even within the same country. In England, William Blake created dreamlike illustrations for his poetry. But the dominant English romantic style can be found in such landscapes as Thomas Gainsborough's The Market Cart (1786), John Constable's Malvern Hall (1809), and J. M. W. Turner's Fire at Sea (about 1834). These artists captured the beauty and power of nature. They often used watercolors to give their paintings a feeling of freshness and immediacy.

The nature paintings of the German artist Caspar David Friedrich create a solemn, mysterious mood. Johann Friedrich Overbeck led a religious brotherhood of German painters, the Nazarenes, in Rome after 1810. Spain's most noted romantic painter is Francisco Goya. His intense portraits, such as The Young Girls (1813), are remarkable for their flowing lines. The Swiss artist Henry Fuseli painted fantastic and nightmarish subjects. In France, Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix painted wild and violent scenes. Another French artist, Théodore Rousseau, led the Barbizon School. This was a group of landscape painters who depicted rural life.

Beginning in the 1820's American romantic artists painted landscapes that glorified the country's natural beauty. They were inspired by the optimism of a young, rapidly growing nation. One group of artists, including Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, painted scenic views of upper New York State and came to be called the Hudson River School.

Romanticism in Literature

Romanticism in literature was equally varied, developing many new forms. The emphasis on imagination and emotion led to the flourishing of lyric poetry. These are short poems that express personal emotion. The Gothic novel, with its emphasis on mystery and the supernatural, and the historical novel were popular prose forms. Least interest was shown in drama. Many plays were written to be read rather than performed. The exception was in France, where the battle for romanticism was fought in the theater, the home of an established neoclassical tradition.

In England all the major romantic poets wrote lyric poetry, each in an individual voice. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published a collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads (1798). John Keats is famous for his odes, including "To Autumn" and "Ode to a Nightingale" (both written in 1819), as is Percy Bysshe Shelley. George Gordon, Lord Byron, wrote longer narrative poems, such as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). Of the poetry of William Blake, Songs of Innocence (1787) and Songs of Experience (1797) are the most widely read.

In Germany, romantic literature ranged widely from the difficult theories of Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother August Wilhelm to the fantastic tales of Johann Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann. The outstanding lyric poets were Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) and, later, Heinrich Heine.

The greatest romantic poet in France was Victor Hugo. His vast output also included novels, such as Les Misérables (1862), and plays. Alfred de Musset wrote both plays and poems. Alphonse de Lamartine is known for his touching nature poetry. Alexandre Dumas was the author of many lively tales, among them The Three Musketeers (1844). Italy's foremost romantic poet was the melancholy Giacomo Leopardi. Spain's was José de Espronceda.

Romanticism came somewhat later in the United States than in Europe. But it was a vigorous movement there with distinctive themes. The love of nature took a philosophical form in the group of New England writers known as transcendentalists. Their views are expressed in Nature (1836), by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau. The theme of the American frontier experience was introduced by James Fenimore Cooper in such well-loved tales as The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841). This tradition was continued by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha (1855). The poems of Walt Whitman were published after 1855 under the title Leaves of Grass. They celebrate the American spirit and remain influential.

American romanticism is particularly rich in prose narratives that have become an important part of the country's literature. These include the novels Moby-Dick (1851), by Herman Melville, and The Scarlet Letter (1850), by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Romanticism in Music

The full tide of romanticism in music began in the 1800's with operas that treated old legends or Shakespearean subjects, as in Otello (1816) by the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini. The bold new orchestral sounds invented for opera were then brought into the concert hall. Overtures were written, not as introductions to operas, but as concert pieces with themes suggested by books, plays, or personal experiences. The German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote an overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1826.

In addition to opera, more intimate kinds of music were also produced by romantic composers. Often, short pieces for the piano expressed the composer's inner thoughts and feelings. Mendelssohn titled some of his collections "songs without words." Another German composer, Robert Schumann, wrote songs both with and without words. Many of Frédéric Chopin's piano pieces were inspired by tunes from his native Poland. Similarly, the Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846) of Franz Liszt were inspired by the music of Hungarian Romanies (formerly known as Gypsies). Franz Schubert set songs to poems in his song cycles, including A Winter's Journey (1827).

Some romantic composers favored program music. This kind of music tells a story with music and is sometimes explained in a concert program. Harold in Italy (1834), by the French composer Hector Berlioz, is a leading example of program music. Other program compositions, such as Don Juan (1889), by the German composer Richard Strauss, were called tone poems.

Later in the 1800's symphony and opera were the dominant forms. The great symphonies of Germany's Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, Russia's Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Czechoslovakia's Antonin Dvorák, and Austria's Anton Bruckner brought full, rich harmonies into the concert hall and are still much loved by audiences today.

Opera, too, tended to become increasingly spectacular. Such operas as Tannhäuser (1845), by Germany's Richard Wagner, Aïda (1871), by Italy's Giuseppe Verdi, and Salome (1905), by Richard Strauss, reached new heights in their theatrical and musical efforts. Mythological and literary subjects were turned into stirring musical dramas that often reflected the national pride of newly emerging countries.

Lilian R. Furst
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Author, Romanticism in Perspective

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