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Romanticism (also the Romantic era or the Romantic period) was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850. Partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, it was also a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature.

Thomas Jones, The Bard, 1774, a prophetic combination of Romanticism and nationalism by the Welsh artist.

Thomas Jones, The Bard, 1774, a prophetic combination of Romanticism and nationalism by the Welsh artist.

It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but had a major impact on historiography, education and the natural sciences. Its effect on politics was considerable and complex; while for much of the peak Romantic period it was associated with liberalism and radicalism, in the long term its effect on the growth of nationalism was probably more significant.

The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories. It elevated folk art and ancient custom to something noble, made spontaneity a desirable characteristic (as in the musical impromptu), and argued for a “natural” epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language and customary usage. Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate a revived medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl, and industrialism, and it also attempted to embrace the exotic, unfamiliar, and distant in modes more authentic than Rococo chinoiserie, harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape.

Thomas Cole, Childhood, one of the 4 scenes in The Voyage of Life, 1842

Thomas Cole, Childhood, one of the 4 scenes in The Voyage of Life, 1842

Although the movement was rooted in the German Sturm und Drang movement, which prized intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism, the ideologies and events of the French Revolution laid the background from which both Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment emerged. The confines of the Industrial Revolution also had their influence on Romanticism, which was in part an escape from modern realities; indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, “Realism” was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism. Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individualists and artists, whose pioneering examples would elevate society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art. There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a Zeitgeist, in the representation of its ideas.

Romanticism isn’t exactly what you might be thinking

The group of words with the root “Roman” in the various European languages, such as romance and Romanesque, has a complicated history, but by the middle of the 18th century “romantic” in English and romantique in French were both in common use as adjectives of praise for natural phenomena such as views and sunsets, in a sense close to modern English usage but without the implied sexual element. The application of the term to literature first became common in Germany, where the circle around the Schlegel brothers, critics August and Friedrich, began to speak of romantische Poesie (“romantic poetry”) in the 1790s, contrasting it with “classic” but in terms of spirit rather than merely dating. Friedrich Schlegel wrote in his Dialogue on Poetry (1800), “I seek and find the romantic among the older moderns, in Shakespeare, in Cervantes, in Italian poetry, in that age of chivalry, love and fable, from which the phenomenon and the word itself are derived.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1819

In both French and German the closeness of the adjective to roman, meaning the fairly new literary form of the novel, had some effect on the sense of the word in those languages. The use of the word did not become general very quickly, and was probably spread more widely in France by its persistent use by Madame de Staël in her De L’Allemagne (1813), recounting her travels in Germany. In England Wordsworth wrote in a preface to his poems of 1815 of the “romantic harp” and “classic lyre”, but in 1820 Byron could still write, perhaps slightly disingenuously, “I perceive that in Germany, as well as in Italy, there is a great struggle about what they call ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’, terms which were not subjects of classification in England, at least when I left it four or five years ago“. It is only from the 1820s that Romanticism certainly knew itself by its name, and in 1824 the Académie française took the wholly ineffective step of issuing a decree condemning it in literature.

Defining the nature of Romanticism may be approached from the starting point of the primary importance of the free expression of the feelings of the artist. The importance the Romantics placed on untrammelled feeling is summed up in the remark of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich that “the artist’s feeling is his law“. To William Wordsworth poetry should be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings“. In order to truly express these feelings, the content of the art must come from the imagination of the artist, with as little interference as possible from “artificial” rules dictating what a work should consist of. Coleridge was not alone in believing that there were natural laws governing these matters which the imagination, at least of a good creative artist, would freely and unconsciously follow through artistic inspiration if left alone to do so. As well as rules, the influence of models from other works would impede the creator’s own imagination, so originality was absolutely essential. The concept of the genius, or artist who was able to produce his own original work through this process of “creation from nothingness”, is key to Romanticism, and to be derivative was the worst sin. This idea is often called “romantic originality.”

Louis Janmot, from his series 'The Poem of the Soul' , before 1854

Louis Janmot, from his series ‘The Poem of the Soul’ , before 1854

Not essential to Romanticism, but so widespread as to be normative, was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. However this is particularly in the effect of nature upon the artist when he is surrounded by it, preferably alone. In contrast to the usually very social art of the Enlightenment, Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to believe that a close connection with nature was mentally and morally healthy. Romantic art addressed its audiences directly and personally with what was intended to be felt as the personal voice of the artist. So, in literature, “much of romantic poetry invited the reader to identify the protagonists with the poets themselves”.

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According to Isaiah Berlin, Romanticism embodied “a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.

 

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1833, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Karl Bryullov, The Last Day of Pompeii, 1833, The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Unsurprisingly, given its rejection on principle of rules, Romanticism is not easily defined, and the period typically called Romantic varies greatly between different countries and different artistic media or areas of thought. Margaret Drabble described it in literature as taking place “roughly between 1770 and 1848”, and few dates much earlier than 1770 will be found. In English literature, M. H. Abrams placed it between 1789, or 1798, this latter a very typical view, and about 1830, perhaps a little later than some other critics. In other fields and other countries the period denominated as Romantic can be considerably different; musical Romanticism, for example, is generally regarded as only having ceased as a major artistic force as late as 1910, but in an extreme extension the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss are described stylistically as “Late Romantic” and were composed in 1946–48.  However in most fields the Romantic Period is said to be over by about 1850, or earlier.

The early period of the Romantic Era was a time of war, with the French Revolution (1789–1799) followed by the Napoleonic Wars until 1815. These wars, along with the political and social turmoil that went along with them, served as the background for Romanticism. The key generation of French Romantics born between 1795–1805 had, in the words of one of their number, Alfred de Vigny, been “conceived between battles, attended school to the rolling of drums”.

The more precise characterization and specific definition of Romanticism has been the subject of debate in the fields of intellectual history and literary history throughout the 20th century, without any great measure of consensus emerging. That it was part of the Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, is generally accepted. Its relationship to the French Revolution which began in 1789 in the very early stages of the period, is clearly important, but highly variable depending on geography and individual reactions. Most Romantics can be said to be broadly progressive in their views, but a considerable number always had, or developed, a wide range of conservative views, and nationalism was in many countries strongly associated with Romanticism, as discussed in detail below.

Joseph Vernet, 1759, Shipwreck; the 18th century 'sublime'

Joseph Vernet, 1759, Shipwreck; the 18th century ‘sublime’

In philosophy and the history of ideas, Romanticism was seen by Isaiah Berlin as disrupting for over a century the classic Western traditions of rationality and the very idea of moral absolutes and agreed values, leading “to something like the melting away of the very notion of objective truth”,  and hence not only to nationalism, but also fascism and totalitarianism, with a gradual recovery coming only after the catharsis of World War II. For the Romantics, Berlin says,
in the realm of ethics, politics, aesthetics it was the authenticity and sincerity of the pursuit of inner goals that mattered; this applied equally to individuals and groups — states, nations, movements. This is most evident in the aesthetics of romanticism, where the notion of eternal models, a Platonic vision of ideal beauty, which the artist seeks to convey, however imperfectly, on canvas or in sound, is replaced by a passionate belief in spiritual freedom, individual creativity. The painter, the poet, the composer do not hold up a mirror to nature, however ideal, but invent; they do not imitate (the doctrine of mimesis), but create not merely the means but the goals that they pursue; these goals represent the self-expression of the artist’s own unique, inner vision, to set aside which in response to the demands of some “external” voice — church, state, public opinion, family friends, arbiters of taste — is an act of betrayal of what alone justifies their existence for those who are in any sense creative.

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Arthur Lovejoy attempted to demonstrate the difficulty of defining Romanticism in his seminal article “On The Discrimination of Romanticisms” in his Essays in the History of Ideas (1948); some scholars see Romanticism as essentially continuous with the present, some like Robert Hughes see in it the inaugural moment of modernity, and some like Chateaubriand, ‘Novalis’ and Samuel Taylor Coleridge see it as the beginning of a tradition of resistance to Enlightenment rationalism—a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’— to be associated most closely with German Romanticism. An earlier definition comes from Charles Baudelaire: “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.”

The end of the Romantic era is marked in some areas by a new style of Realism, which affected literature, especially the novel and drama, painting, and even music, through Verismo opera. This movement was led by France, with Balzac and Flaubert in literature and Courbet in painting; Stendhal and Goya were important precursors of Realism in their respective media. However, Romantic styles, now often representing the established and safe style against which Realists rebelled, continued to flourish in many fields for the rest of the century and beyond. In music such works from after about 1850 are referred to by some writers as “Late Romantic” and by others as “Neoromantic” or “Postromantic”, but other fields do not usually use these terms; in English literature and painting the convenient term “Victorian” avoids having to characterise the period further.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, after a poem by Tennyson; like many Victorian paintings, romantic but not Romantic.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, after a poem by Tennyson; like many Victorian paintings, romantic but not Romantic.

In northern Europe, the Early Romantic visionary optimism and belief that the world was in the process of great change and improvement had largely vanished, and some art became more conventionally political and polemical as its creators engaged polemically with the world as it was. Elsewhere, including in very different ways the United States and Russia, feelings that great change was underway or just about to come were still possible. Displays of intense emotion in art remained prominent, as did the exotic and historical settings pioneered by the Romantics, but experimentation with form and technique was generally reduced, often replaced with meticulous technique, as in the poems of Tennyson or many paintings. If not realist, late 19th-century art was often extremely detailed, and pride was taken in adding authentic details in a way that earlier Romantics did not trouble with. Many Romantic ideas about the nature and purpose of art, above all the pre-eminent importance of originality, continued to be important for later generations, and often underlie modern views, despite opposition from theorists.

Romantic Literature

In literature, Romanticism found recurrent themes in the evocation or criticism of the past, the cult of “sensibility” with its emphasis on women and children, the heroic isolation of the artist or narrator, and respect for a new, wilder, untrammeled and “pure” nature. Furthermore, several romantic authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, based their writings on the supernatural/occult and human psychology. Romanticism tended to regard satire as something unworthy of serious attention, a prejudice still influential today.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton 1856, by suicide at 18 in 1770.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton 1856, by suicide at 18 in 1770.

The precursors of Romanticism in English poetry go back to the middle of the 18th century, including figures such as Joseph Warton (headmaster at Winchester College) and his brother Thomas Warton, professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Joseph maintained that invention and imagination were the chief qualities of a poet. Thomas Chatterton is generally considered to be the first Romantic poet in English. The Scottish poet James Macpherson influenced the early development of Romanticism with the international success of his Ossian cycle of poems published in 1762, inspiring both Goethe and the young Walter Scott. Both Chatterton and Macpherson’s work involved elements of fraud, as what they claimed to be earlier literature that they had discovered or compiled was in fact entirely their own work. The Gothic novel, beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), was an important precursor of one strain of Romanticism, with a delight in horror and threat, and exotic picturesque settings, matched in Walpole’s case by his role in the early revival of Gothic architecture. Tristram Shandy, a novel by Laurence Sterne (1759–67) introduced a whimsical version of the anti-rational sentimental novel to the English literary public.

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An early German influence came from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther had young men throughout Europe emulating its protagonist, a young artist with a very sensitive and passionate temperament. At that time Germany was a multitude of small separate states, and Goethe’s works would have a seminal influence in developing a unifying sense of nationalism. Important motifs in German Romanticism are travelling, nature, and Germanic myths. The later German Romanticism of, for example, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (The Sandman), 1817, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff’s Das Marmorbild (The Marble Statue), 1819, was darker in its motifs and has gothic elements. The significance to Romanticism of childhood innocence, the importance of imagination, and racial theories all combined to give an unprecedented importance to folk literature, non-classical mythology and children’s literature, above all in Germany.

In English literature, the group of poets now considered the key figures of the Romantic movement includes William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the much older William Blake, followed later by the isolated figure of John Clare. The publication in 1798 of Lyrical Ballads, with many of the finest poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge, is often held to mark the start of the movement.

Ivan Aivazovsky, 1850, The Ninth Wave, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Ivan Aivazovsky, 1850, The Ninth Wave, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

In contrast to Germany, Romanticism in English literature had little connection with nationalism, and the Romantics were often regarded with suspicion for the sympathy many felt for the ideals of the French Revolution, whose collapse and replacement with the dictatorship of Napoleon was, as elsewhere in Europe, a shock to the movement. Though his novels celebrated Scottish identity and history, Scott was politically a firm Unionist. Several spent much time abroad, and a famous stay on Lake Geneva with Byron and Shelley in 1816 produced the hugely influential novel Frankenstein by Shelley’s wife-to-be Mary Shelley and the novella The Vampyre by Byron’s doctor John William Polidori. The lyrics of Robert Burns in Scotland and Thomas Moore, from Ireland but based in London or elsewhere reflected in different ways their countries and the Romantic interest in folk literature, but neither had a fully Romantic approach to life or their work.

Henry Fuseli, 1781, The Nightmare, a classical artist whose themes often anticipate the Romantic

Henry Fuseli, 1781, The Nightmare, a classical artist whose themes often anticipate the Romantic

Romanticism was relatively late in developing in French literature, even more so than in the visual arts. The 18th century precursor to Romanticism, the cult of sensibility, had become associated with the Ancien regime, and the French Revolution had been more of an inspiration to foreign writers than those experiencing it at first hand. The first major figure was François-René de Chateaubriand, a minor aristocrat who had remained a royalist throughout the Revolution, and returned to France from exile in England and America under Napoleon, with whose regime he had an uneasy relationship. His writings, all in prose, included some fiction, such as his influential novella of exile René (1802), which anticipated Byron in its alienated hero, but mostly contemporary history and politics, his travels, a defence of religion and the medieval spirit (Génie du christianisme 1802), and finally in the 1830s and 1840s his enormous autobiography Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (“Memoirs from beyond the grave”).

The European Romantic movement reached America in the early 19th century. American Romanticism was just as multifaceted and individualistic as it was in Europe. Like the Europeans, the American Romantics demonstrated a high level of moral enthusiasm, commitment to individualism and the unfolding of the self, an emphasis on intuitive perception, and the assumption that the natural world was inherently good, while human society was filled with corruption.

Romanticism became popular in American politics, philosophy and art. The movement appealed to the revolutionary spirit of America as well as to those longing to break free of the strict religious traditions of early settlement. The Romantics rejected rationalism and religious intellect. It appealed to those in opposition of Calvinism, which includes the belief that the destiny of each individual is preordained. The Romantic movement gave rise to New England Transcendentalism which portrayed a less restrictive relationship between God and Universe. The new philosophy presented the individual with a more personal relationship with God. Transcendentalism and Romanticism appealed to Americans in a similar fashion, for both privileged feeling over reason, individual freedom of expression over the restraints of tradition and custom. It often involved a rapturous response to nature. It encouraged the rejection of harsh, rigid Calvinism, and promised a new blossoming of American culture.

American Romanticism embraced the individual and rebelled against the confinement of neoclassicism and religious tradition. The Romantic movement in America created a new literary genre that continues to influence American writers. Novels, short stories, and poems replaced the sermons and manifestos of yore. Romantic literature was personal, intense, and portrayed more emotion than ever seen in neoclassical literature. America’s preoccupation with freedom became a great source of motivation for Romantic writers as many were delighted in free expression and emotion without so much fear of ridicule and controversy. They also put more effort into the psychological development of their characters, and the main characters typically displayed extremes of sensitivity and excitement.

The works of the Romantic Era also differed from preceding works in that they spoke to a wider audience, partly reflecting the greater distribution of books as costs came down during the period.The Romantic period saw an increase in female authors and also female readers.

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