An early 19th century, pan-European movement in the arts and philosophy. The term derives from the Romances of the Middle Ages, and refers to an idealization of reality. In the late 18th century, it came to mean anti-Classical and represented a trend towards the picturesque and the Gothic, and a love of nostalgia, mystery and drama (e.g. Walpole, Beckford and Fuseli). By the early 19th century it had been broadened to include: an enthusiasm for, and awe of, nature; a political support for liberty; an emphasis on the individual as a unique creative being; opposition to, and fear of, industrialization; an interest in the exotic and primitive; nationalism; and a dissatisfaction with life and a desire for new means of artistic expression. This breadth of meaning has led to the definition of Romanticism as a ‘feeling’ and very little else.
The Romantic movement took on different characteristics throughout Europe. In England, the poets Shelley and Keats sought beauty, Byron sought exotic glory and adventure, Wordsworth tried to express a love of nature in a new simple language and Blake railed against the Establishment. Landscape painting was seriously explored by Constable, Palmer and others. The Middle Ages were revived as a source of artistic and architectural interest. Most significantly Turner found a radical and expressive technique with which to depict his view of the natural world. In France the movement was politically motivated by the revolutions of 1789 and 1830, and with the patronage of Napoleon (see Gros and Gericault), artists looked increasingly to literature, history and exotic subjects. The art pour art movement promoted beauty for its own sake (e.g. Ingres), there was a search for painting of modern fife (by Baudelaire) and Delacroix experimented with new colour theories and free brushwork. In Germany, an enthusiasm for nationalism and liberalism generated by the Napoleonic invasion inspired writers, artists and architects (e.g. Friedrich, Schinkel and Klenze).
At the end of the 18th century and well into the 19th, Romanticism quickly spread throughout Europe and the United States to challenge the rational ideal held so tightly during the Enlightenment. The artists emphasized that sense and emotions – not simply reason and order – were equally important means of understanding and experiencing the world. Romanticism celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the enduring search for individual rights and liberty. Its ideals of the creative, subjective powers of the artist fueled avant-garde movements well into the 20th century.
Romanticist practitioners found their voices across all genres, including literature, music, art, and architecture. Reacting against the sober style of Neoclassicism preferred by most countries’ academies, the far reaching international movement valued originality, inspiration, and imagination, thus promoting a variety of styles within the movement. Additionally, in an effort to stem the tide of increasing industrialization, many of the Romanticists emphasized the individual’s connection to nature and an idealized past. In part spurred by the idealism of the French Revolution, Romanticism embraced the struggles for freedom and equality and the promotion of justice. Painters began using current events and atrocities to shed light on injustices in dramatic compositions that rivaled the more staid Neoclassical history paintings accepted by national academies.
Romanticism embraced individuality and subjectivity to counteract the excessive insistence on logical thought. Artists began exploring various emotional and psychological states as well as moods. The preoccupation with the hero and the genius translated to new views of the artist as a brilliant creator who was unburdened by academic dictate and tastes. As the French poet Charles Baudelaire described it, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.”
In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and plein air painting, or painting out of doors. Works based on close observation of the landscape as well as the sky and atmosphere elevated landscape painting to a new, more respectful level. While some artists emphasized humans at one with and a part of nature, others portrayed nature’s power and unpredictability, evoking a feeling of the sublime – awe mixed with terror – in the viewer.
Romanticism was closely bound up with the emergence of newly found nationalism that swept many countries after the American Revolution. Emphasizing local folklore, traditions, and landscapes, Romanticists provided the visual imagery that further spurred national identity and pride. Romantic painters combined the ideal with the particular, imbuing their paintings with a call to spiritual renewal that would usher in an age of freedom and liberties not yet seen.
A Central Notion of Romanticism
Romanticism, first defined as an aesthetic in literary criticism around 1800, gained momentum as an artistic movement in France and Britain in the early decades of the nineteenth century and flourished until mid-century. With its emphasis on the imagination and emotion, Romanticism emerged as a response to the disillusionment with the Enlightenment values of reason and order in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. Though often posited in opposition to Neoclassicism, early Romanticism was shaped largely by artists trained in Jacques Louis Davids studio, including Baron Antoine Jean Gros, Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. This blurring of stylistic boundaries is best expressed in Ingres Apotheosis of Homer and Eug?ne Delacroixs Death of Sardanapalus (both Muse? du Louvre, Paris), which polarized the public at the Salon of 1827 in Paris. While Ingres work seemingly embodied the ordered classicism of David in contrast to the disorder and tumult of Delacroix, in fact both works draw from the Davidian tradition but each ultimately subverts that model, asserting the originality of the artista central notion of Romanticism.
In Romantic art, naturewith its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremesoffered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought. The violent and terrifying images of nature conjured by Romantic artists recall the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the Sublime. As articulated by the British statesman Edmund Burke in a 1757 treatise and echoed by the French philosopher Denis Diderot a decade later, all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime. In French and British painting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the recurrence of images of shipwrecks (2003.42.56) and other representations of mans struggle against the awesome power of nature manifest this sensibility. Scenes of shipwrecks culminated in 1819 with Th?odore Gericaults strikingly original Raft of the Medusa (Louvre), based on a contemporary event. In its horrifying explicitness, emotional intensity, and conspicuous lack of a hero, The Raft of the Medusa became an icon of the emerging Romantic style. Similarly, J. M. W. Turners 1812 depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps (Tate, London), in which the general and his troops are dwarfed by the overwhelming scale of the landscape and engulfed in the swirling vortex of snow, embodies the Romantic sensibility in landscape painting. Gericault also explored the Romantic landscape in a series of views representing different times of day; in Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct (1989.183), the dramatic sky, blasted tree, and classical ruins evoke a sense of melancholic reverie.
Another facet of the Romantic attitude toward nature emerges in the landscapes of John Constable, whose art expresses his response to his native English countryside. For his major paintings, Constable executed full-scale sketches, as in a view of Salisbury Cathedral (50.145.8); he wrote that a sketch represents nothing but one state of mindthat which you were in at the time. When his landscapes were exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1824, critics and artists embraced his art as nature itself. Constables subjective, highly personal view of nature accords with the individuality that is a central tenet of Romanticism.
This interest in the individual and subjectiveat odds with eighteenth-century rationalismis mirrored in the Romantic approach to portraiture. Traditionally, records of individual likeness, portraits became vehicles for expressing a range of psychological and emotional states in the hands of Romantic painters. Gericault probed the extremes of mental illness in his portraits of psychiatric patients, as well as the darker side of childhood in his unconventional portrayals of children. In his portrait of Alfred Dedreux (41.17), a young boy of about five or six, the child appears intensely serious, more adult than childlike, while the dark clouds in the background convey an unsettling, ominous quality.
Such explorations of emotional states extended into the animal kingdom, marking the Romantic fascination with animals as both forces of nature and metaphors for human behavior. This curiosity is manifest in the sketches of wild animals done in the menageries of Paris and London in the 1820s by artists such as Delacroix, Antoine-Louis Barye, and Edwin Landseer. Gericault depicted horses of all breedsfrom workhorses to racehorsesin his work. Lord Byrons 1819 tale of Mazeppa tied to a wild horse captivated Romantic artists from Delacroix to Th?odore Chass?riau, who exploited the violence and passion inherent in the story. Similarly, Horace Vernet, who exhibited two scenes from Mazeppa in the Salon of 1827 (both Mus?e Calvet, Avignon), also painted the riderless horse race that marked the end of the Roman Carnival, which he witnessed during his 1820 visit to Rome. His oil sketch (87.15.47) captures the frenetic energy of the spectacle, just before the start of the race. Images of wild, unbridled animals evoked primal states that stirred the Romantic imagination.
Along with plumbing emotional and behavioral extremes, Romantic artists expanded the repertoire of subject matter, rejecting the didacticism of Neoclassical history painting in favor of imaginary and exotic subjects. Orientalism and the worlds of literature stimulated new dialogues with the past as well as the present. Ingres sinuous odalisques (38.65) reflect the contemporary fascination with the exoticism of the harem, albeit a purely imagined Orient, as he never traveled beyond Italy. In 1832, Delacroix journeyed to Morocco, and his trip to North Africa prompted other artists to follow. In 1846, Chass?riau documented his visit to Algeria in notebooks filled with watercolors and drawings, which later served as models for paintings done in his Paris studio (64.188). Literature offered an alternative form of escapism. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poetry of Lord Byron, and the drama of Shakespeare transported art to other worlds and eras. Medieval England is the setting of Delacroixs tumultuous Abduction of Rebecca (03.30), which illustrates an episode from Sir Walter Scotts Ivanhoe.
In its stylistic diversity and range of subjects, Romanticism defies simple categorization. As the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1846, Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.