"Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling." -- Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
Right there, courtesy of Baudelaire, you have the first and largest problem with Romanticism: it is nearly impossible to concisely define what it was. When we talk about Romanticism the Movement, we aren't using the root word "romance" in the sense of hearts and flowers or infatuation. Instead, we use "romance" in the sense of glorification.
Romantic visual and literary artists glorified things ... which takes us to thorny problem number two: the "things" they glorified were hardly ever physical. They glorified huge, complex concepts such as liberty, survival, ideals, hope, awe, heroism, despair, and the various sensations that nature evokes in humans. All of these are felt -- and felt on an individual, highly subjective level.
Aside from promoting intangible ideas, Romanticism may also be loosely defined by what it stood against. The movement championed spiritualism over science, instinct over deliberation, nature over industry, democracy over subjugation, and the rusticity over the aristocracy. Again, these are all concepts open to extremely personalized interpretation.
As you can see, definitively defining Romanticism is a lot like trying to climb a greased pole. Please don't fixate on it; it will only give you a headache. Besides, none of the greatest art historians have been able to come up with a satisfactory, succinct response. Simply keep the word "glorification" in mind as we go over the rest of this article, and things will sort themselves out.
How Long Was the Movement?
Keep in mind that Romanticism affected literature and music, as well as visual art. The German Sturm und Drang movement (late 1760s-early 1780s) was predominantly revenge-driven literary and minor-key musical, but led to a handful of visual artists painting terrifying scenes. For a good example, look up Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781).
Romantic art truly got underway at the turn of the century, and had its greatest number of practitioners for the next 40 years. If you are taking notes, that is an 1800-1840 heyday.
As with any other movement, though, there were artists who were young when Romanticism was old. Some of them stuck with the movement until their respective ends, while others retained aspects of Romanticism as they moved in new directions. It is not really too much of a stretch to say 1800-1880 and cover all of the hold-outs like Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). After that point Romantic painting was definitely stone cold dead, even though the movement brought about lasting changes going forward.
What Are the Key Characteristics of Romanticism?
The paintings of the Romantic period were emotional powder kegs. Artists expressed as much feeling and passion as could be loaded on to a canvas. A landscape had to evoke a mood, a crowd scene had to show expressions on every face, an animal painting had to depict some, preferably majestic, trait of that animal. Even portraits were not totally straightforward representations -- the sitter would be given eyes meant to be mirrors of the soul, a smile, a grimace, or a certain tilt of the head. With little touches, the artist could portray his subject surrounded by an atmosphere of innocence, madness, virtue, loneliness, altruism or greed.
Nature Can Kill You
If there is one prevalent theme to Romanticism, it is this: nature can change direction without warning, and we puny mortals are no match for it. You will find many, many examples of shipwrecks in Romantic paintings, for example. Shipwrecks, historically speaking, have always had high mortality rates. If you didn't drown, you stood a good chance of dying slowly of dehydration and starvation.
Likewise, Romantic art had more than its fair share of blizzards, fires, thunderstorms, lightning strikes, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and biblical disasters. About the only natural disaster Romanticism did not try to portray was an asteroid strike. And that is probably only because no one in the early 19th-century had yet discovered the geological evidence of impact events.
In addition to the emotionally-charged feelings one got from looking at Romantic paintings, contemporary viewers were usually quite knowledgeable of the story behind the subject matter. Why? Because the artists frequently took their inspiration from current events. For example, when Théodore Géricault unveiled his gigantic masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), the French public was already well acquainted with the gory details following the 1816 shipwreck of the naval frigate Méduse. Similarly, Eugène Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People (1830) fully aware that every adult in France was already familiar with the July Revolution of 1830.
Of course, not every Romantic work related to current events. For those that did, however, the benefits were a receptive, informed viewership, and increased name recognition for their creators.
Lack of Unifying Style, Technique, or Subject Matter
Romanticism wasn't like Rococo art, in which fashionable, attractive people engaged in fashionable, attractive pastimes while courtly love lurked around every corner -- and all of these goings-on were captured in a light-hearted, whimsical style. Instead, Romanticism included William Blake's disquieting apparition The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20), sitting in close chronological proximity to John Constable's comfortably rural landscape The Hay Wain (1821). Pick a mood, any mood, and there was some Romantic artist that conveyed it on canvas.
Romanticism wasn't like Impressionism, where everyone concentrated on painting the effects of light using loose brushwork. Romantic art ranged from the smooth-as-glass, highly-detailed, monumental canvas Death of Sardanapalus (1827) by Eugène Delacroix, to J. M. W. Turner's indistinct watercolor washes in The Lake of Zug (1843), and everything in between. Technique was all over the map; execution was completely up to the artist.
Romanticism wasn't like Dada, whose artists were making specific statements about WWI and/or the pretentious absurdities of the Art World. Romantic artists were apt to make statements about anything (or nothing), dependent on how an individual artist felt about any given topic on any given day. Francisco de Goya's work explored madness and oppression, while Caspar David Friedrich found endless inspiration in moonlight and fog. The will of the Romantic artist had the final say on subject matter.
Influences of Romanticism
The most direct influence of Romanticism was Neoclassicism, but there is a twist to this. Romanticism was a type of reaction to Neoclassicism, in that Romantic artists found the rational, mathematical, reasoned elements of "classical" art (i.e.: the art of Ancient Greece and Rome, by way of the Renaissance) too confining. Not that they didn't borrow heavily from it when it came to things like perspective, proportions, and symmetry. No, the Romantics kept those parts. It was just that they ventured beyond the prevailing Neoclassic sense of calm rationalism to inject a heaping helping of drama.
Movements Romanticism Influenced
The best example is the American Hudson River School, which got underway in the 1850s. Founder Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, et. al., were directly influenced by European Romantic landscapes. Luminism, an offshoot of the Hudson River School, also focused on Romantic landscapes.
The Düsseldorf School, which concentrated on imaginative and allegorical landscapes, was a direct descendant of German Romanticism.
Certain Romantic artists made innovations that later movements incorporated as crucial elements. John Constable (1776-1837) had a tendency to use tiny brushstrokes of pure pigments to emphasize dappled light in his landscapes. He discovered that, when viewed from a distance, his dots of color merged. This development was taken up with great enthusiasm by the Barbizon School, the Impressionists, and the Pointillists.
Constable and, to a much greater degree, J. M. W. Turner often produced studies and finished works that were abstract art in everything but name. They heavily influenced the first practitioners of modern art beginning with Impressionism -- which in turn influenced nearly every modernist movement that followed it.
Visual Artists Associated with Romanticism
- Antoine-Louis Barye
- William Blake
- Théodore Chassériau
- John Constable
- John Sell Cotman
- John Robert Cozens
- Eugène Delacroix
- Paul Delaroche
- Asher Brown Durand
- Caspar David Friedrich
- Théodore Géricault
- Anne-Louis Girodet
- Thomas Girtin
- Francisco de Goya
- William Morris Hunt
- Edwin Landseer
- Thomas Lawrence
- Samuel Palmer
- Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
- François Rude
- John Ruskin
- J. M. W. Turner
- Horace Vernet
- Franz Xaver Winterhalter
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New York: Phaidon, 2001.
Engell, James. The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Honour, Hugh. Romanticism.
New York: Fleming Honour Ltd, 1979.
Ives, Colta, with Elizabeth E. Barker. Romanticism & the School of Nature (exh. cat.).
New Haven and New York: Yale University Press and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.