William F. Buckley

American Authors 1800s

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.

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