Romanticism was to an extent a revolt against classicism and the ideas of the Enlightenment. Classicists believed that the ancient Greeks and Romans had discovered aesthetic rules that were eternally valid, and should be followed by all painters and playwrights. Their ideas of artistic rules and standards went hand in glove with Enlightenment concepts of a rational order and restraint. Because the classicists dominated the courts and academies for which artists worked, they had a firm control on artistic expression, and enforced their rules accordingly.
Romanticism in artistic expression gained ground in the 1840’s. Romanticist ideas had been extant as early as 1750, but became prominent during the French Revolution which the belief that a radical reconstruction of cultural and artistic life (as well as of politics and economics) was possible.
Romanticism stressed a belief in emotional exuberance, unrestrained imagination, as well as spontaneity in both art and personal life. Early German romanticists (1770’s and ‘80’s) called themselves the Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") group. Many led lives of intense emotion, often characterized by suicide, duels to the death, madness, and a variety of strange illnesses. They often wore their hair long and uncombed in an age when the powdered wig was considered correct. They often rejected materialism and sought to reach lofty heights by artistic expression. They were all individualists who believed that development of one’s own unique human potential was the supreme purpose of life. They had a sense of a limitless universe and had a yearning for "the unattained, the unknown, and the unknowable." Fainting and swooning became very much in vogue during the Romantic era, as they were considered to be honest expressions of emotion.
Romanticism’s concept of nature was its most apparent break with classicism. Classicists expressed no interest in nature. Samuel Johnson once commented, "A blade of grass is a blade of grass; men and women are my subjects of inquiry." They often portrayed it as beautiful but chaste, like a formal garden. Romanticists were enchanted by nature which they found to be awesome and at times tempestuous. Others saw nature as a source of inspiration. John Constable, the English landscape artist once said, "Nature is Spirit visible."
Examples of Romantic Art:
Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa
Friedrich: Traveler Looking over a Sea of Fog
David: Rape of the Sabine Women
John Constable: The Haywain
Romanticists took a dim view of the Industrial Revolution. Most saw it as an attack on nature and human personality. Others saw in iron works and cotton mills the flames of hell and the work of the devil. Many attempted to escape the industrial cities and fled to the unspoiled countryside or even to North Africa, which they saw as an idealized Middle Age society.
Romanticists did not limit themselves to the arts; many passionately studied and wrote about history, which they saw as the art of change over time; beautiful and organic in its own right. The philosophes of the Enlightenment had seen history as mechanical and static, with no inert beauty. This interest in history lent itself to the idea of national aspiration; Groups of people were encouraged to look to history to find their own special destiny. Germans and eastern Europeans were particularly fascinated by this idea of a historic destiny.
One can see in this budding romantic movement the seeds of German nationalism and sense of destiny which Adolf Hitler exploited to a terrible degree.
Romanticism in Literature:Romanticism found its voice in poetry, as the Enlightenment had found its in prose. It first blossomed in England with writers such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, as well as George Gordon, Lord Byron; Percy Shelly, and John Keats.
Wordsworth and Coleridge were good friends, who published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, one of the most influential literary works in the history of the English Language. They defied classical rules by abandoning flowery speech and used ordinary language, giving simple subjects a certain majesty. Wordsworth believed that nature had the power to elevate and instruct. He saw poetry as the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling recollected in tranquility. An example is Daffodils:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Flattering and dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them dance, but they
Out0did the sparking waves in glee
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company;
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought.
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And the, my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
The dark, somewhat emotional forces of nature were described graphically by Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong :
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
The southward aye we fled.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold :
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen :
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken--
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around :
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
Sir Walter Scott personified the romantic fascination with history. He was particularly influenced by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Faust). Scott became a master at recreating the spirit of the past and great historical events. His most well known work is Ivanhoe, a story of the return of Richard Lion heart and his devoted nobleman, Sir Robin of Locksley, commonly known as "Robin Hood."
Romanticism blossomed later in France, because classicism prevented nationalism from developing for a number of years. It finally came to fruition in the late 1830’s. Among the famous French Romantic writers:
Victor Hugo: an admirer of William Shakespeare, who had also broken all the rules of classicism. His famous works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the bell ringer, a "human gargoyle," overlooks Paris. He was also the author of a play, Hermani, in which he broke all the rules of classicism.
Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin who wrote under the pen name George Sand. Dupin deserted her husband and moved to Paris where she had a number of torrid affairs with the poet Alfred de Musset and composer Frederic Chopin. She often wore men’s clothes and smoked cigars, but wrote passionate romantic novels, often involving sexual overtones.
In Germany, romanticism and nationalism worked hand in hand, often exploring the history and culture of their own people. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the famous "brothers Grimm" literally saved German fairy tales from extinction. Among them, Hansel and Gretel, etc.
Romanticism in Art and Music:The most notable French Romantic painter was Eugéne Delacroix, who painted stirring emotional scenes. His masterpiece was Liberty Leading the People, which celebrated the nobility of popular revolution, particularly in revolutionary France. The painting appears on this website on the French Revolution page. In England, the most famous painters were Joseph M.W. Turner and John Constable, both of whom painted scenes of nature. Turner’s paintings often portrayed nature as violent, with wild storms and sinking ships. Constable’s paintings showed nature more gentle, a la Wordsworth.
Music was the area in which romanticism best expressed its emotional intensity. Earlier composers had confined themselves to well defined structures such as the classical symphony; the romantics used a number of forms and transformed the classical orchestra, tripling its size by adding wind instruments, percussion, and more brass and strings. Among the famous composers were Chopin; Beethoven, and Schumann. Music suddenly became an end to itself, rather than simply for churches and chamber music. Beethoven was its greatest master. He used contrasting themes and tones to produce dramatic conflict and then resolution. He had a tremendous output, including symphonies, chamber music, sonatas, masses, even an Opera.
Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony gained its accolade from the fact that its second and third movements are joined into a single movement. Classical symphonies had three distinct movements separated by a brief interlude. In his later years, he grew deaf, which caused him to become enormously depressed. He considered suicide, but decided to keep on working, stating, "I will take fate by the horns; it will not bend me completely to its will." Ironically, Beethoven never heard some of his own best works, including the famous chorale of his ninth symphony.