Romanticism Art Movement

 1800 – 1850


How to identify Romantic art?

1. The skies are gloomy or cloudy as a sign of imminent danger and fear of the unknown, e.g. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

2. A focus on nature – mystical landscapes with dark mysterious ambience; dark in both a literal and figurative sense, e.g. Der Heuwagen by John Constable.

Der Heuwagen by John Constable

3. Dramatic scenes of man or nature, occasionally with undertones of nature’s triumph over man, e.g. The Course of Empire Destruction 1836 by Cole Thomas.

The Course of Empire Destruction 1836 by Cole Thomas

4. The sky is prominent and overwhelming, often taking over around half of the painting, e.g. Venice Grand Canal by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

Venice Grand Canal by Joseph Mallord William Turner

5. Dramatic scenes (similar to Baroque art but) painted in visible brushstrokes, as typical of the Romantic style, e.g. Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

6. Horrific and gothic images, where faces express feelings such as intense pain, anguish, anger or fear, e.g. Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco de Goya.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco de Goya

How Romantic art got its name?

Whenever you read the words “Romantic art,” don’t think of “love matters,” think “emotional” art. The word “romance” had multiple meanings during its long history, but in the context of art, it’s a reference to strong emotions associated with an art style that was prevalent at the dawn of the 19th century.

Where the Romantic art movement appeared? and what inspired it?

The Romanic movement originated in Germany, then it spread to England, France and the rest of Europe. Across the Atlantic, America had its own version of Romanticism, the Hudson River School, which was the first truly American school of art.

The mid-1600s ushered in the Age of Enlightenment (or “Age of Reason”), which was a period that glorified rational thinking, secularism and scientific progress. The first operational steam engine, built in 1712, could be regarded as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which later swept the Western hemisphere. Steam engines and cotton mills symbolized that Industrial Revolution. Industrialization transformed economies of Western Europe and North America, driving them from dependence on agriculture to manufacturing. However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything. Their reaction against the ongoing industrialization became a comprehensive movement – Romanticism. They looked beyond reason, and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination. Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork.

Here are two French philosophers who held and defended opposing worldviews that eventually brought the Romantic man up against the Enlightened man: While the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694 – 1778) preached progress and rationality, his bitter rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), a forerunner of the Romantic movement, advocated a “return to nature.” Going against the tide, Romanticism and its emphasis on the emotional experience fiercely challenged the dominant approach of rational thinking of the preceding 150 years, established by the Enlightenment. Even though religion was treated with little reverence, it was still fascinating to them. No traditional religious art was produced, but biblical stories and religious imagery continued to be sources of inspiration, similar to folk tales. Romanticism wasn’t embraced by only painters, but also poets, composers, novelists and philosophers. The conflict between what was disdained as a dehumanized and mechanical world versus a nostalgic yearning for a simpler life and an appreciation for nature is still alive in our culture today.

Despite the ongoing urbanization, Romantic art depicted villages rather than expanding cities. While large numbers left rural areas and settled in the city, the Romantics longed for life in the country. Rather than machines and factories, they put rural landscapes on display. That signaled a comeback for landscape paintings which were very popular during the Baroque period. However, nature does not only provide a setting for the painting, but also its main subject matter, so much so that people are not present or minuscule in comparison to the setting. It’s not unusual to see only one or two small figures against an overwhelming rural background. Previously, nature was seen as subordinate to humans, a view heavily influenced by a Christian outlook, but that had changed as Europe became more secular during the Age of Enlightenment. It was a time when many felt that, with industrialization and new technologies, they acquired unprecedented power over nature. Romantic paintings served as a reminder that humans were still at the mercy of Mother Nature.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.” In light of feeling and individual experience, there was no place here for what tradtionally had influenced art; religion, reason, morality and civic virtues. Recurrent themes were human vulnerability and isolation; stunning landscapes and morbid subject matter. Romanticism was directed by the opposite of rationality – passion, intuition and the mysterious. The paintings showed strong emotions through facial expressions like anguish, intense pain, anger or fear.

To borrow a word from contemporary culture, Romantic art was “gothic.” It was dark, macabre and grotesque. Interestingly, it would still be accurate to associate the original meaning of “Gothic,” (that is “medieval”) in describing this art style because the artists revived cultural elements from the Middle Ages such as folklore and fairy tales, and stories of witches and angels. For many generations, since the start of the Enlightenment period, the educated classes looked down on that period and labelled it the “Dark Ages.” They had long admired the grandeur of the Greek and Roman cultures. Nonetheless, the Romantic artists viewed that pre-Renaissance era with admiration: they believed the educated generations that followed couldn’t produce a culture that matches that of the uncultivated, common people of the Middle Ages

Until that moment in the history of Western art, most artwork was created with beauty at its heart. Fine art had been taught as a discipline. Romantic art, on the other hand, was there to fascinate and horrify. Some of the their paintings were the most horrific to be seen in the West at the time, for example Saturn Devours His Children by Francisco de Goya (see above). The artist’s deep troubles and personal struggles came out in his paintings. The stereotype in our popular culture of the artist or intellectual as a self-tortured, lone soul with a nobody-gets-me attitude originated in the Romantic period.


Rebels of a New Generation

Romanticism was the anithesis of Neoclassicism. The Enlightenment and its revived ideals from Graeco-Roman cultures gave birth to the Neoclassical art, all of which were rejected by the Romantics. It was a matter of freedom from classical restraints -a matter of trusting the heart, rather than the mind. The Neoclassical style emphasized order and reason, while Romanticism focused on feelings. The stoic, statue-like faces in Neoclassic paintings were incapable of showing feelings that the Romantic artists conveyed in facial expressions in their paintings. You’ll find heroism in Neoclassical paintings, but in the Romantic ones, artists do not attempt to conceal human vulnerability, and proneness to violence or nature’s fury. Classical (Greek and Roman) mythology, the main influence on Neoclassical art, was still featured in Romantic paintings as in “Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix (above), nevertheless artists favored local folklore.

A common feature in Romantic art is visible brushstrokes, which would have been unacceptable in the Neoclassical tradition that pursues perfection. Beyond technique, the Romantics also rebelled against the political art of the Neoclassical period with a style that celebrates nature. Themes glorifying virtues like bravery and loyalty were replaced with morbid and mystical themes. Eventually, Romanticism came to an end because it lacked the coherence and wide support of the Enlightenment movement, but it never completely disappeared. In fact, today’s postmodern suspicious view of science and reason has its roots in Romanticism. We attempt to escape our technological world by seeking a refuge in spirituality (traditional or New-Agey), mystical experiences or just nature exploration.