Romanticism is an art movement that spread across Europe and the United States. It’s an art movement that challenged the ideals held onto so tightly during the Enlightenment era. The artists emphasized their sense of emotions, and these were just as important as reason and order. They honed in on emotion as a way of experiencing the world. It celebrated the individual imagination and intuition in the everlasting search for individual rights and liberty and it fueled many avant-garde movements well into the 20th century. It originated in Germany then spread to England and the rest of Europe. The Enlightenment era or the “Age of Reason” was a period that glorified rational thinking, secularism and scientific progress. This was the time of true revolution in the industrial world with the first operational steam engine being built in 1712. However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything. The romanticists looked beyond reason and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination. Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork. It also borrowed heavily from religious imagery and stories and found inspiration in them in the same way that they found inspiration in mythology and folklore. Recurring themes of human vulnerability and isolation were often portrayed in the genre. Romanticism was, in a lot of senses, the direct opposite of rationality. It was about passion, intuition and the mysterious.
Romanticism found a home in many expressions of creative pursuits, including literature, music, art, and architecture. They valued originality, inspiration, and imagination which produced many different styles within the same genre. In many ways, it was a contrast to Neo-Classicism which was quite sober and grim. The genre rose up out of the Industrial Revolution as a means of combating the rise of machines and industry. 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, gaining inspiration from the French Revolution, Romanticism embraced the struggles for freedom and equality as well as the promotion of justice. Painters used current events and atrocities to shed light on these injustices in dramatic compositions and over the top scenes that played the drama out on canvas.
With this in mind, when thinking of Romanticism and Romantic art, don’t think of terms like love or romance itself. In the context of art, its a reference to the strength of emotions in general. Up until this moment in Art History, most artworks were created with beauty at its heart. Romantic art was “Gothic”. It was dark, macabre and grotesque. Fine art had been taught as a discipline while romantic art, on the other hand, was there to fascinate and horrify. Some of 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 was an image that evoked real horror in the enlightened viewer. The artist’s deep troubles and personal struggles came out in his paintings. The stereotype in our popular culture of the artist or the intellectual as a self-tortured, lonely soul with a “nobody understands me” attitude very much originated out of the romantic period.
They embraced the individual and subjective to counteract the insistence for logic. They explored various emotional and psychological states as well as moods. As 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.” The romantic artist was considered a ‘hero’ of art, unburdened by academic taste. In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and ‘plein air’ painting, much like the Impressionists. Works were usually based on close inspection of the landscape and the sky and when human figures were involved they were usually at one with nature. The unpredictability and power of nature were often emphasized and was meant to evoke a feeling of the sublime, which speaks about the feeling of awe that arises when one is faced with something greater than themselves. It emphasized local folklore, traditions, and landscapes and was closely bound up with the emergence of a new nationalism that was sweeping across many countries after the American Revolution.
There are some core concepts to keep in mind when trying to differentiate Romanticism from other art genres. The skies are typically quite dramatic with an imminent sense of danger or fear of the unknown. The focus on nature, as we have spoken about, but perhaps with a dark or mysterious ambiance in both a literal or a figurative sense. There will be a dramatic scene of man or nature with undertones of nature’s triumph over man. The brushstrokes are usually visible with an overall sense of softness to the quality of the edges. Sometimes the imagery can be quite Gothic and occasionally horrific where the faces express feelings such as intense pain, anguish, anger or fear. Romanticism is a genre that still holds a place in our own world today. It embodied a disdain for a dehumanized and mechanical world and held onto the nostalgia of a simpler life, which we see in our lives today even. And people still make art about escaping technology, it’s just depicted in different ways.