What is Romanticism?
Romanticism is a European cultural movement promoting the expression of feelings, individualism, the beauty of nature, and a melancholic past. Starting at the end of the 18th century and in vogue until the mid-19th century, Romanticism stood in stark contrast to the Age of Enlightenment’s celebration of reason. The movement first flourished in literature, then spread to other art forms such as painting and music.
Examples of Romantic artworks
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1818 (Hamburger Kunsthalle)
The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781 (Detroit Institute of Arts)
Gothic Church on a Rock by the Sea, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1815 (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)
Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830 (Louvre Museum)
The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault, 1818-1 (Louvre Museum)
Dutch Boats in a Gale, J. M. W. Turner, 1801 (National Gallery London)
The Family of Charles IV, Francisco Goya, 1800 (Museo del Prado)
History of Romanticism
Romanticism emerged in Germany at the end of the 18th century (Romantische). The word “Romantic” appeared in the 1650s in England; the term comes from the French word Roman or Romant. During the Middle Ages, the term was used to name the vulgar language, in opposition to the noble language, which was Latin. Gradually, people adopted the word to name books written in vernacular language, later mainly chivalry books.
This cultural movement rapidly spread to other European countries to various degrees. Germany, Great Britain, and France were important Romantic hubs. Its influence also reached Spain, Italy, Russia, and Scandinavia. It began as a literary movement, and the Schlegel brothers August Wilhelm and Friedrich, Horace Walpole, and Victor Hugo are well-known Romantic writers. Painting and music were also key media conveying the essence of Romanticism.
Romantic artists fantasized about the past, especially the Middle Ages. This nostalgia for medieval times is reflected in their paintings, as well as their fascination for the wild beauty of nature and exotic sceneries.
During the early 19th century, a group of German romantic artists founded the Nazarene movement. Among its members, we find Franz Pforr, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and Peter Cornelius. The group of artists moved to Rome with the ambition to redevelop sacred art. They were in opposition to the classicism of the Academy and wished to give a sense of spirituality and patriotism back to their painting.
Caspar David Friedrich was another pillar of German Romanticism. He depicted men lost in dramatic landscapes, showing the insignificance of humanity compared to the grandeur of Nature.
In Great Britain, William Blake and Henry Fuseli depicted nightmarish scenes filled with imaginary creatures but also biblical themes. Yet, British Romanticism is mainly characterized by landscape painting.
Painters such as John Constable and William Turner painted dramatic landscapes, often under a stormy sky, but also picturesque sceneries of rural England. Goethe and his Color Theory notably influenced Turner’s work. British Romantic painters also drew their inspiration from literature. William Shakespeare’s and John Milton’s work made a lasting impression on Henry Fuseli, who painted fantastic chiaroscuro scenes.
In France, the troubled times of the 1789 First French Revolution led to a great diversity in the Romantic art movement. Eugène Delacroix painted his “Liberty Guiding the People,” right after the July Revolution, the Second French Revolution that took place in July 1830. The historical painting was one of the main currents in French Romanticism, with strong connections with political ideas.
On top of that, the expression of feelings and passions in art characterizes French Romanticism. As Charles Baudelaire explained, Romantic artists favored inner feelings over reason. Writers François-René de Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo were the leaders of French Romantic literature.
Théodore Géricault was another key figure of French Romanticism. He painted the “Raft of the Medusa” in 1818-19, an iconic masterpiece of the movement. This large oil on canvas (490 cm x 716 cm) illustrates the wrecked frigate named Méduse, floating off the Mauritanian coasts. Left to die on their raft, some survivors practiced cannibalism. Géricault’s work revolutionized historical painting.
Notable Romantic Artists
- Caspar David Friedrich, 1774 – 1840, German
- Eugène Delacroix, 1798 – 1864, French
- William Blake, 1757 – 1827, British
- Henry Fuseli, 1741 – 1825, Swiss and British
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775 – 1851, British
- Francisco Goya, 1746 – 1828, Spanish
- Théodore Géricault, 1791 – 1824, French
- John Constable, 1776 – 1837, British
- Arts and Crafts Movement
- Nazarene Movement
- Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
- Sturm und Drang
- Gothic Fiction
- Düsseldorf School of Painting