Romanticism: The Romantic Age

Art | Literature | Music | Philosophy | Movement

Romanticism was a movement in literature, art, and music that emphasized feeling over thought. In many ways it was a reaction to The Enlightenment, or at least it was a reaction against the philosophic notion that human actions were guided by the inexorable forces of economics, sociology, and physics.

Romanticism as a movement was characterized by a longing for the Medieval chivalric age, nationalism, and a feeling for nature.

The Romantic period is thought to have begun as early as 1770, but probably was not in full swing until the end of the French Revolution. The first great literary work of the movement was Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poetry by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published in 1799.

Romantic Art

Jacques Louis David bridges the end of the classical period and the beginning of the Romantic. Most of his paintings have a classical background, and exude a sharp eye for detail. Yet his themes evoke strong feelings of patriotism. His subjects are made bigger than life, not men, but demi-gods. Although it is highly detailed, his portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps cannot possibly be construed as realistic. The painting is really about feeling and patriotism. Every facet catches the spirit of the Napoleonic ethos. Napoleon forces his way through all barriers (both natural and human) to get to Italy and achieve victory for France and republicanism. It was not a huge step from here for later artists to impersonalize the human, to deify nature, and mystify the relationship between the two.

In landscape art, Romantics picked subjects that elevated nature, often dwarfing the human in comparison. Sometimes Romantic art depicted sentimental and heroic figures. These seemed small in relation to the forces of nature. Yet humanity remained a focal point of their work. Nature is portrayed as vague, powerful, and barely restrained. Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea and Fog (1815) shows a solitary gentleman looking out over a seascape with breakers smashing against the shore. The figure seems to contemplate the elements with stoic determination mixed with admiration and awe. The wanderer is focused on nature, even while all of nature seems focused upon him.

Romantics often mixed in elements of nationalism especially artists such as Goya and Delacroix. The themes of romanticism are seldom what we would think of today as "romantic". They are not about love, but are about an intensity of feeling, an accentuation of mood, a wonder at the world and creation. Many art historians consider the Impressionist Movement to be the successor to Romanticism. Joseph Turner is seen as a kind of transition artist that spanned both movements.

Romantic Literature

Romantic literature is dominated by poetry. The triumvirate of Keats, Shelley, and Byron are still well-known. The poetry of Keats is sentimental, that of Shelley intense, and Byron displays a mastery of sardonic wit. A good example of Keats is La Belle Dame Sans Merci (the beautiful woman without mercy). It is about a fairy-like figure that induces noble men to fall in love with her. They pine away for her. It is more image than plot, more vision than story. It invokes a mood of mystery and forlorn sadness for a man who is consumed by a woman who is a force of nature. In fact, many stories of this period feature a femme fatale.



Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein was the wife of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The themes in her book are very Romantic: Gothic, an aversion for science, surrounded by the powerful forces of nature.


Literature of this period is thought by some historians to be an outgrowth of the French Revolution. Although the Revolution had been rejected as a political failure, its ideals lived on in arts and letters. On the other hand, although some of the poets of this period had been enthused by the Revolution in its infancy, they were horrified by the violence it spawned. It could be argued that the promise of the revolution lay in the scientific application of enlightenment ideas to government. Their failure spawned a reaction that rejected science for a time and elevated emotion and feeling. Poems such as Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Marinere show a respect for nature and a loathing of things of human invention.

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Sir Walter Scot wrote the novel Ivanhoe, which like so many other works of the period has a Medieval theme. It borrowed freely from Robin Hood in both plot and character. He also wrote a history of Scotland which proved quite popular. It was in prose where the French would shine, with authors such as Victor Hugo (Les Miserables). Dumas authored The Three Musketeers a work that combined many elements of the Romantic Movement. It had a nationalist theme, a bewitching evil woman, a yearning for a chivalric age, and a disdain for the modern.

Romanticism in Music

The composers, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner were all from the romantic period. Their work maintained much of the structure of the music from the classical period, in fact, their music is referred to as classical today. However, they did work to expand the forms and to individualize the classical structures. Their choice of subjects, especially in opera tended toward the medieval and Gothic and away from the ancients of Greece and Rome.

This was a time when musical instruments came to the form that we know them today. Thus, much of the orchestral and chamber music that was popular then is accessible to us. Because the instruments became more flexible, and there was a degree of freedom in composition, composers were able to express themselves more fully. Like art and literature the idea was to evoke moods or inspire feelings (of nationalism, or love, or awe).

Romanticism and Philosophy

Two philosophers stand out in this period, Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel. Kant, in his book – Critique of Pure Reason - rejected the enlightenment idea first broached by John Locke that the mind was a blank slate, upon which experience writes. He believed that the mind was, in fact, structured in a way that affected the way it processed experiences. This brought back innate knowledge and understanding to the concept of the human mind, liberating man from the tyranny of his education, allowing him scope, making him greater than the sum of his learning.

Sketch of Friedrich Hegel

Hegel had a huge effect on the discipline of history. He conceived of all ideas as being the blending of theories that came before. He said that any idea is merely an hypothesis. We counter it with an antithesis. The blending of thesis and antithesis is called a synthesis, which merely becomes the new hypothesis, to again be challenged by an antithesis. Karl Marx would rely heavily on Hegel to develop communism. This Hegelian notion called the dialectic in a way rejected definitive knowledge gained through scientific experimentation.

Romanticism as a Cohesive Movement

There is little doubt the great masters of the Romantic period influenced each other and the mood of the age crossed disciplines. It is easy to compare the 1990s and 2000s with the Romantic Period. The Medieval themes and the obsession with nature are echoed in this age. Then, as in the information age, it was the sudden advancement of industry and technology that spawned a yearning for a more simple time. Although it continued to advance, science was out, fantasy was “in”. The cultural advancements, the new forms in poetry, the new musical instruments, and the elevated lifestyles accentuated the themes of emotion, love, and nature. Ironically it was the technological advancement of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions that gave people the time and the luxury of pining for the past. Certainly, many still scratched for a living, but the masses could partake of culture if they wished. They enjoyed the maudlin and sentimental and elevated the authors, artists, and composers who would give it to them. As much as the romanticists wanted to hold back progress, as much as they elevated nature and decried industry, they could not resist the flow of history. The world would move on with or without them.

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Destinations:

The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe

Romanticism

Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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