What is Romanticism?

J.M.W. Turner, "Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm," 1836/37. Oil on canvas, 92.2 x 123 cm. Frederick T. Haskell Collection, Art Institute of Chicago. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

While the word “Romanticism” may call up visions of Cupid or declarations of eternal love, this period of art has far less to do with actual romance than it does with notions of passion, sensitivity, and imagination. First defined in literary criticism around 1800, Romanticism flourished until the mid-19th century and championed ideals such as unfettered creative expression, depth of feeling, and spiritual connection. Spurred on by a rejection of the detached rationalism of the Enlightenment and the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, Romantics viewed industrialization and cold reason as degrading to man’s transcendent, limitless capacity.

Romanticism Definition

Writers, musicians, and artists of the period faithfully elevated this perspective, rejecting what they viewed as an excessive emphasis on the cerebral and instead arguing for heightened emotion as a wellspring of aesthetic opportunity. Horror, passion, and awe, especially when experienced in the face of nature’s sublime landscape, offered an artistic antidote to the perceived disconnect from spirituality occurring as the theory of evolution took hold around the world. Artists longed for an earlier time when the pastoral, untouched grandiosity of nature and its mysteries offered a fountain of self-discovery and wonder. This nostalgia inspired the Romantics to shift the spotlight onto the individual’s imagination and his or her interpretation of the world.

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872. Sold via Christie’s for $77,000 on May 28, 1992.

Patriotism and burgeoning nationalism also became a focal point for many Romantic artists. Hoping to humanize what they perceived as detached industry, Romantics focused their attention on mankind’s unbridled potential and originality. Romanticism’s ideals diverged slightly as the movement crossed borders. During the period, inherent differences between countries resulted in renewed demands for autonomy and sovereignty. Folk customs and traditions lauded as essential to national identity were featured prominently in Romantic works.

Romantic Artists

For Romantic artists, a new emphasis on emotion marked a departure from the restraint typically found in the Neoclassical period that preceded them. Impassioned responses to nature at both its most terrifying and beautiful, along with patriotism, nationalism, and the struggle for independence became popular subjects for artists of the era.

Eugène Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People,” 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Eugène Delacroix, born Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), was a French painter hailed as the trailblazer of the French Romantic school. In true Romantic fashion, the “master of color” dazzled his admirers and confounded his critics by painting brutal subject matter that often conveys strong underlying emotions. Influenced by Renaissance masters like Peter Paul Rubens and Michelangelo, Delacroix fine-tuned his own explosive and expressive style, specifically his ability to convey complex and violent imagery, through the use of vivid color.

Turner oil painting inspired by visits to Rome

Joseph Mallord William Turner R.A., “Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino”. Sold for £29,721,250 via Sotheby’s (July 2010).

J.M.W. Turner, born Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) in London, England, was a Romantic artist preoccupied with the awesome power of nature. Often lauded as the 19th century’s greatest landscape painter, Turner’s depictions of storms, waves, and fire capture the terror and tranquility of the natural world. Known as the “painter of light,” Turner’s unique ability to combine the intensity of Romanticism and the beauty of nature solidified his place as one of history’s foremost Romantic artists.

Francisco de Goya, “The Third of May, 1808′ or ‘The Executions,'” 1814. Oil on canvas, 266 x 345 cm. Prado Museum. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Francisco Goya, born Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), was a Romantic painter and print-maker considered to be the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Self-described as a pupil of “Velázquez, Rembrandt, and nature,” Goya’s work is some of the most instantly recognizable in the world. Central to Goya’s work is the quest to explore one’s internal life and national history. One of his best-known works, titled, “Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May 1808,” typifies the Romantic style at its core. In this work, Goya takes a passionate stance against the horror of war by depicting vividly the struggle for independence.

A Romanticist landscape by Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich, “Landschaft mit Gebirgsee, Morgen (Landscape with Mountain Lake, Morning)”. Sold for £2,100,000 via Sotheby’s (December 2018).

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) was a German Romantic landscape painter. Friedrich’s solemn allegorical paintings are typical of Romanticism: contemplative and symbolic, often with the addition of a ghostly figure exuding solitude amidst the vastness of nature. Considered the most important German artist of his generation, Friedrich continued painting in the Romantic tradition even as its popularity waned.

Techniques and Processes

“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling,” wrote poet and critic Charles Baudelaire in 1846. To Baudelaire’s point, Romanticism covers a wide variety of styles and subjects, from history and mythos to Orientalism, nationalism, and nature.

Though Romanticism took root as a reaction against industrialization, utilizing modern painting supplies allowed artists to create their work more easily and with more autonomy than ever before. Labor-intensive paint-mixing processes declined as tubes of paint and artificial pigments became available. Artists could spend less time preparing their materials and gained the ability to travel outside the studio to paint and experiment with new colors.

One technique employed by many Romantic painters was the use of small, close strokes of complementary colors to create brilliance and vivid visual effect. This technique was later adopted by the Impressionists, who added their own interpretation of the method.

Unrefined outlines, unrestrained brushstrokes, and the emphasis on color over form makes the painterly style the choice of the Romantics. This style also includes visible brushstrokes, which lend themselves to an energy and immediacy to the painting which is often subdued in the smoothed areas of color found in previous periods of art.

Romanticism Today

Today, Romanticism can be found in a wide cross-section of film, television, literature, music, and art. Whether it is a focus on the eternal power of nature or an audience’s visceral reaction to a particular medium, contemporary society is ripe with Romance in the Romantic sense. In the art world, Romanticism provided a new way to interact with painting – to not only capture the depth of the human experience, but to capture this humanity with intensity of color and form.

Darren Almond's romantic Chromogenic print of a forest

Darren Almond, “Fullmoon @ Eifel 3, 2010”. Sold for £12,500
via Sotheby’s (May 2015).

Darren Almond is one such contemporary artist who employs the Romantic sensibility. His work often focuses on the effects of time “on the individual” and his Full Moons photographic series reflects the Romantic infatuation with nature at its most colossal and chilling. Secluded geographical locations depicting mountains in China or isolated North Sea canyons are photographed at long exposure times, creating haunting views of silent but extreme natural phenomena.

Similarly, Brad Durham is an artist whose tranquil landscapes carry the Romantic tradition. Describing his work as that which “searches for that singularity with intimacy and meaningfulness [and] to create a thoughtful and sensual dialogue with the viewer,” Durham’s paintings conjure an emotional exchange between artist and audience. The emphasis on art as conveyance of intimacy is particularly Romantic in its aim, and Durham’s pieces evoke the painterly style found in the period.

Did You Know?

  • John Gast painted American Progress (pictured above) as an allegory of Manifest Destiny. Other than this seminal work of American art, little is known of him.
  • The word “Romanticism” was applied first in relation to the new musical and literary schools at the beginning of the 19th century. Art was included under the moniker later.
  • Since marble does not easily lend itself to postures that one might associate with intense emotion, sculpture remained relatively untouched by the Romantic period. Few sculptors attempted Romantic sculpture and those who did found their foothold in France.
  • The founding of public museums throughout the West occurred in the Neoclassical/Romantic age, the very first being the Louvre, which opened during the reign of Napoleon.
  • Contemporary artist Vik Muniz’s magazine-cut masterpiece “Wanderer Above the Sea of Media, after Caspar David Friedrich (Pictures of Magazines 2)” recreates Friedrich’s famous 1818 Romantic painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” Muniz’s work sold for £25,000 on October 8, 2016 in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Day Auction.