Romanticism is a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual
movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Western Europe,
and gained strength during the Industrial Revolution. It was partly a revolt
against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a
reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature, and was embodied most
strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature.
The movement stressed strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience,
placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and awe-especially
that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its
picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories. It elevated folk art and
custom to something noble, and argued for a "natural" epistemology of human
activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language, custom and usage.
Our modern sense of a romantic character is sometimes based on Byronic or
Romantic ideals. Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal
models to elevate medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be
authentically medieval, in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth,
urban sprawl and industrialism, and it also attempted to embrace the exotic,
unfamiliar and distant in modes more authentic than chinoiserie, harnessing the
power of the imagination to envision and to escape.
Although the movement is rooted in German Pietism, which prized intuition and
emotion over Enlightenment rationalism, the ideologies and events of the French
Revolution laid the background from which Romanticism emerged. The confines of the
Industrial Revolution also had their influence on Romanticism, which was in part an
escape from modern realities, indeed, in the second half of the 19th century,
"Realism" was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism. Romanticism elevated
the achievements of what it perceived as misunderstood heroic individuals and
artists that altered society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a
critical authority which permitted freedom from Classical notions of form in art.
There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a zeitgeist,
in the representation of its ideas.
In a basic sense, the term "Romanticism" has been used to refer to certain
artists, poets, writers, musicians, as well as political, philosophical and social
thinkers of the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries. It has equally been used
to refer to various artistic, intellectual, and social trends of that era. Despite
this general usage of the term, a precise characterization and specific definition
of Romanticism have been the subject of debate in the fields of intellectual
history and literary history throughout the twentieth century, without any great
measure of consensus emerging. Arthur Lovejoy attempted to demonstrate the
difficulty of this problem in his seminal article "On The Discrimination of
Romanticisms" in his Essays in the History of Ideas (1948), some scholars see
romanticism as essentially continuous with the present, some see in it the
inaugural moment of modernity, some see it as the beginning of a tradition of
resistance to the Enlightenment-a Counter-Enlightenment-and still others place it
firmly in the direct aftermath of the French Revolution. An earlier definition
comes from Charles Baudelaire: "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice
of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling."
Many intellectual historians have seen Romanticism as a key movement in the
Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas the
thinkers of the Enlightenment emphasized the primacy of deductive reason,
Romanticism emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling, to a point that has led
to some Romantic thinkers being accused of irrationalism.
In visual art and literature, Romanticism found recurrent themes in the
evocation or criticism of the past, the cult of "sensibility" with its emphasis on
women and children, the heroic isolation of the artist or narrator, and respect for
a new, wilder, untrammeled and "pure" nature. Furthermore, several romantic
authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, based their writings on
the supernatural/occult and human psychology.
The Scottish poet James Macpherson influenced the early development of
Romanticism with the international success of his Ossian cycle of poems published
in 1762, inspiring both Goethe and the young Walter Scott.
An early German influence came from Johann Wolfgang Goethe whose 1774 novel The
Sorrows of Young Werther had young men throughout Europe emulating its protagonist,
a young artist with a very sensitive and passionate temperament. At that time
Germany was a multitude of small separate states, and Goethe's works would have a
seminal influence in developing a unifying sense of nationalism. Another
philosophic influence came from the German idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and
Friedrich Schelling, making Jena (where Fichte lived, as well as Schelling,Hegel,
Schiller and the brothers Schlegel) a center for early German romanticism ("Jenaer
Romantik"). Important writers were Ludwig Tieck, Novalis (Heinrich von Ofterdingen,
1799), Heinrich von Kleist and Friedrich Hoelderlin. Heidelberg later became a
center of German romanticism, where writers and poets such as Clemens Brentano,
Achim von Arnim, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff met regularly in literary
circles. Important motifs in German Romanticism are travelling, nature, and ancient
myths. The later German Romanticism of, for example, E. T. A. Hoffmann's Der
Sandmann (The Sandman), 1817, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff's Das Marmorbild
(The Marble Statue), 1819, was darker in its motifs and has gothic elements.
In predominantly Roman Catholic countries Romanticism was less pronounced than
in Germany and Britain, and tended to develop later, after the rise of Napoleon.
Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand is often called the "Father of French Romanticism".
In France, the movement is associated with the nineteenth century, particularly in
the paintings of Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix, the plays, poems and
novels of Victor Hugo (such as Les Miserables and Ninety-Three), and the novels of
In Russia, the principal exponent of Romanticism is Alexander Pushkin. Mikhail
Lermontov attempted to analyse and bring to light the deepest reasons for the
Romantic idea of metaphysical discontent with society and self, and was much
influenced by Lord Byron. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev was also an important figure of
the movement in Russia, and was heavily influenced by the German Romantics.
In the United States, romantic gothic literature made an early appearance with
Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) and Rip Van Winkle (1819),
followed from 1823 onwards by the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper,
with their emphasis on heroic simplicity and their fervent landscape descriptions
of an already-exotic mythicized frontier peopled by "noble savages", similar to the
philosophical theory of Rousseau, exemplified by Uncas, from The Last of the
Mohicans. There are picturesque "local color" elements in Washington Irving's
essays and especially his travel books. Edgar Allan Poe's tales of the macabre and
his balladic poetry were more influential in France than at home, but the romantic
American novel developed fully in Nathaniel Hawthorne's atmosphere and melodrama.
Later Transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson
still show elements of its influence and imagination, as does the romantic Realism
of Walt Whitman.
But by the 1880s, psychological and social Realism was competing with
romanticism in the novel. The poetry of Emily Dickinson-nearly unread in her own
time-and Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick can be taken as epitomes of American
Romantic literature. As in England, Germany, and France, literary Romanticism had
its counterpart in American visual arts, most especially in the exaltation of
untamed America found in the paintings of the Hudson River School. Painters like
Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church and others often combined a
sense of the sublime with underlying religious and philosophical themes. Thomas
Cole's paintings feature strong narratives as in The Voyage of Life series painted
in the early 1840s that depict man trying to survive amidst an awesome and immense
nature, from the cradle to the grave.