If you like European art, you have probably heard the term “romanticism”. And if you are anything like I was as a kid, you may think that it refers to spending excessive amounts of time dreaming of Prince Charming. (It doesn’t.) But even if you did not think this, you probably wonder what it means.
What is Romanticism?
Romanticism was a term used to describe certain works of visual art, architecture, literature, and music made in Europe from the late-18th century through the mid-19th century. According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms, “Romanticism was more an attitude of mind than a set of particular traits” (215).
Romanticism is about feeling and expressing emotion. It might seem obvious today that art should be expressive, but this wasn’t always the case. Neo-Classicism, the style that preceded Romanticism, was very restrained. Neo-Classical art and architecture were supposed to be calm, orderly, and rational. There was no room for emotion. In general, this was an effect of the Enlightenment, which brought wonderful developments in science, medicine, and other important fields, but put the damper on being imaginative and expressive. Romanticism was a direct reaction to this. If you’ve been reading my art guides for long enough, you should realize by now that pretty much every development in art history was a reaction to an earlier, opposite development. People get a good idea, but them they take it too far. There’s eventually a countermovement that corrects and then goes way too far itself. It’s an endless cycle.
Since Romanticism wasn’t at all a cohesive style, a list of traits to recognize it by wouldn’t be very useful. Instead, I’ll talk about some of the general themes and stylistic attributes that appeared in Romantic art. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t expect to find all of them in the same work. In fact, some Romantic works will directly contradict some of the tendencies listed below.
- Nature – specifically fearsome weather, natural disasters and awesome physical features like mountains. The Romantics had a word for the feelings of awe that one gets before incredible natural phenomena – the “sublime”.
- Violence – perpetrated by humans, animals, and nature. Gruesome death scenes are common. Unfortunately, the Romantics’ time period wasn’t a peaceful one. Lots of horrible things were happening throughout Europe, including massacres in Spain and Greece. The Romantics often painted scenes of these atrocities to raise awareness of the horrors going on around them. (Horror is definitely a strong emotion.) When these subjects got old, Romantic painters looked to history and fiction for disturbing scenes.
- Orientalism – Romantic painters loved to paint far-off and different lands. Near Eastern countries like Egypt, with their exotic-seeming (to Europeans) customs, dress, and architecture were a treasure trove to Romantic artists. The harems believed to be kept there were a big source of fascination for these male artists, too. However, most Romantic painters never actually visited the Near East, so their works were basically figments of their own imaginations. The word Orientalism, used to describe this genre of art, comes from the French word “orient”, meaning east.
- Superstition – The Enlightenment favored knowledge and reason over superstition, so the Romantics were quick to embrace the latter. The Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya painted scenes of witches, for example, while Henri Fuseli was famous for his representations of nightmares. Beyond just mythology, though, Fuseli’s paintings (and many other Romantic works) attempted to express aspects of human psychology, including sexuality. It isn’t a coincidence that the field of psychological study was beginning at this time.
- Ruins – The Romantics loved to make people think about concepts like death, decay, and the passage of time – all topics that inspire strong emotions. Ancient and medieval ruins were some of their favorite subjects to paint, since they evoked these ideas so perfectly. We sometimes call these ruins and other unusual features in landscape paintings “picturesque”, which means that they add “variety, curious details” etc. to a scene. (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms 191).
- Rich, expressive colors – The Romantics often used deep, full colors to express deep, full emotions.
- Looser brushwork – Neo-Classicism was all about precise depictions of the real world. (Of course, it didn’t show the world exactly as it really was, but that’s a subject for another post.) The goal was to made things very mimetic, so artists placed a lot of emphasis on skillful and detailed drawing. Breaking free of these values, the Romantics didn’t. Though most of these artists were very skilled draughtsmen (masters of drawing), they were very happy to place these skills second to an expressive use of paint.
- Idealized – In this way, the Romantics weren’t as different from their predecessors as they liked to think. Just like the Neo-Classicists, they altered their subjects to fit their own ideals. As I mentioned before, popular Orientalizing paintings are not the least bit faithful to what the Near East actually looked like. For one thing, all of the harem girls (called odalisques) are clearly based on white European models. Definitely not authentic. Simply put, Romanticism prized beauty over realism.
- Drama – The Romantics loved drama, and they put it everywhere and anywhere in their art, by any possible means.
Romanticism wasn’t nearly as much of a game changer in sculpture as it was in painting. You won’t see such major stylistic differences between Neo-Classical and Romantic sculpture. Instead, look for increased expressiveness and Romantic themes in nineteenth-century European marble and bronze sculpture.
In architecture, this Romantic period was when revival architecture became popular. Part of the Romantic movement was looking to the past for traditions other than the old standbys, classical Greece and Rome. That’s why Gothic, Romanesque, Tudor, Egyptian, Islamic, and other revivals took off at this time. Some Romantic architecture is hybrid, too. Called “eclecticism”, this style involved piecing together interesting aspects of different historical, foreign, and invented movements. And the interior details and decorative arts were typically as imaginative and eclectic as the exterior architecture.
Much like the Romantic painters’ imagined scenes of the East, revival architecture often strayed pretty far from the real historical styles it was based on. I like to joke that Gothic Revival is more Gothic than Gothic, because people liked to put Gothic-inspired details in places you would never find them in authentic medieval architecture. The Strawberry Hill House and Brighton Royal Pavilion, both in England, are examples of Romantic architecture. Olana in Hudson New York is an example of an eclectic building in the United States, while Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York is an example of Gothic Revival.
Some Romantic Artists
- Joseph Mallord William Turner (English)
- John Constable (English)
- Caspar David Friedrich (German)
- Eugene Delacroix (French)
- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (French)
- Theodore Gericault (French)
- Francisco Goya (Spanish)
- Johann Heinrich Fuseli (Swiss)
- Clarke, Michael & Deborah Clarke. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010 (2nd ed.).
- Galitz, Kathryn Calley. “Romanticism” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. (October 2004).
- Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. “A beginner’s guide to Romanticism” in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed April 23, 2018.
- “Romanticism Movement Overview and Analysis“. [Internet]. 2018. TheArtStory.org Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle. Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors. [Accessed 24 Apr 2018].