Romanticism
(An artistic movement)

Dates: 1790-1850

This movement contains other movements: Nazarene

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Western artistic movement flourishing during the first half of the 19th century, in painting, music, literature, and poetry.

1. Nationalism

Romanticism was born in Britain and Germany, after its conquest by French armies and the humiliation of the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807, which dismembered Prussia. As a reaction against their occupation, the Germans rejected all the French thought issued from the Enlightenments, conveying the ideas of rationalism, irreligion, and scientific progress, and instead idealised the glorious times of Germany in the Middle Ages - a period despised by the French as archaic.

The Nazarenes: Madonna with Child by Carolsfeld (left), The Introduction of the Arts in Germany through Religion by Veit (centre-left), The Three Mary at the Tomb by Cornelius (centre right), Holy Dorothea by Ittenbach (right)

German nationalism therefore relied on Gothic imagery and a strong Christian faith, notably by a group called the Nazarenes (with Veit, Carolsfeld, Ittenbach, von Cornelius, etc.) who were active in Rome during the first half of the century. They played an important role in the Christian revival in Europe by painting Biblical scenes in an archaic style, thus rejecting the Greco-Roman mythology glorified in France at the same time with Neoclassicism. After the fall of Napoleon, all the West embraced Romanticism.

Visually, Romantic painters also fought against the classical rules, and many styles cohabited. The movement is therefore impossible to describe; its only consistency can be found in the themes chosen. Continuing the interest of the Nazarenes in Gothic times, romantics of all countries looked back at their national history to find inspiration. As Eric Hobsbawm later said, each people "invented" its national traditions and history; scholars wrote the first histories of their nation, from which poets drew lyrical pieces and painters illustrated the most famous events and anecdotes. In France, this national history paintings was the hallmark of the Troubadours group (lead by Fragonard the Younger and Fleury-Richard), whose name referred to their focus on the Middle Ages.

The French Troubadours: Valentine of Milan Mourning her Husband by Fleury-Richard (left), Henri II and Diane de Poitiers in the Studio of Jean Goujon by Fragonard (centre), The Battle of Poitiers, 732, by Steuben.

The Romantics also tried to personify their abstract nation into allegories with distinctive attributes - like ancient gods before. The most famous of these, The Liberty Guiding the People made by Delacroix after the Revolution of 1830, became an iconic work and has embodied France since. In 1848, the first government of the French Second Republic even set a national contest to find the best allegoric representation of the Republic.

National allegories: The Liberty Guiding the People by Delacroix (left), Germania and Italia by Overbeck (centre), Germania by Veit (right)

Current historical events also received attention from the Romantics, who made frequent propaganda artworks in favour of nationalist movements at home and abroad. Goya opened the way with his world-famous diptych on the Spanish insurrection of the 2 and 3 May 1808 against Napoleon, showing both the uprising and its bloody repression. During the 1820s, Romantic produced several propaganda pieces depicting the Greek Independence war, in order to push for an intervention against the Ottoman Empire in the name of Christian solidarity.

National uprisings: The 2nd and 3rd May 1808 by Goya (left), Scene of the Belgian Revolution of 1830 by Wappers (centre right), Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi by Delacroix (right)

The Springtime of the Peoples in 1848 was at the same time the climax of Romanticism and its end. At first, all the national uprisings appeared as the accomplishment of the national constructions of the previous decades, but their crushing by reactionary forces put an end to the dream. After this failure, official art moved towards a more conservative movement called Academism, except in the UK, where the Preraphaelites retained most of the romantic ideal.

2. Melancholy

Nevertheless, the tragic end of the National uprisings precisely matched the discourse of Romanticism, which was a very pessimistic movement. The Philosophers of the Enlightenments believed in an unstoppable progress improving mankind since the obscurity of the Middle Ages. Seen as wild and primitive, Nature had to be tamed by a rational civilisation, freed from superstition, and expanding through new industrial technologies. Illustrating this optimistic belief, neoclassical scenes frequently took place in geometrical marble palaces of Ancient Rome - at the time considered as the ideal civilisation. As a result, landscape painting nearly disappeared of continental Europe in the final decades of the 18th.

Romanticism had on the contrary an extremely important landscape output. Nature was indeed celebrated because the Romantics believed that Man had been perverted by civilisation, and idealised instead the pastoral times (the theory of the "Noble savage"). This idea was perfectly summarised by the American Thomas Cole: exalted by his discovery of untouched nature in the American West, he made a famous series showing the rise and fall of a classical civilisation. The third picture of the Course of Empire represents the ideal city of the Neoclassicists, but Cole painted what was before (the peaceful savage nature), and what happened after - war destroying civilisation. In the last painting, Nature is shown taking back her rights on the remnants of mankind.

Thomas Cole's Course of Empire: The Savage State, the Pastoral State, Consummation, Destruction, Desolation.

This struggle between nature and civilisation was a recurrent theme in Cole's oeuvre, who painted many landscapes with ancient ruins to show how ephemera human societies were. The Romantics in general had a fascination for ruins, but contrary to the vedutisti of the previous century - who had already made many views of wrecked buildings -, they added either dark clouds in a threatening sky, or a mighty Sun, for their dramatic effect (both could also represent the superiority of God over Man's creations).

Ancient ruins: The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire by Turner (left), Gothic Ruins by Cole (centre), Hadleigh Castle by Constable (right)

Going farther then just painting ruins of ancient civilisations, some romantics tried to depict the precise moment of their destruction, often by God himself, whose wrath against men is shown smashing classical palaces, with tiny and hopeless characters in the foreground. These very impressive apocalyptic landscapes were a hallmark of several British painters led by John Martin and followed by Danby, Colman, and also Turner.

Apocalypse (from left to right): The End of the World by Martin, The Edge of Doom by Colman, The Evening of the Deluge by Turner, The Deluge by Danby.

Destruction in general was a privileged theme of the period and several scenes of fires, shipwrecks, explosions, etc. became the most iconic works of Romanticism.

Destruction: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by Turner (left), The Last Day of Pompeii by Brulloff.

More serene nature

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon

Man in awe before Nature: Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, and Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon by Friedrich, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Ground by Constable

After Romanticism, landscape art lost its supernatural elements to concentrate solely on nature, hence the name of Realism, which was represented by the Barbizon School in France (notably inspired by Constable) and the Hudson River School in the USA.

3. Passions

Poetry

Impossible love

Tragedy and heroism

 

Madness and hubris

People associated with this movement
Leonardo Alenza y NietoSpanish, 1807-18455 artworks
Peder BalkeNorwegian, 1804-188755 artworks
William BlakeEnglish, 1757-182788 artworks
Merry-Joseph BlondelFrench, 1781-185318 artworks
Antoine-Felix Boisselier the YoungerFrench, 1790-18574 artworks
Richard Parkes BoningtonEnglish, 1801-182891 artworks
Karl Pavlovich BrulloffRussian, 1799-1852124 artworks
Léopold BurtheFrench, 1823-18602 artworks
Ágost Elek CanziHungarian, 1808-18665 artworks
Carl Gustav CarusGerman, 1789-18696 artworks
Franz Ludwig CatelGerman, 1778-185617 artworks
Nicolas-Toussaint CharletFrench, 1792-18458 artworks
Théodore ChassériauFrench, 1819-185661 artworks
Léon CognietFrench, 1794-18805 artworks
Thomas ColeEnglish, 1801-1848132 artworks
Samuel Colman1780-184518 artworks
John ConstableEnglish, 1776-1837236 artworks
Peter von CorneliusGerman, 1783-18678 artworks
John Sell CotmanEnglish, 1782-184269 artworks
Johan Christian (J.C.C.) DahlNorwegian, 1788-185796 artworks
Francis DanbyIrish, 1793-1861126 artworks
Alfred DedreuxFrench, 1810-18606 artworks
Eugène DelacroixFrench, 1798-1863184 artworks
William Edward Dighton1822-18538 artworks
Louise-Adéone DröllingFrench, 1797-18314 artworks
William DyceScottish, 1806-186472 artworks
Marie EllenriederGerman, 1791-186316 artworks
Alexandre-Evariste FragonardFrench, 1780-185013 artworks
Caspar David FriedrichGerman, 1774-184082 artworks
Joseph von FührichCzech, 1800-18764 artworks
Henry FuseliSwiss, 1741-1825106 artworks
Thèodore GèricaultFrench, 1791-182488 artworks
Francisco Jose de Goya y LucientesSpanish, 1746-1828213 artworks
Francesco Paolo HayezItalian, 1791-188179 artworks
Theodor von Holst1810-18442 artworks
Franz IttenbachGerman, 1813-18799 artworks
Louis JanmotFrench, 1814-189224 artworks
Georg Friedrich KerstingGerman, 1785-184730 artworks
Orest KiprenskyRussian, 1778-183638 artworks
Christen KøbkeDanish, 1810-184893 artworks
Joseph KochAustrian, 1768-18397 artworks
Sir Thomas LawrenceEnglish, 1769-1830127 artworks
Carl Friedrich LessingGerman, 1808-188012 artworks
John MartinEnglish, 1789-185436 artworks
Johann Friedrich OverbeckGerman, 1789-186914 artworks
Ernest Fritz PetzholdtDanish, 1805-18387 artworks
Franz PforrGerman, 1788-18125 artworks
Alfred RethelGerman, 1816-18597 artworks
Francois Fleury RichardFrench, 1777-18523 artworks
Ludwig RichterGerman, 1803-188449 artworks
August RiedelGerman, 1799-188311 artworks
Philipp Otto RungeGerman, 1777-18105 artworks
Friedrich Wilhelm SchadowGerman, 1788-18623 artworks
Ary SchefferFrench, 1795-185827 artworks
Julius Schnorr von CarolsfeldGerman, 1794-187223 artworks
Ludwig Schnorr von CarolsfeldGerman, 1788-18532 artworks
Moritz von SchwindAustrian, 1804-18712 artworks
Karl Ferdinand SohnGerman, 1805-18675 artworks
Carl SpitzwegGerman, 1808-188537 artworks
Baron Charles SteubenFrench, 1788-18564 artworks
Hermann Anton StilkeGerman, 1803-18603 artworks
Adolph TidemandNorwegian, 1814-18766 artworks
Joseph Mallord William TurnerEnglish, 1775-1851838 artworks
Philipp VeitGerman, 1793-18779 artworks
Horace VernetFrench, 1789-186373 artworks
Baron Egide Charles Gustave WappersBelgian, 1803-18742 artworks
Antoine WiertzBelgian, 1806-18655 artworks
Important dates
Founding date:  1790

End date:  1850