Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement in the history of ideas that originated in late 18th century Western Europe. It stressed strong emotion—which now might include trepidation, awe and horror as esthetic experiences—the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom within or even from classical notions of form in art, and overturning of previous social conventions, particularly the position of the aristocracy. There was a strong element of historical and natural inevitability in its ideas, stressing the importance of "nature" in art and language. Romanticism is also noted for its elevation of the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individuals and artists. It followed the Enlightenment period and was in part inspired by a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms from the previous period, as well as seeing itself as the fulfillment of the promise of that age.

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Wanderer over the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich


In a general sense, "Romanticism" covers a group of related artistic, political, philosophical and social trends arising out of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. But a precise characterization and a specific description of Romanticism have been objects of intellectual history and literary history for all of 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;" some scholars see romanticism as completely continuous with the present, some see it as the inaugural moment of modernity, some see it as the beginning of a tradition of resistance to the Enlightenment, and still others date it firmly to the direct aftermath of the French Revolution.

Romanticism is often understood as a set of new cultural and aesthetic values. It might be taken to include the rise of individualism, as seen by the cult of the artistic genius that was a prominent feature in the Romantic worship of Shakespeare and in the poetry of Wordsworth, to take only two examples; a new emphasis on common language and the depiction of apparently everyday experiences; and experimentation with new, non-classical artistic forms.

Romanticism also strongly valued the past. Old forms were valued, ruins were sentimentalized as iconic of the action of Nature on the works of man, and mythic and legendary material which would previously have been seen as "low" culture became a common basis for works of "high" art and literature.

Origins and precursors

The term 'Romanticism' derives ultimately from the fictional romances written during the Middle Ages ("romance" being the medieval term for works in the vernacular Romance languages rather than in Latin). These each involved the episodic adventures of a single individual, though long digressive inner narratives might follow a secondary figure for a time, and they revolved around some central figure: Charlemagne, Alexander the Great and King Arthur were each central figures in such "cycles" of romances, which were notable for their use of magic and focus on personal characteristics of honor and valor, as well as a sense of lofty idealism and a "lost world". The atmosphere of accursed magic and a revived taste for the macabre amid the gloomy thrill of ruinous Gothic architecture is essential in Gothic novels of erotic horror and suspense such as Vathek and The Monk.

The revival of 'romance' in this narrower sense was preceded by a cult of Sensibility. The 'Sturm und Drang' (Storm and Stress) movement in German drama was associated with Friedrich Schiller, and the early work of Goethe, in particular his play "Goetz von Berlichingen", about a Medieval knight who resists submission to any authority beyond himself. Goethe's novel "The Sufferings of Young Werther" (1774) had huge international success. This too concerned an individual who felt a strong contradiction between his own internal world of intense feeling, and the external world that failed to correspond to it. Werther eventually commits suicide. In later works Goethe rejected Romanticism in favour of a new sense of classical harmony, integrating internal and external states.

In English, the term 'Romantick' also embodied the experience of human inadequacy and guilt, quite separate from traditional Christian gounding; such a sense of struggle, vision and ever-present dark forces seemed most appropriate in settings of Medieval culture. In Germany and France, Herder praised the theater of Shakespeare offered new models for a drama that did not adhere to classical Aristotelian conventions. Prosaic translations by Le Tourneur, Wieland, and Eschenburg made Shakespeare available, but a new fire appeared in the intensely recreated translations by A. W. Schlegel (published 1797 – 1801), [1] (, which made Shakespeare famous throughout German-speaking culture and promoted his plays as the epitome of the Romantic sensibility. Many Romantic dramatists, like Schiller sought to imitate Shakespeare even when their material was independent of him and to reject Classical models for drama.

While these precursors partly explain the Romantic fascination with the Middle Ages, the pleasures of stressful emotions, and the thrill derived from wilfulness, the actual expression of the Romantic movement itself corresponded to the sense of rapid, dynamic social change that culminated in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. However, Romantic literature in Germany preceded these crucial historical events.


Main article: Romantic music.

In general the term Romanticism when applied to music means the period roughly from the 1820's until 1910. This usage was not contemporary, in 1810 ETA Hoffman called Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven the three "Romantic Composers", and Ludwig Spohr used the term "good Romantic style" to apply to parts of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. However, by the early 20th century, the sense that there had been a decisive break with the musical past lead to the establishment of the 19th century as "The Romantic Era", and as such it is referred to in the standard encyclopedias of music.

Another aspect of literary Romanticism entering the musical vocabulary early was in the area of German opera. The German-speaking world's main center for opera at the time was Vienna, and opera in Vienna was dominated by Italian opera, and heroic or pastoral texts in the tradition of Baroque drama. A young Goethe began writing opera texts in German, which were called Singspiels. The characters and situations were distinct, as were elements of the ideology, which incorporated the egalitarianism and personal spiritual qualities found in late Enlightenment figures such as Immanuel Kant and Voltaire.

Romanticism in music

The movement, Romanticism, however, began having an impact on music well before this point in time, beginning with the introduction of elements of dance and song from outside of the court culture then dominant in the patronage of the arts. While often termed folk music, it is not necessarily clear that this term applies. What was happening was the growth of a middle class, which was fusing elements from the agrarian culture, including dances and stories, with their own sensibilities.

Romanticism, by having a unique reverence for what was old as being separate from the present, had strains which both revelled in form, and which rebelled against strictures not seen as "essential". It would, however, be with the French Revolution and the rise of the use of stark orchestral effects, dramatic changes in dynamic and powerful tutti sections were the beginning of using the unexpected in music to its most forceful effect.

These influences would come together, particularly in Vienna and London during the Napoleanic Wars, to produce a style which was more rooted in formal layout of the structure of a movement of music rather than in imitative counterpoint, which had been the basics of composition practice up until that point in time. The resulting pressures had swelled the length of pieces, introduced programatic titles, and created the free standing overture as a genre, which would later become central to musical Romanticism.

Another trait which marks the dividing line between Romanticism in music and its past, is the abandonment of the idea that music is primarily decorative and pleasing - a subsidiary art form.

In opera a new Romantic atmosphere combining supernatural terror and melodramatic plot in a folkloric context came together first in Weber's Der Freischütz (1817, 1821). Enriched timbre and color marked the early orchestration of Hector Berlioz in France, while the demand for freer forms led to Franz Liszt's tone poems, and rhapsodies, both essentially Romantic forms. The German musical tradition of the 19th Century that is typically labelled 'Romantic' would also include the work of Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. Liszt and Wagner each embodied the Romantic cult of the free, inspired, charismatic, perhaps ruthlessly unconventional individual "artistic" personality.

The combination of atmosphere, a desire to establish a tension between past and present, new material, extended ambition for works of music, changed audience and political climate are all aspects of how Romanticism would become a decisive influence on the development of concert music in the 19th century.

Under the influence of Romantic nationalism, composers were among the most vocal proponents of national unity and progress in society. These ideals were exemplified in Beethoven's republicanism, through to the nationalism of Schumann and Verdi, and to the political sensibilities of Berlioz as he expressed them in his music. For these composers the nation was a worthy theme of music, in a way which is was not visible in the previous era. Composers sought to produce a "school" of music for their own nations, in parallel with the establishment of national literature. Many composers would take inspiration from the poetic nationalism present in their homeland - beginning with Germany, but continuing forward through into the 20th century with composers such as Jean Sibelius. This was rooted in the Romantic argument that each "nation" had a unique individual quality that would be expressed in laws, customs, language, logic and, from their point of view of course, decorative and fine art.

Labels like 'Late Romantic' and 'Post-Romantic' link disparate composers of various nationalities, such as Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Samuel Barber and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of whom lived into the middle of the 20th century. See Romantic period in music. The conscious 'Modernisms' of the 20th century all found roots in reactions to Romanticism, increasingly seen as not harsh and realistic enough, even not brutal enough, for a new technological age. Yet Bartók began by collecting Hungarian folk music, Stravinsky with lush ballets for Diaghilev and Arnold Schoenberg's later spare style had its roots in rich freely chromatic atonal music evolving from his late Romantic style works, for example the giant polychromatic orchestration of Gurrelieder.

Art and literature

In art and literature, 'Romanticism' typically refers to the late 18th century and the 19th Century.

The British 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 von 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 nationalism.

Romanticism in British literature developed in a different form slightly later, mostly associated with the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose book "Lyrical Ballads" (1798) sought to reject Augustan poetry in favour of more direct speech derived from folk traditions. Both poets were also involved in Utopian social thought in the wake of the French Revolution. The poet and painter William Blake is the most extreme example of the Romantic sensibility in Britain, epitomised by his claim 'I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's'. Blake's artistic work is also strongly influenced by Medieval illuminated books. The painters J. M. W. Turner and John Constable are also generally associated with Romanticism. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Keats constitute another phase of Romanticism in Britain. The historian Thomas Carlyle and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood represent the last phase of transformation into Victorian culture. William Butler Yeats, born in 1865, referred to his generation as "the last romantics."

In Roman Catholic countries, Romanticism was less pronounced than in Protestant Germany and Britain, and tended to develop later, after the rise of Napoleon. In France, Romanticism is associated with the 19th century, particularly in the paintings of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, the plays of Victor Hugo and the novels of Stendhal. The composer Hector Berlioz is also important.

In Russia, the principal exponent of Romanticism is Alexander Pushkin; though Russian composers are also given the label. Pushkin's Shakespearean drama 'Boris Godunov' (1825) was set to music by Modest Mussorgsky.

Romanticism played an essential role in the national awakening of many Central European peoples lacking their own national states, particularly in Poland, which had recently lost its independence. Revival of ancient myths, customs and traditions by Romanticist poets and painters helped to distinguish their indigenous cultures from those of the dominant nations (Russians, Germans, Austrians, Turks, etc.). Patriotism, revolution and armed struggle for independence also became popular themes in the arts of this period. Arguably, the most distinguished Romanticist poet of this part of Europe was Adam Mickiewicz, who developed an idea that Poland was the Messiah of Nations, predestined to suffer just as Jesus had suffered to save all the people.

In the United States, the romantic gothic makes an early appearance with Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1819), followed from 1823 onwards by the fresh 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" like Uncas, "The Last of the Mohicans." There are picturesque elements in Washington Irving's essays and 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 is fully developed 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, as does the romantic realism of Walt Whitman. But by the 1880s, psychological and social realism was competing with romanticism. The poetry which Americans wrote and read was all romantic until the 1920s: Poe and Hawthorne, as well as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poetry of Emily Dickinson – nearly unread in her own time – and Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick can be taken as the great epitomes of American Romantic literature, or as successors to it.


Main article: Romantic nationalism.

One of Romanticism's key ideas and most enduring legacies is the assertion of nationalism, which became a central theme of Romantic art and political philosophy. From the earliest parts of the movement, with their focus on development of national languages and folklore, and the importance of local customs and traditions, to the movements which would redraw the map of Europe and lead to calls for "self-determination" of nationalities, nationalism was one of the key vehicles of Romanticism, its role, expression and meaning.

Early Romantic nationalism was strongly inspired by Rousseau, and by the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that the geography formed the natural economy of a people, and shaped their customs and society.

The nature of nationalism changed dramatically, however, after the French Revolution, with the rise of Napoleon, and the reactions in other nations. Napoleonic nationalism and republicanism were, at first, inspirational to movements in other nations: self-determination and a "consciousness" of national unity were held to be two of the reasons why France was able to defeat other countries in battle. But as the French Republic became Napoleon's Empire, Napoleon became not the inspiration for nationalism, but the object of it. In Prussia, the development of spiritual renewal as a means to engage in the struggle against Napoleon was argued by, among others, Johann Gottlieb Fichte a disciple of Kant. The word Volkstum, or nationality, was coined in German as part of this resistence to the now conquering emperor. Fichte expressed the unity of language and nation in his address "To the German Nation" in 1806:

Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. ...Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality—then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be.

National Romanticisms

American Romanticism

British Romanticism

Czech Romanticism

Estonian Romanticism

French Romanticism

Romanticism in the German-speaking world

Norwegian Romanticism

Polish Romanticism

Russian Romanticism

Spanish Romanticism

Spanish Romaniticism emerged in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, and reached its apex in the 1840s. Much of Spanish Romanticism serves as criticism of contemporary Spanish society, as seen directly in the articulos de costumbre (essays on customs/daily life) by Larra. Important literary works in Spanish Romanticism include Larra's essays (each article published separately until 1836), Don Juan Tenorio by Zorrilla (1844), El Estudiante de Salamanca (1840) and Poesias (1840) by Espronceda, and Rimas y Leyendas by Becquer (1871).

Other countries

See also

Terms sometimes taken as related

Terms sometimes taken as opposed

External Links

Further reading

  • Meyer H. Abrams, 1971. The Mirror and the Lamp : Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford University press)
  • Walter Friedlaender, 1952. David to Delacroix, (Originally published in German; reprinted 1980)
  • Fritz Novotny, 1971. Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780-1880, (2nd edition; reissued 1980)
  • Marcel Brion, 1966. Art of the Romantic Era: Romanticism, Classicism, Realism (Originally published in French)

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