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 in reaction to the Industrial Revolution.
In part, it was 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, but can be detected even in changed attitudes towards children and education.
The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror 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 ancient custom to something noble, made of spontaneity a desirable character (as in the musical impromptu), and argued for a "natural" epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language and customary usage.
Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate a revived 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 Rococo chinoiserie, harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape.
The modern sense of a romantic character may be expressed in Byronic ideals of a gifted, perhaps misunderstood loner, creatively following the dictates of his inspiration rather than the mores of contemporary society. Although the movement is rooted in the German Sturm und Drang movement, which prized intuition and emotion over Enlightenment rationalism, the ideologies and events of the French Revolution laid the background from which both Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment 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 heroic individualists and artists, whose pioneering examples would elevate 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 European painting, led by a new generation of the French school, the Romantic sensibility contrasted with the neoclassicism being taught in the academies. In a revived clash between color and design, the expressiveness and mood of color, as in works of J.M.W. Turner, Francisco Goya, Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, emphasized in the new prominence of the brushstroke and impasto the artist's free handling of paint, which tended to be repressed in neoclassicism under a self-effacing finish.
As in England, Germany, Spain, and France, literary Romanticism had its counterpart in the American visual arts, most especially in the exaltation of an untamed American landscape found in the paintings of the Hudson River School. Painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church and others often expressed Romantic themes in their paintings. They sometimes depicted ancient ruins of the old world, such as in Fredric Edwin Church’s piece Sunrise in Syria. These works reflected the Gothic feelings of death and decay. They also show the Romantic ideal that Nature is powerful and will eventually overcome the transient creations of men. More often, they worked to distinguish themselves from their European counterparts by depicting uniquely American scenes and landscapes.
This idea of an American identity in the art world is reflected in W. C. Bryant’s poem, To Cole, the Painter, Departing for Europe, where Bryant encourages Cole to remember the powerful scenes that can only be found in America. This poem also shows the tight connection that existed between the literary and visual artists of the Romantic Era. Some American paintings promote the literary idea of the “noble savage” such as Albert Bierstadt’s, The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak by portraying idealized Native Americans living in harmony with the natural world.
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