Romantic Art

Romanticism  was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850.

Knude Baade, Scene from the Era of Norwegian Sagas, 1850

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Romanticism was an attitude or intellectual orientation that characterized many works of literature, painting, music, architecture, criticism, and historiography in Western civilization over a period from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular.

Where the Romantic movement appeared?

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the sea, 1822

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The Romanic movement originated in Germany, then it spread to England, France and the rest of Europe. Across the Atlantic, America had its own version of Romanticism, the Hudson River School, which was the first truly American school of art. The mid-1600s ushered in the Age of Enlightenment (or “Age of Reason”), which was a period that glorified rational thinking, secularism and scientific progress. However, at the turn of the 19th century, not everyone believed that science and reason could possibly explain everything. Their reaction against the ongoing industrialization became a comprehensive movement – Romanticism. They looked beyond reason, and sought inspiration in intuition and imagination. Being emotionally engaged was the ultimate aim of their artwork.

Return to nature

George Stubbs, A lion attacking an horse, 1762

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While the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694 – 1778) preached progress and rationality, his bitter rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), a forerunner of the Romantic movement, advocated a “return to nature.”Despite the ongoing urbanization, Romantic art depicted villages rather than expanding cities. While large numbers left rural areas and settled in the city, the Romantics longed for life in the country. Rather than machines and factories, they put rural landscapes on display. That signaled a comeback for landscape paintings which were very popular during the Baroque period. However, nature does not only provide a setting for the painting, but also its main subject matter, so much so that people are not present or minuscule in comparison to the setting. It’s not unusual to see only one or two small figures against an overwhelming rural background.

Plein air painting

David Cox, Boy fishing, 1850

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In many countries, Romantic painters turned their attention to nature and plein air painting, or painting out of doors. Works based on close observation of the landscape as well as the sky and atmosphere elevated landscape painting to a new, more respectful level. While some artists emphasized humans at one with and a part of nature, others portrayed nature’s power and unpredictability, evoking a feeling of the sublime – awe mixed with terror – in the viewer.
Romanticism was closely bound up with the emergence of newly found nationalism that swept many countries after the American Revolution. Emphasizing local folklore, traditions, and landscapes, Romanticists provided the visual imagery that further spurred national identity and pride. Romantic painters combined the ideal with the particular, imbuing their paintings with a call to spiritual renewal that would usher in an age of freedom and liberties not yet seen.

Romanticism seen as gothic

To borrow a word from contemporary culture, Romantic art was “gothic.” It was dark, macabre and grotesque.

William Turner, The shipwreck, 1805

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They had long admired the grandeur of the Greek and Roman cultures. Nonetheless, the Romantic artists viewed that pre-Renaissance era with admiration: they believed the educated generations that followed couldn’t produce a culture that matches that of the uncultivated, common people of the Middle Ages. Until that moment in the history of Western art, most artwork was created with beauty at its heart. Fine art had been taught as a discipline. Romantic art, on the other hand, was there to fascinate and horrify. Some of the their paintings were the most horrific to be seen in the West at the time, for example Saturn Devours His Children by Francisco de Goya.

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