| John Spacey, September 05, 2020 updated on April 24, 2023
Romanticism is a style and movement of art that rose from the period 1780-1830 that is characterized by its imaginative and dramatic depictions of bleak or tense emotional scenes. The following are the basic characteristics of Romantic art.
Wild LandscapesRomanticism began with a group of British artists who began to take brave steps with landscapes depicting increasingly wilder landscapes and storms. They began painting large landscapes where landscapes were traditionally viewed as a low form of art relegated to small canvases. British painters such as Thomas Jones began to include figures in landscapes with bleak depictions of desperation.
IndividualismRomanticism allows the artist to create works from their imagination where each work is valued for its personal voice and expression. It respects the genius of the artist and grants the artist unlimited freedom. Likewise, Romanticism is known for its themes of individualism, adventure and freedom from society.
OriginalityIt may seem obvious to our modern culture that original works are most valuable. However, at the time that Romanticism emerged high art was viewed as art that was closest to the classics and the standards of institutions. The idea of original art that challenges conventions originates with Romanticism. This would take hold in much more dramatic ways in the 19th century with the avant garde art of Impressionism.
DramaAs the name suggests, Romanticism embraces romanticized themes that are highly dramatic. This includes elements of myth, folklore and unrealistic depictions of historical events, nature and the supernatural.
Emotion & IntuitionRomantic artists expressed their emotions and used their intuition. Content that is designed to provoke emotions is also common.(Eugene Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery)
NatureWhere the art of the Enlightenment was decidedly social, Romanticism distrusts the world of humans and shifts to natural settings. It was common for painters to work in natural places as a source of inspiration but to paint mythical and imaginary natural scenes. Seascapes are unusually common in Romantic works.
Age of EnlightenmentRomanticism can be viewed as a reaction against the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment and the bleak mechanization of the Industrial Resolution. It is an escape back to nature, emotion, intuition and individualism.
MedievalismIdealized medieval and Renaissance themes that glorify the folk art and customs of these periods.
Tension & DarknessRomantic art is known for its tension, bleak foreshadowing and themes of darkness and fear.Another common theme of Romanticism is existential angst with scenes of yearning for unattainable goals. Romantic painters were also uncompromising in their depiction of unpleasant truths. For example, The Raft of the Medusa portrays the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Meduse in all its unpleasantness. This work shook the French public at the time. Completely by Theodore Gericault at age 27, it is considered the pinnacle of the Romantic movement in painting alongside Liberty Leading the People (below).
HeroismThe depiction of mythical heroes such as Marianne in Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. Marianne is considered a personification of France and isn't an actual hero of the French Revolution.
RevolutionRomanticism was revolutionary in its day for its embrace of imagination, personal expression and darkness. It also challenged the status quo practices of its time. For example, the Eugene Delacroix work The Massacre at Chios displays no sense of hope such as a hero who remains standing that was typical in depictions of war. This caused controversy in the art world of its day alongside vicious reviews. The French director of royal museums bought the painting for the government without the approval of the King, an irregular and dangerous move that highlights its revolutionary status as an artwork.
PropagandaWhile some Romantic art is markedly anti-establishment much of it is also designed to please the political powers of the day. For example, early 18th century French Romantic works designed as propaganda for the new French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.(Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David)
ZeitgeistZeitgeist is a German concept that can be translated "spirit of the age." This refers to art, architecture, literature and other creative works that captures the spirit of a time. Romanticism is often viewed as capturing the spirit of its age -- a dark, nostalgic, naturalistic and emotional outcry at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
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