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What is romanticism?

Romanticism is a cultural movement that developed in Europe in the second half of the 18th century and lasted until the mid 19th century. This movement was very wide and influenced not only the visual arts but also politics, literature, and music. The term “romantic” in the 18th century had no sexual connotation, although in many languages romanticism and romance were linked. In fact, the term romanticism was developed from the term “roman” the name that was used instead of term “novel”, the type of literary work that emerged at the end of the 17th century.

These old novels usually describe unreal and marvelous events or natural beauties with melancholic emotions. In other words, romantic means “as in the description in the novels”. Although taken as a framework for romanticism in art is the period between the 1750s and 1850s, many art historians place romanticism in the period 1800-1840, between neoclassicism and realism.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1809-10, oil on canvas, 110 x 171 cm (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin). Source

The historical circumstances of romanticism

The end of the 18th century brought a number of political changes, among which the French Revolution was the most important. The main motto of the French revolutionaries was liberté, égalité, fraternité – liberty, equality, fraternity, but after the Revolution, a period of fierce conflicts took place, after which the “despotism of Liberty” took place in France and a monarchy led by Napoleon was established.

The beginning of the 19th century was marked by the wars with Napoleon that drawn into the clashes many large European states with many human casualties and a violent change of borders with the strengthening of nationalism. In addition, the industrial revolution had brought major changes in society that caused major economic changes but also changes in society itself. Industrialization has also initiated urbanization so that the population was increasingly moving into the cities and a network of railroads started to grow.

Such sudden and turbulent changes caused the artists of romanticism to seek inspiration in some earlier times that were idealized, in exotic scenes or they were inspired by natural forces. Art served as a means of escape and gaining of freedom that did not exist in real life.

Basic ideas and artists of Romanticism

Romanticism started as a reaction to major social changes, and artists of romanticism expressed their resistance to the ideas of enlightenment and rationalism of the 18th century. Contrary to the rationality emphasized by rationalists, romantic art emphasizes irrational as well as personal emotions and the subjective experience of the artist. Since the Middle Ages were perceived as the Dark Ages, it was a great inspiration for the artists of Romanticism who transformed the Middle Ages into a time of fantasy.

There are frequent depictions of dreams as the state of mind when the reason is sleeping and also nightmares with grotesque, terrible, and sadistic beings. Also, artists of romanticism were inspired by the idea of a hero who, like the artist himself, is an exceptional person worthy of admiration. Emotions were a lasting inspiration for the romanticists and they tried to show them in a more faithful way, and especially melancholy and “world pain” were present. Even nature and natural forces which the romanticists admired served to articulate the emotions of the artist.

Although romanticism first appeared among German and British artists, it quickly spread through France and other European countries. Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist who spent most of his life in Britain, was particularly inspired by supernatural and nightmares. His painting The Nightmare was one of the first images that were a transition from neoclassic to romanticism, with the sense of emotion, and Fuseli was one of the first artists to try to portray the contents of the human subconscious.

Henry Fuseli “The Nightmare”

In France of this period, paintings depicting landscapes were very popular, but also painting depicting historical scenes containing a romantic view of the world, as was the case with French artists Antoine-Jean Gros.  One of the most famous artists of this period is certainly Francisco de Goya who created in Spain and was a witness of the conflict between Napoleon’s troops and the Spaniards and the crimes committed by the French, which is why the frequent motive in his works is the cruelty and uncontrolled power of madness.


photo sources: metmuseum,  artist.com

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