Niagara Falls∞ Frederic Edwin Church 1857 Oil on Canvas Corcoran Gallery of Art Washington DC
The Cross in the Mountains∞ Caspar David Friedrich Oil on Canvas Düsseldorf Museum Kunst Palast
Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore∞ Caspar David Friedrich 1824 Oil on Canvas Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe
The Consummation of the Empire∞ Thomas Cole 1836 Oil on Canvas New York Historical Society New York
A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother∞ Eugène Delacroix 1830 Oil on Canvas Musée du Louvre Paris
As the industrial revolution reshaped Europe, Romanticism became an artistic, literary, and intellectual revolt against the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific rationalization of nature.
Romanticism is a term loosely used to designate numerous and diverse changes in the arts during a period of more than 100 years (roughly, 1760–1870), changes that were in reaction against Neoclassicism (but not necessarily the classicism of Greece and Rome) or against what is variously called the Age of Reason, the Augustan Age, the Enlightenment, or 18th-century materialism. In the sense of a personal temperament Romanticism had always existed, but in the sense of an aesthetic period it signified works of art whose prime impulse and effect derived from individual rather than collective reactions. Romanticism can generally be said to have emphasized the personal, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the spontaneous, the emotional, and even the visionary and transcendental in works of art. The Romantic movement first developed in northern Europe with a rejection of technical standards based on the classical ideal that perfection should be attained in art.
It was writers and poets who gave initial expression to Romantic ideas; painters, while subject to similar feelings, acquired fundamental inspiration from the literature of the period. There was an increasing awareness generally of the way the various arts interacted. The Frenchman Eugène Delacroix and the German Philipp Otto Runge explored the implications of musical analogies for painting, and everywhere writers, artists, and composers could be found in close association.
Romantic critics agreed that experience of profound inner emotion was the mainspring of creation and appreciation of art. Received ideas, and especially aesthetic values sanctioned by the authority of official institutions, were distrusted, and the individual was pitted against society. The artist asserted the right to evolve his own criteria of beauty and in so doing encouraged a new concept of artistic genius. The genius whom the Romantics celebrated was one who refused to conform, who remained defiantly independent of society, and whose chief virtues were novelty and sincerity. This sometimes led to bizarre and extravagant projects in which the intention to shock, excite, and involve struck a melodramatic, almost hysterical note that failed to convince by its very lack of restraint.
As in the literature of the period, tragic themes predominated in Romantic painting, and interest turned sharply from classical history and mythology to medieval subjects, although an interest in the primitive was sometimes common to both. The fascination with the Middle Ages combined with strong nationalist tendencies, disposing artists to a concern with the history and folklore of their own countries. At the same time they often sought themes or styles that were distant in place as well as time. Accounts of foreign travel and the literary works of Dante, Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, and the supposed Celtic bard Ossian greatly influenced painters. Study of medieval culture imbued some painters with a Christian ideal of simplicity and moral integrity.
A salient feature of Romantic sensibility was awareness of the beauties of the natural world. Artists identified their personal feelings with nature’s changing aspects. An almost reverential affection, animated by the belief that the divine mind was immanent in nature, engendered at times a Christian or theistic naturalism. The artist was seen as the interpreter of hidden mysteries, to which end imaginative insight must combine with absolute fidelity and sincerity. In Britain and Germany especially, the moral implications inherent in the appreciation of natural or artistic beauty tended to outweigh aesthetic considerations. Interest in transitory phenomena led painters to devote themselves to an accurate study of light and atmosphere and their effects on the landscape. Concern to preserve the spontaneity of the immediate impression brought about a revolution in painterly technique, with the rapid notation of the sketch carried into the final conception. Whether emphasizing expressive or purely visual considerations, the landscape paintings of the period display dazzling color.
Curiosity about the external world and a spirit of what might be called scientific inquiry led many painters to explore the minutiae of nature. Technological advance also excited artistic interest, though painting was affected less than architecture and the decorative arts; and the humanitarian sympathy and generosity so vital to the Romantic spirit gradually effected a reconciliation between art and life. The political and social upheavals of the 19th century involved many painters in revolutionary movements and stimulated asolicitude toward the helpless and downtrodden that found most passionate and powerful expression in the works executed during and immediately after the Revolutions of 1848.