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What Is Romanticism?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that arose in Europe in the mid-18th century as an alternative to the ideals of the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment. Reaching its peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it emphasized the importance of emotion, sensitivity, passion, imagination and intuition over reason. The movement also placed great value on the beauty of nature and the wilderness and often stressed a feeling of nostalgia for a bygone past, glorifying the medieval period and folk culture. People expressed these concepts in literature, art, music, theater, architecture and nationalism and politics. Analyzing whether these traits are evident in a work or held by someone usually is the best way to determine whether a person or item belongs to the period, because the era does not have strict start and end dates.


In literature, Romanticism sparked a renewed interest in the pre-Christian mythology of Germany, Scandinavia and Finland. German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the most influential authors of the time, and his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, featured a moody, sensitive artist as its protagonist. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German linguists better known as the Brothers Grimm, used their talent in cultural research to collect and publish folk tales.

The writings of English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge explored the themes of nature and emotion in a poetic language that was simpler than the highly formal poetry of the 18th century. Other English writers of the period include Lord George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Keats. Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, features both a passionate outcast as a protagonist, as well as descriptions of a wild and untamed nature that mirror the character's internal torment.

American writers demonstrated a Romantic influence, as well. Nathaniel Hawthorne, most famous for The Scarlett Letter, dealt with man's sinful nature and often included a moral or ethical message in his pieces. James Fenimore Cooper concentrated mainly on nature and life on the frontier, with most scholars regarding his The Last of the Mohicans as his masterpiece. Edgar Allan Poe, who authored dark stories and poems such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven, is known for his concentration on death and mystery.


Artists of this time focused mainly on the expression of mood, starting first with images of weather and landscapes. Combining extremes in nature with real historical events was a popular trend, as people tried to get across the idea that a Higher Power and the forces of the world were much stronger than men. Looser, more expressive brush strokes were common, and artists often chose Gothic, macabre or nostalgic subjects. Important painters of the period include Francisco Goya, Theodore Gericault, Eugene Delacroix and J.M.W. Turner.


In music, individuals expressed Romanticism through an increased use of folk melodies. The public persona of the artist was also important, and society expected composers and performers to act out their creative struggles and indulge their passionate, artistic temperaments, especially as soloists. Many historians see Ludwig von Beethoven as the first great composer of this vein, although others consider him to be more "transitional" because elements of both Classicism and Romanticism are present in his works. Other major composers of the era are Frederic Chopin, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Giuseppe Verdi and Peter Tchaikovsky.

The bold freedom and emotion so characteristic of the era came through in music in part because instrument makers used the developments of the Industrial Revolution to revise key mechanisms and overall designs. With these improvements, players greatly improved their technique and were capable of executing sounds and passages that previously wouldn't have been very performable. The emphasis on nature and the common man resulted in performances for everyone rather than just the elite, and audiences were filled with people who, despite a lack of musical training, enjoyed the works because of their expressiveness and sense of dramatic connection.


Whereas previous directors, actors, actresses and stage crew had stuck to a set of formalized performance rules, those in the Romantic era tossed structure aside, stressing more expression and individuality. They valued details a great deal and liked scripts showing true heroes and heroines. Many playwrights turned to Shakespeare for inspiration, and they tried to find balance in combining grotesque and beautiful elements, comedy and tragedy. The belief that these mixes better represented the complexities of man and society was paramount.


Starting in France, people often built structures in a Gothic style during the Romantic period, which meant using large spaces and, in most cases, using vaulted ceilings with pointed arches. The overall building design was linear, containing many large windows so that light, which individuals associated with spirituality, could get into rooms. Many builders ornamented what they created with statues, especially gargoyles.

Nationalism and Politics

One consequence of the focus on folk culture was an increase in nationalism. This was particularly the case in Germany, where writers urged unity between the many small German states, both as an expression of shared German culture and as a means to resist French military expansion. The concepts of the movement also had high appeal in the United States, because they encouraged people to venture out on their own for freedom, spurring settlers and immigrants to literally move toward the wildness of the West as they developed their own sense of patriotism.


Although this movement enjoyed much success, eventually, people began to see the value in accepting life and the world as it was, in not trying to exaggerate anything or add color where it wasn't really there. Realism developed in response to Romantic ideals, characterized by a strong desire for truth and accuracy. Although the works from this later time sometimes are characterized as being simplistic and aren't necessarily as dramatic as their predecessors, they nevertheless are extremely valuable in that they provide a glimpse of how people and societies thought and functioned.

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