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What Is the Difference between Romanticism and Realism?

Gregory Hanson
Gregory Hanson

Romanticism and realism were two competing styles of artistic and cultural thought and practice. For decades after the end of the Napoleonic wars, Romanticism, which emphasized heroic individual achievement, mysticism, and the power of the emotions dominated European intellectual life. Realism, which followed Romanticism, returned the focus of the arts and literature to more concrete matters, and tended to glorify real individuals, work, and social justice.

These two literary terms of art are part of a larger pattern of cultural history in the western world. They are two stages of a back-and-forth between cultural styles that emphasize the real and concrete and those that are more mythic and ephemeral in their focus. Romanticism was preceded by the era of the Enlightenment, and was in large part an attempt to break the bonds of careful reason that had defined that era.

An example of Romantic art, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix.
An example of Romantic art, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix.

The central tenets of Romanticism focused on the heroic power of the individual and of the individual as part of larger, heroic, social, and cultural structures. Romantics wrote passionate histories about their nations’ past glories. They imagined themselves part of great peoples with a manifest destiny to reshape the world. Their works often featured nature, mysticism, and magic.

Romantics were often quite suspicious of science, industry, and technology. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic work of the genre. It is filled with the heroic power of the individual but also filled with troubling questions about science.

An example of Realist art, The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet.
An example of Realist art, The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet.

The Romantic movement’s high-water mark roughly coincided with the failed populist revolutions of 1848. Realism emerged in the grittier and more pragmatic world that followed the defeat of these idealistic uprisings. Romanticism and realism both sought to change the world, but Realism employed very different techniques.

Realist art and literature were intended to convey the real experience of other people or cultures. This type of art often sought to bring about social change by highlighting injustices through the use of pointed images. The Peredvizhniki in Russia painted scenes of human hardship based on their knowledge of the fate of Russia’s toiling peasants. Their goal was to make others aware of such injustices.

Both Romanticism and Realism were cultures largely of the elite, though a few authors and playwrights managed to work their way up from the lower classes. The audience for each was made up primarily of comfortable people from the middle and upper classes. Both movements spanned most forms of artistic practice and had a notable impact in poetry, literature, the visual arts, and theater.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - Although both of these styles no longer exist as a whole, there are still aspects left over from when they defined their eras.

Even today country's still glorify their pasts and many others choose to not modernize, showing their distrust in technology and science.

I really think that realism and romanticism are simply two eras in the world that simply have left their mark and had a very small portion of themselves carry over well after their time.

What would really help is to know what other competing thoughts followed these two and what impact those had on those still holding on to either realist or romanticist beliefs.


@matthewc23 - I have read a lot on medical science during this era and no one can over-emphasize how negligent doctors were during this time and how much they really did not know, but went through with procedures anyway.

These pseudo sciences tended to scare away those who were distrustful and still held romanticist beliefs.

Now if should be emphasized that the progressive movement, that was occurring at the same time, was as good of an example of realism as one could conjure up as there was more of a focus on Marxist like items like work, production, and more of a movement towards social justice.

I really feel like the realist tendencies far outweighed the romanticist tendencies in the modern era and that the world has simply become way more pragmatic over the years, with skepticism and inquiry, and this has driven a stake in the heart of almost all romanticism.

@kentuckycat - Although I can see your point, people like Theodore Roosevelt were not wary of the advances in medical science, so he would be seen as a bit of a hypocrite by the Romanticist authors.

I really do think though that while realism did take hold in society, there was a bit of romanticism still left, as a minority belief held by those that did not trust the changes in society.

One great parallel is the distrust of medical science in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" as around 1900 all kinds of medical pseudo sciences began popping up across the country, and although most agreed with what was being done, there was a large number of people that did not trust the doctors and still sought to use reason as opposed to baseless conjecture to solve medical ills.


Although by the 1900's the era of Romanticism all but died out, I really feel like that there were some aspects of the era still prevalent in society.

If one looks at the gilded age in America, which started around the 1880's or 1890's, there are still aspects of romanticism left as medical science and technology were on the rise, and those who saw these as hindering the morality of society chose to instead continue to focus on the lone heroes and glorify those who stood up against the corruption in society.

Men like Theodore Roosevelt were glorified in a romantic way because he was seen as fighting some of these evils in society and was seen as an individual with power that stood up against those that abused power.

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    • An example of Romantic art, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix.
      By: Yann Caradec
      An example of Romantic art, Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix.
    • An example of Realist art, The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet.
      By: David Seaton
      An example of Realist art, The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet.