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.
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.
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.