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Art Movements in Art History - Romanticism

Art Movements > Romanticism > Origins and Meaning of Romanticism

Origins and Meaning of Romanticism

Of the numerous and bewildering definitions and redefinitions of Romanticism none quite embraces all the complex, diverse and often contradictory aspects of the Romantic vision and its ideals. And although several theories were developed about Romanticism towards the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, no definitive manifestoes were advanced for the visual arts of this period. Nor is there any one work of art that unmistakably exemplifies the aims of Romanticism in the visual arts in the way that David's Oath of the Horatii typified the ideals of the Neoclassicists.

Not only did the nature of Romanticism manifest itself quite differently in countries such as Germany, England and France, but it was expressed in diverse forms even within the work of individual painters of the period. Attitudes of life and art also fluctuated and varied fundamentally from artist to artist. Writers such as Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Goethe and Byron, who were in their own times labelled Romantics, disassociated themselves from the term.

In Romantic art there is no common style or common subject matter, as there had been during the Baroque or the Neoclassical period, for instance. For while David attempted to create a style of universal significance, the Romantic artist was a passionate individual rebelled against academic rules and resented any norm or rationalised system for art.

Romanticism should be approached as a historical phenomenon, emerging as an event such as the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Revolution in England. There is no clear demarcation between Neoclassical and Rmantic art. There is no distinct date at which artists ceased to be inspired by antiquity and began to look at the Middle Ages; when the appeal to reason was replaced by the supremecy of emotion; when the linear approach was rejected in favour of an exploration colour; when
artists moved from closed to open form, from a controlled to an expressive and spontaneous composition, and from a smooth application of paint to gestural and direct brushwork.

Delacroix's world was as inspired by mythology as was David's, and Friedrich's positions were as deliberately constructed as those of the Neoclassical masters. It must furthermore be understood that many concepts associated with Romanticism, as imagination, intuition, originality, spirituality, feeling, fascination with the surreal and with natural phenomena, can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages and beyond.

Elements of romanticism may be found, amongst other sources, in landscape imagery of a Giorgione and an Altdorfer, in Claude Lorraine and Poussin, in Ruyssdael and 17th century Dutch painting. Many of these works anticipate the mood in, for instance, the landscapes of Turner and Constable.

The decision to focus on the period roughly between 1790 and 1835 as the Romantic period proper has been based on the fact that most artists associated with the period, that is Gericault, Friedrich, Turner and Constable, as well as the somewhat younger Delacroix and Runge, had produced their most important and mature works by 1835. 1790 serves to mark the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of the French Revolution.

As early as 1755 Dr Samuel Johnson had defined "Romantick" as "... resembling the
,ales and romances, wild ... improbable, false ... fanciful; full of wild scenery". Since then the term has been defined and redefined on numerous occasions. In 1798 the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel made yet another attempt to clarify the goals and ideals of a group of German Romantic poets. In his famous Fragment no 116 of the Athenaeum, a literary magazine which he edited for two years together with his brother August Wilhelm at Jena, Schlegel used the term "Romantic" in opposition to "Classical".

Initially, "Romantic" was associated with the German Roman (English: novel) which, during the Romantic period, contained a mixture of poetry, passages of dramatic dialogue, literary criticism, philosophy and letters. The fragment and the novel were initially considered the main forms of Romantic expression. And it was at Jena around the year 1800 that the Schlegel brothers, Schleiermacher, Ludwig Tieck and several other poets and philosophers formed the first and most influential avant-garde
Romantic group, echoed in England by the Lake poets, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats.

In essence, Romanticism thus began as a literary movement. For this reason Romantic painting should never be studied in isolation, because it can only be understood within the context of both sociohistorical events and in relation to the literature, poetry and music of its time.

Like many other movements in art, Romanticism started in opposition to what existed before. In the fragment and the novel, the order and logic of Neoclassical hierarchies was first questioned. The fragment, by its very nature, defied any ordering, because in it all barriers between various genres were broken down. It blended, amongst other elements, lyrical poetry, drama, history, autobiography, philosophy and fairy tales. The fragment, like the sketch, was seen by Schlegel as an independent, complete work of art.

The sketch was considered to be the most authentic and spontaneous form of art, revealing directly the individual "touch" of the artist. The many sketches by Constable, Turner and Friedrich, for instance, clearly demonstrate this.

Although Romanticism initially emerged as a counter movement to Neoclassicist ideals, and was seen as such by many subsequent critics, the relationship between the two periods is more complex and demands closer scrutiny. Such an examination will reveal both their irreconcilabilities and their similarities.

Romanticism was most commonly regarded in late 18th century art as an opposition to the CLASSICAL; and while this is perhaps the simplest way to approach its character, it must be remembered that in the broad analysis of the styles of world art both the Classical and the Romantic incorporate the ideal rather than the real, and that both are types of NATURALISTIC painting and sculpture.

More specifically, Romanticism developed as a result of the disillusionment of the individual - in both sociopolitical and intellectual sense. In France the Age of Enlightenment had merely served to prove the insufficiency of human reason. Logical order and rational systems had left many unanswered questions. The classification of plants, insects, animals and races, for instance, did not explain the inherent differences and conflicts that exist within these various species, genres and races. The attempt to reveal a divine order and a rational structure beneath the surface of nature led to the realisation that intuition and imagination were needed to comprehend the mysterious energies in nature, and acknowledge the individuality and diversity of every living organism, of species and of cultures.

The assumptions made by philosophers like Herder and Kant during the Age of Enlightenment were questioned because they "... demonstrated the frailty of reason and the force of passion, the insufficiency of theories and the power of circumstances to shape events" . This is reflected in the words of the German poet, Novalis: "The more personal, local, peculiar of its own time, a poem is, the nearer it stands to the centre of poetry".

Thus the growing awareness of the organic and dynamic quality in nature and society led to the awareness of the uniqueness of the individual and "inner truth". At the same time, however, the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century had a devastating effect on social and political ideologies. It, too, had left the individual disillusioned, sceptical and alienated. And thus there developed, especially in Germany, France and England, a movement which celebrated in art the independence of the human spirit and the supremacy of feeling. Romantic attitudes differed substantially in these countries, but they all shared a hatred for bourgeois values and doctrines.

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