What is Romanticism?

Petworth House from the Lake: Dewy Morning, painting by JMW Turner, c. 1810

Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement which took place in Europe between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Understood broadly as a break from the guiding principles of the Enlightenment – which established reason as the foundation of all knowledge – the Romantic Movement emphasised the importance of emotional sensitivity and individual subjectivity. For the Romantics, imagination, rather than reason, was the most important creative faculty.

Romanticism in literature

Romanticism in English literature started in the late eighteenth century, with the poets William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It continued into the nineteenth century with the second generation Romantic poets, most notably Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron.

In contrast to the reasoned detachment of the Enlightenment, the poetic works of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge were characterised by their emotional sensitivity and reverence for nature.

Though the second generation of Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Byron, became notorious for their subversive and salacious works, later Romantic poetry also retained many characteristics established by Blake and Wordsworth. Keats’ odes, much like the poetry of Wordsworth, took inspiration from nature, and Bryon’s poetry had a strong introspective character.

Shelley, Byron and Keats also acquired a posthumous reputation as ‘Romantic’ because many aspects of their lives – including their travels around Europe and the fact they died young – conformed to the emerging nineteenth-century ideal-type of a Romantic hero.

Romanticism in art

Nature was also a source of inspiration in the visual arts of the Romantic Movement. Breaking with the longer tradition of historical and allegorical paintings, which took scenes from history or the Bible as their principle subject matter, Romantic artists like J. M. W. Turner and John Constable – as well as print-makers and engravers like Samuel Palmer and Thomas Bewick – chose instead to depict the natural world, most notably landscapes and maritime scenes.

Romantic artists depicted nature to be not only beautiful, but powerful, unpredictable and destructive. This constituted a radical departure from Enlightenment representations of the natural world as orderly and benign.

Romanticism in music

The Romantic Movement in music originated in Beethoven, whose later works drew upon and developed the classical styles of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven’s later symphonies and piano sonatas were made distinctive by their expressiveness and strong emotive quality. These characteristics set the tone for successive generations of Romantic composers in Europe, including Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.

Romantic music was also highly innovative and technically adventurous. While virtuoso soloist Franz Liszt dazzled audiences in the great concert halls of Europe with his masterly performances and never-before-seen techniques, Polish-born prodigy Frédéric Chopin amazed Parisian salons with his expressive and emotionally complex piano pieces.

The Romantic period was also the ‘golden age’ of opera in Europe, with composers such as Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner combining music, lyrics and visual imagery to construct dramatic narratives which continue to captivate audiences today.

Romanticism as a mind-set

Romanticism may be best understood not as a movement, but as a mind-set. The artists, poets and musicians of the Romantic period were united by their determination to use their art to convey emotion or provoke an emotional response from audiences.

There was also something pioneering – almost revolutionary – about Romanticism. It involved breaking with the past, and consciously moving away from the ideas and traditions of the Enlightenment. In so doing, Romanticism fundamentally changed the prevailing attitudes toward nature, emotion, reason and even the individual.

Our Romantic places and collections

Exterior of Wordsworth House, childhood home of William Wordsworth, with man in period costume

Wordsworth House and Garden 

It was in his parental home in Cockermouth, Cumbria, that William Wordsworth first fell in love with nature and literature. As a young boy he used to enjoy going for walks in the Cumbrian countryside and reading from his father’s collection of books.

Daffodils at Dora's Field in Rydal in the Lake District

Dora's Field 

Wordsworth purchased this semi-open woodland in 1826. Known for its daffodils and bluebells, Wordsworth bought this land – situated behind the house he was renting at Rydall Mount – with the intention of building on it. When Wordsworth’s daughter Dora died in 1847, he named it Dora’s Field in her memory.

Hat and scarf in second parlour, Coleridge Cottage

Coleridge Cottage 

Situated in Nether Stowey in Somerset, Coleridge Cottage was the home of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge from 1797 until 1799. It was in this house that Coleridge wrote some his most famous works, including 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

Flatford Mill

Flatford 

John Constable’s father owned Flatford Mill in East Bergholt, Suffolk. The mill and its scenic location provided inspiration for many of Constable’s landscape paintings, most notably his work 'Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River)'.

The new farmhouse at Cherryburn, against a blue sky

Cherryburn 

A picturesque cottage in Southern Northumberland, Cherryburn is the birthplace of engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick. Many of Bewick’s original engraving plates can still be seen in Cherryburn today.

View of Petworth, West Sussex, seen over the lake, part of the Capability Brown landscaped parkland.

Petworth  

In 1809 J.M.W. Turner was commissioned to paint views of Petworth house and park, the home of Lord Egremont in Sussex. He was later given his own studio at the house with a specially constructed window from which he enjoyed dramatic views of the parkland and South Downs in the distance.

Fighting Bucks, JWM Turner, 1829

The Lake, Petworth, Sunset, Fighting Bucks by J.M.W. Turner 

Turner’s majestic landscape depicting the lake at Petworth has an almost ethereal quality. In the foreground, deer are grazing and two bucks are sparring. This painting can be seen alongside other Turner paintings at Petworth House.

Storm and avalanche by Philip James de Loutherbourg

Storm and Avalanche near the Scheidegg in the Valley of Lauterbrunnen (1803-4) 

This dramatic depiction of the mighty force of nature by Philip James de Loutherbourg can be seen at Petworth House in West Sussex.

Chopin's Playel grand piano at Hatchlands Park

Frédéric Chopin’s Pleyel Piano 

Purchased by Chopin in 1848 from the esteemed piano-maker Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, it is believed that Chopin performed his last ever Paris concert on this piano in February, 1848. In April he brought the piano to England and used it at his first London concert. The piano is now on display at Hatchlands Park in Surrey.