What is Romanticism?
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.