Romanticism is a complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Western Europe, and gained strength during the Industrial Revolution. It was partly a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature, and was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature.
The movement stressed strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories. It elevated folk art and custom to something noble, and argued for a "natural" epistemology of human activities as conditioned by nature in the form of language, custom and usage.
Our modern sense of a romantic character is sometimes based on Byronic or Romantic ideals. Romanticism reached beyond the rational and Classicist ideal models to elevate medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived to be authentically medieval, in an attempt to escape the confines of population growth, urban sprawl and industrialism, and it also attempted to embrace the exotic, unfamiliar and distant in modes more authentic than chinoiserie, harnessing the power of the imagination to envision and to escape.
The ideologies and events of the French Revolution laid the background from which Romanticism emerged. The confines of the Industrial Revolution also had their influence on Romanticism, which was in part an escape from modern realities; indeed, in the second half of the nineteenth century, "Realism" was offered as a polarized opposite to Romanticism. Romanticism elevated the achievements of what it perceived as misunderstood heroic individuals and artists that altered society. It also legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art. There was a strong recourse to historical and natural inevitability, a Zeitgeist, in the representation of its ideas.
Many intellectual historians have seen Romanticism as a key movement in the Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas the thinkers of the Enlightenment emphasized the primacy of deductive reason, Romanticism emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling, to a point that has led to some Romantic thinkers being accused of irrationalism.
In general, the term "Romanticism" when applied to music has come to mean the period roughly from the 1820s until around 1900. The contemporary application of 'romantic' to music did not coincide with modern categories, however: in 1810 E.T.A. Hoffmann called Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven the three "Romantic Composers", and Ludwig Spohr used the term "good Romantic style" to apply to parts of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Technically, Mozart is considered classical and by most standards Beethoven is the start of the musical Romantic period. By the early twentieth century, the sense that there had been a decisive break with the musical past led to the establishment of the nineteenth century as "The Romantic Era," and it is referred to as such in the standard encyclopedias of music.
The traditional modern discussion of the music of Romanticism includes elements, such as the growing use of folk music, which are also directly related to the broader current of Romantic nationalism in the arts as well as aspects already present in eighteenth-century music, such as the cantabile accompanied melody to which Romantic composers beginning with Franz Schubert applied restless key modulations.
The heightened contrasts and emotions of Sturm und Drang (German for "Storm and Stress") seem a precursor of the Gothic novel in literature, or the sanguinary elements of some of the operas of the period of the French Revolution. The libretti of Lorenzo da Ponte for Mozart's eloquent music, convey a new sense of individuality and freedom. The romantic generation viewed Beethoven as their ideal of a heroic artist--a man who first dedicated a symphony to Consul Bonaparte as a champion of freedom and then challenged Emperor Napoleon by striking him out from the dedication of the Eroica Symphony. In Beethoven's Fidelio he creates the apotheosis of the 'rescue operas' which were another feature of French musical culture during the revolutionary period, in order to hymn the freedom which underlay the thinking of all radical artists in the years of hope after the Congress of Vienna.
In the contemporary music culture, the romantic musician followed a public career, depending on sensitive middle-class audiences rather than on a courtly patron, as had been the case with earlier musicians and composers. Public persona characterized a new generation of virtuosi who made their way as soloists, epitomized in the concert tours of Paganini and Liszt.
Beethoven's use of tonal architecture in such a way as to allow significant expansion of musical forms and structures was immediately recognized as bringing a new dimension to music. His later piano music and string quartets, especially, showed the way to a completely unexplored musical universe. E.T.A. Hoffmann was able to write of the supremacy of instrumental music over vocal music in expressiveness, a concept which would previously have been regarded as absurd. Hoffmann himself, as a practitioner both of music and literature, encouraged the notion of music as 'programmatic' or narrative, an idea which new audiences found attractive. Early nineteenth century developments in instrumental technology—iron frames for pianos, wound metal strings for string instruments—enabled louder dynamics, more varied tone colours, and the potential for sensational virtuosity. Such developments swelled the length of pieces, introduced programmatic titles, and created new genres such as the free-standing concert overture or tone poem, the piano fantasia, nocturne and rhapsody, and the virtuosic concerto, which became central to musical romanticism.
In opera, a new Romantic atmosphere combining supernatural terror and melodramatic plot in a folkloric context was most successfully achieved by Weber's Der Freischütz (1817, revised 1821). Enriched timbre and color marked the early orchestration of Hector Berlioz in France, and the grand operas of Meyerbeer. Amongst the radical fringe of what became mockingly characterised (adopting Wagner's own words) as 'artists of the future', Liszt and Wagner each embodied the Romantic cult of the free, inspired, charismatic, perhaps ruthlessly unconventional individual artistic personality.
It is the period of 1815 to 1848 which must be regarded as the true age of Romanticism in music - the age of the last compositions of Beethoven (d. 1827) and Schubert (d. 1828), of the works of Schumann (d. 1856) and Chopin (d.1849), of the early struggles of Berlioz and Richard Wagner, of the great virtuosi such as Paganini (d. 1840), and the young Liszt and Thalberg. Now that we are able to listen to the work of Mendelssohn (d. 1847) stripped of the Biedermeier reputation unfairly attached to it, he can also be placed in this more appropriate context. After this period, with Chopin and Paganini dead, Liszt retired from the concert platform at a minor German court, Wagner effectively in exile until he obtained royal patronage in Bavaria, and Berlioz still struggling with the bourgeois liberalism which all but smothered radical artistic endeavour in Europe, Romanticism in music was surely past its prime—giving way, rather, to the period of musical romantics.
In visual art and literature, Romanticism found recurrent themes in the evocation or criticism of the past, the cult of "sensibility" with its emphasis on women and children, the heroic isolation of the artist or narrator, and respect for a new, wilder, untrammeled and "pure" nature. Furthermore, several romantic authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, based their writings on the supernatural/occult and human psychology.
The Scottish poet James Macpherson influenced the early development of Romanticism with the international success of his Ossian cycle of poems published in 1762, inspiring both Goethe and the young Walter Scott.
An early German influence came from Johann Wolfgang Goethe whose 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther had young men throughout Europe emulating its protagonist, a young artist with a very sensitive and passionate temperament. At that time Germany was a multitude of small separate states, and Goethe's works would have a seminal influence in developing a unifying sense of nationalism. Another philosophic influence came from the German idealism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schelling, making Jena (where Fichte lived, as well as Schelling, Hegel, Schiller and the brothers Schlegel) a center for early German romanticism ("Jenaer Romantik"). Important writers were Ludwig Tieck, Novalis (Heinrich von Ofterdingen, 1799) and Friedrich Hoelderlin. Heidelberg later became a center of German romanticism, where writers and poets such as Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff met regularly in literary circles. Important motifs in German Romanticism are travelling, nature, and ancient myths. The later German Romanticism of, for example, E. T. A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann (The Sandman), 1817, and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff's Das Marmorbild (The Marble Statue), 1819, was darker in its motifs and has gothic elements.
Romanticism in British literature developed in a different form slightly later, mostly associated with the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose co-authored book Lyrical Ballads (1798) sought to reject Augustan poetry in favour of more direct speech derived from folk traditions. Both poets were also involved in utopian social thought in the wake of the French Revolution. The poet and painter William Blake is the most extreme example of the Romantic sensibility in Britain, epitomised by his claim “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's.” Blake's artistic work is also strongly influenced by Medieval illuminated books. The painters J. M. W. Turner and John Constable are also generally associated with Romanticism. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Keats constitute another phase of Romanticism in Britain.
In predominantly Roman Catholic countries Romanticism was less pronounced than in Germany and Britain, and tended to develop later, after the rise of Napoleon. François-René de Chateaubriand is often called the "Father of French Romanticism". In France, the movement is associated with the nineteenth century, particularly in the paintings of Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix, the plays, poems and novels of Victor Hugo (such as Les Misérables and Ninety-Three), and the novels of Stendhal.
In Russia, the principal exponent of Romanticism is Alexander Pushkin. Mikhail Lermontov attempted to analyse and bring to light the deepest reasons for the Romantic idea of metaphysical discontent with society and self, and was much influenced by Lord Byron. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev was also an important figure of the movement in Russia, and was heavily influenced by the German Romantics.
Romanticism played an essential role in the national awakening of many Central European peoples lacking their own national states, not least in Poland, which had recently lost its independence when Russia's army crushed the Polish Rebellion under the reactionary Nicholas I. Revival and reinterpretation of ancient myths, customs and traditions by Romantic poets and painters helped to distinguish their indigenous cultures from those of the dominant nations and crystallise the mythography of Romantic nationalism. Patriotism, nationalism, revolution and armed struggle for independence also became popular themes in the arts of this period. Arguably, the most distinguished Romantic poet of this part of Europe was Adam Mickiewicz, who developed an idea that Poland was the Messiah of Nations, predestined to suffer just as Jesus had suffered to save all the people.
In the United States, the romantic gothic made an early appearance with Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow 1820) and Rip Van Winkle (1819), followed from 1823 onwards by the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper, with their emphasis on heroic simplicity and their fervent landscape descriptions of an already-exotic mythicized frontier peopled by "noble savages", similar to the philosophical theory of Rousseau, exemplified by Uncas, from The Last of the Mohicans. There are picturesque "local color" elements in Washington Irving's essays and especially his travel books. Edgar Allan Poe's tales of the macabre and his balladic poetry were more influential in France than at home, but the romantic American novel developed fully in Nathaniel Hawthorne's atmosphere and melodrama. Later Transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson still show elements of its influence, as does the romantic realism of Walt Whitman. But by the 1880s, psychological and social realism was competing with romanticism in the novel. The poetry of Emily Dickinson – nearly unread in her own time – and Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick can be taken as epitomes of American Romantic literature. As in England, Germany, and France, literary Romanticism had its counterpart in American visual arts, most especially in the exaltation of untamed America found in the paintings of the Hudson River School. Painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church and others often combined a sense of the sublime with underlying religious and philosophical themes. Thomas Cole's paintings feature strong narratives as in The Voyage of Life series painted in the early 1840s that depict man trying to survive amidst an awesome and immense nature, from the cradle to the grave.
One of Romanticism's key ideas and most enduring legacies is the assertion of nationalism, which became a central theme of Romantic art and political philosophy. From the earliest parts of the movement, with their focus on development of national languages and folklore, and the importance of local customs and traditions, to the movements which would redraw the map of Europe and lead to calls for self-determination of nationalities, nationalism was one of the key vehicles of Romanticism, its role, expression and meaning.
Early Romantic nationalism was strongly inspired by Rousseau, and by the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that the geography formed the natural economy of a people, and shaped their customs and society.
The nature of nationalism changed dramatically, however, after the French Revolution with the rise of Napoleon, and the reactions in other nations. Napoleonic nationalism and republicanism were, at first, inspirational to movements in other nations: self-determination and a consciousness of national unity were held to be two of the reasons why France was able to defeat other countries in battle. But as the French Republic became Napoleon's Empire, Napoleon became not the inspiration for nationalism, but the object of its struggle. In Prussia, the development of spiritual renewal as a means to engage in the struggle against Napoleon was argued by, among others, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a disciple of Kant. The word Volkstum, or nationality, was coined in German as part of this resistance to the now conquering emperor. Fichte expressed the unity of language and nation in his address "To the German Nation" in 1806:
This view of nationalism inspired the collection of folklore by such people as the Brothers Grimm, the revival of old epics as national, and the construction of new epics as if they were old, as in the Kalevala, compiled from Finnish tales and folklore, or Ossian, where the claimed ancient roots were invented. The view that fairy tales, unless contaminated from outside literary sources, were preserved in the same form over thousands of years, was not exclusive to Romantic Nationalists, but fit in well with their views that such tales expressed the primordial nature of a people. For instance, the Brothers Grimm rejected many tales they collected because of their similarity to tales by Charles Perrault, which they thought proved they were not truly German tales; Sleeping Beauty survived in their collection because the tale of Brynhildr convinced them that the figure of the sleeping princess was authentically German.
The brief revolutionary career of Robert Emmet in 1803 in Ireland could have ended in obscurity, but romantic writers such as Thomas Moore ensured that he would be remembered long after his death. His good character combined with failure provided an ideal example of the romantic hero.