Who were the Romantics?
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
When we hear of romanticism, it conjures up ideas of love and sentimentality. However, the name Romantic also refers to a period in European history (roughly 1780 – 1830), which until recently, I knew very little about. Surprisingly the Romantic period has nothing to do with falling in love. Early Romantic theorists wanted to create an inclusive culture that looked beyond Greco-Roman influences and considered the larger world around them. They valued internal reflection and openness over the attainment of absolute conclusions.
Romanticists educated themselves through observation and self-reflection. “The yearning for eternal development, for the uphill struggle just for the sake of the journey, is a basic element of the Romantic consciousness.” Romanticists wanted to achieve a greater sense of self-awareness and hoped to inspire others. To this end, artists became interested in conveying emotion in their work. Romantic theory was adopted in poetry, music and painting and was closely associated with fragmentation and spirituality.
In painting, pictorial elements were exaggerated or distorted to create dramatic effects and elicit an emotional response. Artistic expression became more spontaneous and brushstrokes became more visible. Casper David Friedrich for instance, would only paint when he was feeling inspired. Artists broke away from the pre-existing formalism of the Neo-classical style, with its prescribed ideas on colour, perspective and composition. Art critic Jerry Saltz describes as the style that pre-dated the Romantics as the “smoothed-over, finicky fussiness, blended paint, and affected poses of Neo-classicism.” Romantic painters challenged prevailing ideals and received criticism for ignoring the rules of art.
Romantic artists were accused of over-expressiveness, distortion and “a certain roughness and careless of treatment.” Charles Pierre Baudelaire, a French poet and art critic, described Romantic art as “intimacy, spirituality, colour, aspiration towards the infinite.” That’s not to say that there weren’t stylistic similarities between Romanticism and their predecessors, however Romanticism became more expressive, emotive and heartfelt.
Fragmentation is a hallmark of Romantic poetry and can be described as the “unfolding of a break that happens either once or over and over again.” This break not only applies to the style of phrase, but to the interpretation of it. Friedrich Schlegel, a German Romantic writer, stated that Romantic poetry “presents itself not in individual moments of inspiration, but rather in the construction of the whole.” Yet to construct the whole, the reader is forced to fill in the blanks. A fragment on its own is incomplete or unfinished but when viewed in the context of other fragments, can provide further meaning. “Each fragment stands for itself and for that from which it is detached.” In this sense a single fragment is dependent upon the surrounding fragments. This makes fragmentation suggestive rather than conclusive, and resultantly, every work is open to individual. Furthermore, fragmentation generally requires the existence of multiple fragments in order for probable truths to become apparent.
Another important aspect of Romanticism is religion and spirituality. Spirituality in art exists when the artwork has the ability to inspire the viewer and make them feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Artists such as William Turner and Friedrich wanted their landscapes to evoke reverence. Some Romantic painters, including Friedrich, specifically included ruined churches and temples in their landscapes in order to “elevate the aesthetic experience above mere enjoyment by means of the sublime tinged with the quasi-religious.” The sublime was associated with a sense of striving, and landscape paintings in particular became a vehicle for inspiring transcendence, akin to the articulation of a prayer.
Many consider the Romantic “pretension that the artist’s soul is a medium of the otherworldly or godly” as “self-indulgent puffery.” However it is this earnestness that makes Romanticism so appealing. It lends the artist a certain fragility and sincerity that is not always apparent in other periods. Jacques Barzun sums it up perfectly when he writes “in spite of much heart-searching, the modern ego is more concerned with the way it appears to others’ eyes than with learning fully about itself and admitting its troubles fearlessly. The romantics were introspective too, but they did not fear ridicule as we do, which is why we accuse them of indecently exposing their innermost souls.” It is this ‘indecent exposing’ of their souls that lead the Romanticism to be named as such.
Art from the Romantic period does not revolve around broken hearts and romantic intrigue, but rather, it alludes to world that is more open, inclusive and spiritual. It sounds like the kind of world to which I also aspire, so maybe I too, am a Romantic at heart.
About the author
Leah is a financial professional turned artist. She creates artwork about fashion, feminism and family. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram @leahmarianiartspace. Sign up for artist e-news here or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @leahmarianiartspace.
 Horst Koch, Romantic Art (Bristol: Artlines UK, 1989), 7.
 Hubert Schrade, German Romantic Painting (New York: Harry N. Abrams, rev. ed. 1977), 24 - 25.
 Jerry Saltz, “What Was Delacroix Doing? Aside From Breaking Art History in Half,” Vulture, September 20, 2018, http://www.vulture.com/2018/09/what-was-delacroix-doing-breaking-art-history-in-half.html
 Jacques Barzun, Classic, Romantic and Modern (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, rev. ed. 1975), 104.
 Patrick Noon, Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism (London: Tate Publishing London, 2003), 27.
 Jörg Heiser, “Moscow, Romantic, Conceptualism, and After,” e-flux 29 (November 2011), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/29/68122/moscow-romantic-conceptualism-and-after/
Alexander Regier, Fracture and Fragmentation in British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7.
 Friedrich Schlegel, “Dialogue on Poesy (1799),” in Theory as Practice: A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings, eds. Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Haynes Horne and Andreas Michel (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 186.
 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 44.
 Donald Williams and Barbara Vance Wilson, From Caves to Canvas: An Introduction to Western Art (Sydney: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1992), 173.
Patrick Noon, Crossing the Channel, 26.
 Schrade, German Romantic Painting , 20.
 Heiser, “Moscow, Romantic, Conceptualism, and After.”
 Barzun, Classic, Romanic, and Modern, 117.
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