What is Romanticism?

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon - Caspar David Friedrich

Before we get into how things changed in the art world after 1850, we have to discuss what was in place at the time, and the philosophical bent of the premier artists of that era.  This brings us directly into the idea of Romanticism.

Before we get too far into this, let me point out something that’s probably obvious, but needs to be said. Intellectual movements such as romanticism extend beyond one medium, sometimes including areas including that of philosophy and academics. These movements sometimes evolve organically as a response to other social items and its participants unaware that they are part of something bigger. Other time these movements come into being with intent, with artists and philosophers not only cognizant of the new ideas they are espousing, but sometimes even intentionally looking at the world in a new way as a “rebellious response” to the status quo. This latter idea plays a big part in the evolution into modern art, but for now I simply want to state that movements exist, and exist beyond particular mediums.

For now, I wish to talk about romanticism broadly. When this word is used in the artistic sense, it’s not referring to love. When you hear that  Victor Hugo was a romantic, it didn’t mean he bought roses for his lovers, and made sure they had a poem every day.  Romanticism doesn’t refer to love directly.

Instead, it means, as  German poet Friedrich Schlegel wrote ”(the depiction of) emotional matter in an imaginative form.” It is an idealization of a notion, expressed through art.  Sometimes the notion can be as specific as a natural scene painted to evoke man’s place in nature. Sometimes the notion can be as abstract as the idea of “liberty” and “nationalism” and what it means to both individuals and societies as a whole.  To put it in another context, it is the idealization of nature, whether it dealt with the inherent beauty of earth, or the natural rights of humanity or societies.

Two points – one, my definitions above should only be seen as a starting point. Art historians smarter than myself have written extensively on the subject, and I’d be a fool if I thought I could give due coverage of the movement in a single post.

Secondly, I could go into great detail as to why romanticism came into being, but for the purposes of what I’m trying to accomplish (figuring  out Modern art), it’s of little importance.  The key thing to remember is that by 1850, Romanticism was on the way out, but as to the hows and whys that are happening, belong in a different post.

From my own perspective on romanticism, I am a great admirer of the era, and of the artwork that came out of it. In my house there’s a reprint of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above The Mist, which is often used as a primary example of the romantic period.  There’s a good reason for that, for it evokes the precision of the artist, but also communicates the contemplative aspect of mankind when confronted with nature. Much of Friedrich’s work contain men and/or women with their back to the viewer of the piece, with them looking at, what would be in other pieces, the background of artwork. This technique evoked two distinct ideas. One, what was in the background is far more important than what is in the foreground. Two, the viewer of the artwork could then easily put themselves in place of the faceless individuals in the piece, and relate to that moment when one contemplated the background scenery.  This idea being evoked, that individuals are part of something grander, is a near perfect example of what romanticism is trying to convey.

However,two constants in the art world are that movements become stale, and the world itself evolves.  My next post will deal with what happened to the Romantic movement.

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