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An intellectual movement that flourished in Europe between the middle of the 18th and 19th centuries, romanticism was complexly implicated in the history of its age, an age in which philosophers, artists, writers, and composers responded with fervor to the forces of nationalism that were sweeping Europe, but rejected the notions of the Enlightenment that had dominated European thought since the early 18th century.

The European Enlightenment, stressing the normative role of reason in the conduct of social life, and universal standards for excellence in the arts, was cosmopolitan. Romanticism may be thought of as a counter-Enlightenment movement, or perhaps as an oppositional phase of Enlightenment that was grounded in difference rather than uniformity. Where Enlightenment thinkers and artists assumed that humankind is essentially similar across all ages and geographic origins (hence their emphasis on the imitation of the best of the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome), romantics generally believed in the uniqueness of individual expression as it is constituted by life experience, an important dimension of which is frequently national character.

Romantic thought often features an organic conception of individual life, society, and the interconnections of humanity, nature, and divinity. Such a view stresses origins. For a romantic political thinker like Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) opposed the Enlightenment rationalism of the French political experiment, society is an organic growth, nurtured and formed over centuries of practice in ways indigenous to a nation. For a critical romantic thinker like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem should aspire to the fullness and wholeness of a living thing. The notion of the individual imagination as the only significant interpreter of nature and humankind motivates writers as profoundly different as William Wordsworth and George Gordon, Lord Byron.


Despite having been both the country whose political events most clearly shaped European romanticism and the working home of the movement's philosophic progenitor, Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau, France experienced a late flowering of romanticism, which did not reach its height until the 1830s and 40s, when its force had weakened in England and Germany. Reasons for this lie in France's having been the center of Enlightenment thought and its having served throughout the Revolutionary period as a test bed for progressive ideology.

Bitter controversies involving political and religious loyalties accompanied the emergence of romanticism in France. The main strife took place in the theater. It included disruptions of performances of William Shakespeare's plays in 1822 and culminated in the notorious battle between the warring factions on the opening night of Victor Hugo's drama Hernani (1830). Hugo, Alexandre Dumas pere, and Alfred de Musset all used Shakespeare as a model to effect their departure from prescribed classical practices. The lyric poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine, Musset, and Hugo was romantic in its pronounced personal emotionality, and led, inevitably, to Charles Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal (1857), perhaps French romanticism's most extreme expression.


As they are in literature, the hallmarks of romantic painting are nationalism and the power of individual perception. In France, J. A. Gros glorified Napoleon's victories, while in Spain, Francisco de Goya showed the horrors of war in such canvases as The Third of May, 1808 (1814). France, long dominated by the strict neoclassicism of Jacques Louis David, became the home of an impassioned school of history painting, exemplified in such powerful works as Théodore Géricault's The Raft of Medusa (1819). Géricault strongly influenced Eugène Delacroix, whose flamboyant canvases on historical and literary subjects, such as The Death of Sardanapalus (1827-28), probably best exemplify the common notion of romantic art.

The absorption of romantic artists in the past and in exotic cultures is reflected in the diversity of the architectural styles of the era. There was also a great love of ruins, old or freshly made -- as in the Désert de Retz (c.1785), a four-story French mansion constructed in the form of a single column, broken, cracked, and lush with vegetation on its fragmented top.

Gene W. Ruoff
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, © 1997
Bibliography: Abrams, M. H., Natural Supernaturalism (1971); Butler, Marilyn, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1982); Clark, K. M., The Romantic Rebellion (1973); Furst, L. R., Romanticism, 2d ed. (1976); Gaull, Marilyn, English Romanticism (1988); Jones, H. M., Revolution and Romanticism (1974); Lister, Raymond, British Romantic Painting (1989); McGann, Jerome, The Romantic Ideology (1983); Porter, Roy, and Teich, Mikulas, eds., Romanticism in National Context (1988); Quennell, Peter, Romantic England (1970); Raeburn, M., and Kendall, A., Heritage of Music: The Romantic Era (1989); Rosenblum, Robert, Transformations in Late 18th-Century Art (1967); Ruoff, Gene W., ed., The Romantics and Us (1990); Vaughn, William, Romantic Art (1985); Whittall, Arnold, Romantic Music (1987).
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