Romanticism reflected the revolutionary spirit of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Initially a literary movement, its ideas soon spread to the visual arts.
Romanticism developed in response to political upheavals such as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Peninsular War is Spain, the War of Independence against Ottoman rule and a long campaign by the anti-slavery movement leading the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Europe was shaken by these political crises, revolutions and wars. This led to significant and rapid social change.
When leaders met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to reorganise European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars, it became clear that the peoples’ hopes for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ hadn’t been realised. However, during the course of the chaotic years since the French Revolution of 1789, new ideas and attitudes had taken hold.
The stress of change had encouraged artists to produce highly imaginative and personal works that were full of turmoil and ambiguity.
Although the early Romantic artists may have wanted to tear up the classic artistic rulebook, they nonetheless hand-picked elements from the past, reassembling them to create new images of great imaginative power. For example, classical sculpture provided a source of inspiration, the age old theme of witchcraft had a particular resonance with the romantic sense of humanity’s powerlessness in the face of unseen forces, and apparitions and dreams had long provided subjects for paintings.
Many romantic artists became adept at conveying psychological horror through ghoulish visions which extended into the exploration of the animal kingdom. The Romanticists became known for using animals as both forces of nature and metaphors for human behaviour. This was demonstrated in the sketches of wild animals in the menageries (zoos) of Paris and London in the 1820s. Images of wild, unbridled animals evoked primal states that stirred the Romantic imagination. Horses were a favourite subject.
Along with emotional and behavioural extremes, Orientalism, with its promise of exoticism, novelty, passion and cruelty also interested the Romantic artists.
In its stylistic diversity and range of subjects, Romanticism can’t be easily categorised. As the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1846, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a way of feeling.”
This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program http://www.modernartappreciation.com