Romanticism is an interesting name for an art movement that corresponded with the Industrial Revolution. However, this movement was a time of exciting changes in the world of art as it was in the rest of the world. It began at the end of the 18th century and it became the voice of the revolution in the early 19th century. It was still alive at the end of the 19th century at a time in which it was to help establish the modern era of the 20th century.
What made Romanticism so great? There were so many aspects to Romanticism, but one of the greatest inspirations for it was the common folk. Through the local folklore and stories of the common people, artists endeavored to capture that which had not been captured before. They considered the inspirations from these people to be spontaneous and from their very souls, which made the art incredibly meaningful in a unique way. No coincidentally, this was a time when these artists had as inspiration the likes of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. From the theater to philosophical writings, the Romantic artist had plenty to choose from in his own era.
In contrast to this peasant connection was the fact that, with the merchant class citizen coming into his own and the wealth of this class available, no longer did artists have to rely on the church or the aristocrats to be paid for their work. They could be commissioned by anyone who had the money to pay for their talents and the merchant class wanted to support fresh new ideas. Many new artists were able to expose the world to their raw and unique talents and styles.
Of course, religion has nearly always played a significant role in the world of art, but this role changed dramatically in the Romantic period. No longer were artists as pious in their representation of the church and religion. During this period, they portrayed religion in much the same way as the Classicists portrayed mythology and legend. It was almost as if they didn’t believe in it any more. This attitude was still mixed with a fascination for the subject. Of course, this was not to say that mythology did not have a place in the Romantic period. There were still a large number of artists who reveled in creating works around medieval creatures such as Faeries, witches, and angels.
Nationalism had taken over in the sense that from country to country the styles and the particular flavor if the art varied to a great extent. Even thought the general movement took place at the same time all over Europe and the United States, the art was dramatically different in each place. However, one of the most common themes was that man was born “good”. This is in sharp contrast to the religious influence of previous eras that expressed that man was born “bad” and was guided to goodness by the church and society. In Romanticism, man was corrupted by society rather than saved by it.
Romantic artists were able to travel far more than their predecessors so they were able to see first-hand the subjects of their work. They were no longer bound to imagine simply based upon what they read in a book. They traveled extensively and often women of these lands were depicted as they appeared more exotic than the women that resided at home.
Nature also paid an immensely important role in Romantic art. From the rugged landscape of north-eastern United States to the picturesque landscapes of England to the symbolic landscape of Germany nature was a powerful and influential force in the artists mind and soul. Sometimes the violent and unpredictable side of nature was portrayed. The early part of the Romantic period in France overlapped with the Napoleonic Wars, and so this event inspired many of the artists during this crucial time.
Romantic artists include John William Waterhouse, who took as his inspiration the figures, particularly heroines, from the literary works of the time and of times past such as the Lady of Shallot and Ophelia. Piotr Michałowski was a highly exceptional portrait artist. Caspar David Friedrich was famous for his paintings of religious mysticism. These paintings were not always obvious, but they generally had some meaning that centered on the fall of pre-Christian religion and the rise of Christianity. He often obscured Christian representation in favor of the pre-Christian themes.
Romanticism was all about emotional intensity and expression, not necessarily about the specific style. Thus it was the obvious predecessor to the Expressionist and Abstract Expressionist movements as well as almost all of the 20th century art movements, which were also a deviation from style in favor of a more emotionally intense creation. It was represented not only by the paintings that emerged from this period, but also by literature, poetry, and theatre.