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How Romantic

About the time the Enlightenment peaked in France, an altogether different movement was emerging in Germany. The Enlightenment existed as a purely intellectual movement, and really only among the elite of Europe who had the means to support intellectual pursuits. The fledgling movement in Germany eventually would reach far beyond German borders and beyond Europe. Furthermore, the movement would reach far beyond salons and even beyond the political arena. The movement that would become known later as Romanticism eventually would affect literature, music, and art, and it found an audience not just with the European high-brows who for the most part looked down on the ordinary and the mundane.

Define Your Terms

The term Romanticism is derived from the “romances" written in the vernacular of the Romance languages during the Middle Ages. The Romance languages include French, Italian, and Spanish.

While Romanticism was to an extent an intellectual movement, it also was an artistic movement. It manifested itself in many ways and included individuals from many walks of life. As diverse and broad as the movement seems in retrospect, it had enormous influence on Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Arguably, the Romantic movement still lingers in places such as the United States, Germany, and England today. 

Romantic Ideals

Romanticism began in Germany about the time of the Enlightenment in France.

The movement most probably had its beginnings with the Grimm brothers’ collection of popular folk tales and other Germans’ interest in popular folksongs and ballads. This set the stage for the movement that would, at least to some extent, rise in reaction to the intellectualism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. The interest in folk literature and music showed that the “people,” as Enlightenment thinkers would have referred to them, were just as capable as the intellectuals of developing ideas and creating art and literature. What followed not only in Germany but also in England was a fascination with things from the past; in particular, stories from the past. Medieval stories about heroic individuals and great deeds captured the imaginations of Romantics. Romantics embraced all things medieval and exotic.

A real departure from, and probably a reaction against, Enlightenment ideals, Romanticism generally dismissed cold, stoic rationalism in favor of creativity, imagination, and, above all, emotion. It also favored individuality and uniqueness instead of conforming to traditional standards. Romantics viewed religion from an artistic perspective rather than from the perspective of submissive devotees. It is perhaps ironic that Romanticism blossomed at exactly the same time industrialization swept the continent. Romanticism embraced nature. Whereas scientists and intellectuals examined the biological aspects of a flower or the geologic conditions of a mountain, Romantics saw the beauty and majesty. The Romantics lamented the destruction of nature and the pollution of the natural world by the factories of the Industrial Revolution.

One of the more interesting side effects of the Romantic movement was the promotion of nationalism. The interest in national languages, folklore, customs, and geography was obvious in Romantic works, especially in Romantic music. Clearly, the ideals of Romanticism are so broad that the movement cannot be fit neatly into a box or easily described and defined. However, the Romantic ideals can be easily seen where they manifest themselves in literature, art, and music.

Romantic Literature

Romantic literature has its roots in two places. In Germany, the Sturm und Drang literary movement rose as a reaction to the overly rational traditional forms of literature that existed in Europe before the 1760s. The “storm and stress” literature, inspired partly by the Enlightenment thinker Rousseau (see Chapter 12), featured a passionate or emotional individual struggling with an issue often related to the stress of society. Rousseau himself could have been the main character of such a story.

The best early example of such a work was Goethe’s (1749-1832) The Sorrows of Young Werther, the story of a passionate young artist. In Britain, the earliest example of Romantic literature often is attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850), whose Lyrical Ballads in 1798 broke all the traditional rules about poetry, ballads, and lyrics. They were followed by such literary giants as William Blake, Lord Byron, and John Keats.

Gothic literature, a form of Romantic literature, definitely stirred the emotions of readers. Beginning with Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797) The Castle of Otranto in 1764 and culminating in the 1818 classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1797-1851), gothic literature featured such things as ghosts, brooding characters, dark and gloomy settings, castles, and tales of horror and suspense. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) cashed in on the Romantic fascination with the Middle Ages in his novel Ivanhoe (1820) and popularized the historical novel. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) made his contribution with, among other titles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Interestingly, during the age of Romanticism, the work of William Shakespeare made a triumphant comeback and grew perhaps more popular than during his own lifetime.

Romantic Art and Music

Romantic art appeared as a reaction against the unemotional art of the neoclassical movement, of which Jacques-Louis David was one of the greatest. The strict and structured neoclassical movement reacted against the flowery and decorative art of the Baroque and sought to mimic the great classical styles of Greece and Rome. The Romantic artists did away with conventional standards and painted passionate, stirring works on a variety of subjects.

Would You Believe?

Delacroix is believed in some circles to have been the illegitimate son of French minister Charles Talleyrand.

Two of the most prominent of all Romantic painters, both English, painted the same subject but in markedly different ways. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837) were fascinated by nature. Turner painted tempestuous, stormy, and wild natural scenes. Constable, on the other hand, painted peaceful landscapes depicting farmers, cottages, and other serene scenes. In France, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) painted drastically different scenes from their British counterparts. Delacroix painted scenes of the exotic but his most famous painting remains a political one. His Liberty Leading the People (1830) celebrated the French Revolution of 1830 and depicted the passion and emotion of such an uprising. Gericault, who painted during the last years of Napoleon, found his greatest inspiration in human stress and suffering. His seminal work, Raft of the Medusa (1819), depicts the languishing survivors of a shipwreck floating on a raft with the majestic sea and sky as a background.

Would You Believe?

Liszt was a great humanitarian. He often taught lessons for free and he bestowed generous amounts of money on orphanages and disaster relief funds.

The Romantic musical period followed the classical music period and reacted strongly against that period of music. The classical music period featured structure and traditional stylings. The Romantic musicians, though, worked hard to separate themselves from the classical style. Beginning with the great Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), Romantic musicians sought to stir the emotions and take listeners on an emotional journey. Beethoven, and later Richard Wagner (1813-1833), used chords as no composers had before and placed new emphasis on musical themes. One of the most popular of the Romantic musicians was Franz Liszt (1811-1886), one of the greatest pianists of all time. Liszt enjoyed enormous popularity and produced volumes of musical pieces.

The Least You Need to Know

Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The cottage industry grew in Britain and, later, Britain had plenty of natural resources, a surplus of labor, markets in the colonies, and freedom from interruptive war on British soil.

As early manufacturing grew, looms and mills were moved to larger locations and became factories. The factories, in theory, threatened the jobs of many hand weavers and other artisans so the Luddites attacked hundreds of factories in protest.

The railroads transformed all of Europe by making transportation of goods and people faster. Those who invested in the railroads made fortunes.

As the Industrial Revolution attracted millions of workers to the cities of Europe, the cities overflowed with people. The result was filthy cities where cholera ran rampant.

Europe’s leaders eventually tackled the poor conditions in the cities with knowledge of the germ theory and with plans for new sewer systems, wider streets, and aqueducts.

Romanticism contrasted greatly with the rationalistic Enlightenment. Romanticism emphasized individuality, emotions, passion, and beauty.

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