Age of Romanticism

24 March 2023

Why was 1789–1848 in Europe known as the ‘Age of Romanticism’?


It is unlikely that the late 18th century was known by its contemporaries as either a particular 'age' or one of 'romanticism'. There did exist a late 1700's style of German poetry described as 'romantic‘ and the term began to be used in France in the 1810’s after a Madame de Staël published a journal of her travels in Germany. Both Schlegel and Hegel used the word "romantic" to refer to art in the post classical world' (Vaughan, 1995, p263). By the 1860's 'the Romantics' had become an 'accepted collective name' (Butler, 1981, p1), and by the late 19th century 'Romanticism' became a recognised term 'for theories of art, imagination and language' (Butler, 1981, p1). Therefore, Romanticism can been called a posthumous movement - 'something different was experienced at the time' (Butler, 1981, p2).


Butler also argues that it became usual 'to link changes of the arts of the 1790's with change in politics' (Butler, 1981, p4). On this view, 'the artist staged his own revolution against inherited authority and rules, mirroring the revolution in France against the authority and rules of the ancient regime' (ibid). Bate recalls William Hazlitt identifying romanticism as ‘the spirit of the age’ embodying 'a translation into the literary sphere of the French Revolution' (Bate, 2019, 4:09).


Indeed, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others were initially supporters of the Revolution in France although many German 'romantic' poets were opposed. Either way, many artists 'struggled to come to terms with a world that had plunged from apparent certainty into chaos' (Cumming, 2005, p266), and wrestled with 'the new springs of thought and feeling which the events of the age have exposed to view' (Christiansen, 1988, pxii).


These 'new springs' consisted of emotion, of intuition, of the individual, the personal and the subjective (Vaughan, 2003, p1). They also focused on nature, on the occult, on the medieval, on the political (Britannica n.d.). They congregated into a new sensibility - an emerging romanticism. I want to explore some of these 'new springs' in more detail looking for consistencies and exceptions before before coming to a conclusion regarding the essay question.


Vaughan emphasises that an exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect became emblematic of this emerging romanticism. There was an emotional 'turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities' (, n.d.). There was a focus on 'the inner world, specifically its visionary, dreamlike core' (Farthing, 2018, p266). Schlegel pronounced a 'declaration of the rights of feeling’. Friedrich felt that an 'emotional response ... was of primary interest' (Sothebys n.d.), and echoing Chardin (Graham-Dixon, 1977, 58:02) he claimed that 'every true work of art must express a distinct feeling' (Friedrich in Vaughan, 1995, p142). Although there are some exceptions to this idealised view - German romantics were more interested in form and aesthetics than 'craving for emotional fulfilment' (Zamoyski, 1999, p163) - the 'centrality of emotion' idea flowed into the emerging romantic-ism.


In addition, a related idea emerged of the artist as a supremely individual creator. (Honour in Butler, 1981, p6). On this view, art originates 'not in the world but in the poet' (Butler, 1981, p7), and artists felt free to put 'private visions on paper as hitherto only the poets had done’ (Gombrich, 2010, p371). Hence, a 'rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism' (Britannica n.d.) in turn came to be seen as a rejection typifying romanticism which prioritised 'a kind of chaotic creativity’ (, 2015), and allegedly made 'a decisive break with the conformities of the past' (Cumming, 2005, p266).


For example, Turner 'violates the rules' (Kemp, 2014, p125) and his 'deep Romantic impulse snapped the training bands of academic drawing' (Schama, 2009, p252). Delacroix disliked academic formula painting instead a 'human confessional of pleasure and pain' (Kemp, 2014, p115). And Goya and Blake were 'the first to face a world of passion and absurdity before which conventional art was powerless' (Vaughan, 1995, p98).However, Butler criticises this inflation of the artist (Butler, 1981, p7). Many Romantic artists 'were exited by classicism' (Hodge, 2017, p26), and although Delacroix was 'hailed as a Romantic leader' he also had respect for 'tradition and permanence' (Vaughan, 1995, p222).


Butler also notes that 'the taste was beginning to emerge to see the artist as hero' (Butler, 1981, p3) and to venerate the Byronic hero wrestling with the 'turbulence of human psychology' (Farthing, 2018, p267) with a duty to 'delve into the human soul' (Cumming, 2005, p266), becoming what Shelley called the 'unacknowledged legislators of the world'' (Vaughan, 1995, p263). Byron was pre-eminent 'in shaping the stereotype (of) the passionate, rebellious Romantic Poet' (Butler, 1981, p3) and this theme of the artist as a 'tortured genius powerfully expressed' (Farthing, 2018, p266) in Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Friedrich, 1818) frequently seen as the 'quintessential Romantic artwork' (Cohen, 2018). And Schiller described Romantic poets as 'exiles pining for a homeland' (Zamoyski, p283). Also, this was 'emphaticallyThe Age of Personality! ' (Coleridge in Holmes, 2002, p10) and 'a celebrity culture of heroes and villains' (Holmes, 2013, p17). It was 'the first great age of biography and autobiography' (Bate, 1:48; and Butler, 1981, p2). And romantic portrait painting was at its height, for example Severn's portrait of Keats (Severn, 1819, National Portrait Gallery).


However, 'authors are not the solitaries of the Romantic myth, but citizens' (Butler, 1981, p10). And what Butler calls the 'shaping stuff of art', is socially generated - 'though writers are gifted ... to articulate the Spirit of the Age, they are also moulded by the age' (ibid). And many romantic artists were not simply isolated geniuses but existed in circles of artists centred around 'a dozen sacred gathering places' (Holmes, 2013, p11), for example, 'the Wordsworth circle' in the English Lake District (Bate, 2019, 1:12).


Wordsworth also encapsulated another idealisation becoming recognised as romantic - a newly created appreciation of the beauties and the 'awe-inspiring power of nature' (Farthing, 2018, p267) - the 'anchor of my purest thoughts' (Wordsworth, 1798). And so 'the crags were thick with Romantic sketchers' (Schama, 2009, p252) and Turner 'walked in the Romantic fashion, lay in the grass, staring at the racing clouds, then sat up and sketched them' (Schama, 2009, p249). For Runge and Friedrich the study of nature 'was a religious act' (Vaughan, 1995, p151), and both Constable and Friedrich 'depicted nature as a divine creation that stands in opposition to the artifice of the man-made world' (Sothebys, n.d.). Victor Hugo argued that romanticism should 'set out to do what nature does, to blend with nature's creations' (in Hobsbawm, 2010, p312). And as the Industrial Revolution spread from Britain to mainly western parts of Europe, 'the Romantic conviction was gaining ground that industry wrecked the environment, both physically and aesthetically' (Porter, 2000, p316). However, Turner 'relished the fiery excitement of the new' (Kemp, 2014, p125) and was 'among the few painters at the time to consider industrial advancement as a commendable subject of art' (Walter et al 1996).Perhaps the most significant example is his 'Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway, (Turner, c.1844).


Similarly, a reaction against the political and social status quo, it's regimes and orthodoxies, embodying 'a strong political impulse, inspired by both the American and French revolutions' (Holmes, 1997, p9) became to be seen as a romantic trait. There was, in Hazlett's phrase, a 'spirit of the age' - or perhaps more accurately, 'spirits of the ages' - the 1789 Revolution, the European and Napoleonic wars, the 1815 Congress system, the 1830's revolts, the 1840's revolutions and their reactionary aftermaths. Alongside the activist writings of Paine, Wollstonecraft, Clarkson and John Frank Newton, these 'spirits' were reacted to by artists 'whose antennae were flaringly sensitive to the shocks of history and the culture of their society' (Christiansen, 1988, pxi). Hobsbawm claims that many Romantic artists were politically committed citing the work of Dickens, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Beethoven and Chopin (Hobsbawm, 2010, p310). He might also have mentioned Coleridge's anti-slavery poem, The Greek Ode Contest (in Revauger, 2008, p59), Hannah More's Slavery: A Poem (in Wordsworth and Hebron, 1994, p18) or Goya's Third of May,1808 (Goya, 1814). And as already noted, 'the early Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Blake (and women writers such as Helen Williams and Madame Roland) tended to be supporters of the French Revolution, hoping that it would bring about political change.' (Forward, 2014). And Byron died for his cause.


Yet Rapport argues that both revolutionaries and their conservative opponents 'were immersed in the culture of Romanticism' (Rapport, 2005, p55). And Goethe like other romantic writers of the early nineteenth century was 'in temperament religious and conservative', and lent no support to liberal or insurrectionist movements' (Thompson, 1990 p141 and p142). Blake's radicalism needs to be compared with Schlegel's conservatism. (Vaughan, 2003, #1).


In addition, 'romanticism' applied to different art and artists in 'varying and complex ways' (Vaughan, 1995, p256). English and French painting 'was affected by Romanticism so much later than English poetry' (Butler,1981, p8) and Hobsbawm also argues that music and literature were flowering the most, the visual arts less so, and then, more in Britain and France and much less in Italy. (Hobsbawm, 2010, p 309-10). Architecture was only slightly affected and Schlegel argued that sculpture, with its emphasis on form, was essentially classical but that painting.... was essentially Romantic' (Vaughan, 2003, #3). Wordsworth 'adheres to many of the old mimetic ideas' and as such, was 'a transitional figure' (Butler, 1981, p8). And romanticism was not for everyone - 'the culture of the common people continued' (Hobsbawm, 201, p330).


In conclusion, Berlin calls romanticism ‘the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the west’ (in Bate, 2019,4:09) and Butler rightly notes that the age we call Romantic 'contains an unprecedented concentration of poets and novelists' (Butler, 1981, p1). This 'extraordinary flourishing' (Hobsbawm, 2010, p307) across most art forms, over several decades, and throughout many countries does show that there was an Age of Romanticism. As I have tried to show, it was eventually called this because a considerably consistent set of characteristics, ideas and themes coalesced, even though there were some undeniable exceptions. But there was no 'one Romanticism, .... no one romantic rebellion (and) no one style' (Butler, 1981, p6). Instead there was an extensive set of 'family resemblances' (Wittgenstein, 1958, #67), enough for 'romanticism' to reify into not just an aesthetic idea but into a historical thing.


Butler claims it is best to see Romanticism as both an aesthetic theory (an idea), as well as a historical phenomena (a thing). And it is certainly wrong to assume that the historic thing gave rise to the aesthetic ideas and themes. Perhaps there was some symbiosis but mostly, the term 'romanticism' was only applied late in the nineteenth century 'as a critic's convenience, a means of imposing order on that primal, creative chaos' (Christiansen, 1988, pxii). It was a later naming to make sense of the 'spirits of the age'. We have a tendency to think in terms of ages and eras and this perhaps 'is a weakness of our sense of history' (Christiansen, 1988, p4) as well as our own tendency to Romanticise.



1875 words less 234 reference words = 1641


Glenn MacDonald-Jones


March, 2023





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