“The transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism manifested in a shift in emphasis from reason to feeling, from calculation to intuition, and from objective nature to subjective emotion.”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 339
The French revolution had begun with noble ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” and many believed that an ideal social order was imminent. Neoclassicism expressed this optimism with its noble heroes from the past, and its pristine clarity and precision. But Romanticism emerged in the wake of the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s rise to power – a period in which many hopes were dashed, and man’s inhumanity to man became all too apparent. Human nature turned out to be something much more complex (and fearsome) than the virtuous heroes that populated Neoclassical art. The Industrial Revolution also gave pause to the giddy faith in “reason” “science” and “progress” that had fueled the Enlightenment: was society becoming too rational, mechanical, and heartless? With the decline of religion, had we lost our capacity for empathy and passion?
Emerging in the wake of the Reign of Terror and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power, Romanticism was a literary and artistic movement that was a reaction against Neoclassicism. While Neoclassicism emphasized Reason, Science, and Virtue (those certainties that had fueled the revolution), Romanticism turned inwards to explore subjective feelings, emotions, and the imagination – states of consciousness that are often uncertain, and rarely virtuous! And while Neoclassicism strove to teach morality and virtue through stories taken from the past, Romantic artists explored a much wider variety of subjects (contemporary events, the natural world, exotic places, and themes from literature), and explored a much more nuanced understanding of human nature.
Romantic painting was also very different in style: while Neoclassical art was rational and controlled (cool colors, polished finish, balanced compositions), Romantic painting was often sketchy, spontaneous, expressive, and dramatic.
Romanticism (The School of Life)
Although the term “Romanticism” calls up images of steamy love scenes commonly found in “romance novels,” Romantic themes were rarely “romantic” in this sense of the term. Rather, Romantic artists explored the full range of human emotions – including terror, awe, and madness. As the Louvre museum sums up the work of the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix:
“Many of [Delacroix’s] paintings depict scenes of suffering, fear, and despair, while others are filled with a sense of boundless rapture and energy or even tranquility. His art draws on themes from mythology, literature, the mysterious East, and contemporary history, all treated with the same emotional intensity.”
Eugene Delacroix: Passion and Inspiration, Museé du Louvre
The Sleep of Reason
Neoclassicism celebrated men of “Virtue” and “Reason,” reflecting the belief that human beings are essentially rational creatures. In contrast, Romantic artists explored what could be called “the dark side” of human nature (think Darth Vater!), recognizing that human beings (like wild animals) are often driven by instincts and irrational passions, rather than “reason.”
This etching by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya captures the Romantic understanding of the human psyche. The etching was part of a series titled Los Caprichos, which captured the “multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society.” In this scene, we see a young artist asleep at his work table, and haunted by ominous owls and bats — symbols of folly and ignorance. The title of the print reads: “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” suggesting that human nature is not governed by reason alone. There are dark forces deep within the human psyche that also govern our thoughts and actions
The Dark Side of Science
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, is a classic Romantic tale. The novel explores the terrifying consequences of a scientific experiment gone wrong, challenging the Enlightenment’s faith in science and reason — and its manfestation in the Industrial Revolution, which was having a tremendous and unsettling impact on everyday life.
Romantic artists also explored dreams and the imagination, and morbid subjects such as ruins and cemeteries. Interest in the irrational also extended to a fascination with wild animals, as a metaphor for the human capacity for brutality.
Imaginary and Exotic Subjects
Themes from literature opened up a whole new world for imaginative exploration, and exotic people and places gave further opportunity to explore the mysterious and the unknown:
“Along with plumbing emotional and behavioral extremes, Romantic artists expanded the repertoire of subject matter, rejecting the didacticism of Neoclassical history painting in favor of imaginary and exotic subjects. Orientalism and the worlds of literature stimulated new dialogues with the past as well as the present. Ingres’ sinuous odalisques reflect the contemporary fascination with the exoticism of the harem, albeit a purely imagined Orient, as he never traveled beyond Italy.”
Galitz, Kathryn Calley. “Romanticism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
The Romantic Sublime
Landscape painting also became popular in the Romantic period:
“In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought. The violent and terrifying images of nature conjured by Romantic artists recall the eighteenth-century aesthetic of the Sublime. As articulated by the British statesman Edmund Burke in a 1757 treatise and echoed by the French philosopher Denis Diderot a decade later, “all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime.” In French and British painting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the recurrence of images of shipwrecks and other representations of man’s struggle against the awesome power of nature manifest this sensibility.”
The following table summarizes some of the key differences between Neoclassicism and Romanticism:
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