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How Do I Recognize Romanticism in Art?

Nature and imagination are the keys to romanticism.
Liberty Leading the People is an example of Romantic art.
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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Images By: Gerhard Wanzenböck, Yann Caradec
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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Romanticism in art can be recognized through the identification of theme, mood and design. The style of painting emphasizes emotion over reality and feelings over science. Paintings are noted for their clashing designs and vivid use of color. They also drew upon millennia of mythology and religion. Famous proponents of romantic art include Francisco Goya and J.M.W. Turner, after whom the Turner Prize is named.

While written romanticism was inspired by British and German thinkers and writers such as William Wordsworth and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, romanticism in art was chiefly inspired by the French school of art. In America, the Hudson River School was also highly influential in this regard. Romanticism dates roughly from 1770 until 1870, but the romantics continued on for some time, in smaller numbers, after this date. The movement also combined philosophical thought and literature taking in the ideas of Sir Walter Scott alongside Jean Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried von Herder.

The key feature of romanticism in art is the elevation of imagination over reality. Turner, Goya and Orest Kiprensky helped define romanticism in art. They emphasized the power of nature and, as such, nature dominated landscapes and portraits. American romantics turned to painting the wide variety of landscapes found in America, leading to a greater awareness and appreciation of America’s natural beauty.

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Many others included ancient ruins in their landscape paintings. By including old ruins, as still found scattered across Europe’s landscape, romantics sought to show the fragility of man. As the paintings were combined with nature they demonstrated the romantic idea that nature would eventually overpower mankind. This is a direct rebuttal of scientific attempts to dominate nature.

Rousseau and von Herder directly inspired philosophical thoughts on nationalism and revolution. When combined with national myths, such as the Kalevala in Finland, and local folklore, nationalism became a dominant feature of a lot of romanticism in art. Paintings often feature elements of national events and feelings such as the revolutions in Belgium and France.

The combination of local realism and flavor are other factors in recognizing romanticism in art. While romantics found real life important and worthy of being a subject matter, they also wanted to combine it with the promotion of ideals. Realism became secondary to imagination and creativity. This led American painters to honor the noble savage, as they saw Native Americans at the time.

John Constable was among the first artists to reject poetic diction. He found beauty in the ever-changing and ever-varied state and light found in nature. He chose to paint in atmosphere and put changing lighting into his famous paintings such as “Chain Pier,” “The Leaping Horse” and “The Lock at Dedham.”

Eugene Delacroix built upon Constable's work, but was known for two further developments. His kind of romanticism in art can be recognized by the vibrant use of color and nationalism. His use of color would inspire impressionism. His most famous paintings include “The Baroque at Dante” and “Combat of Giaour and Hassan.”

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