What Is Neo-Romanticism?

Mark Wollacott

Neo-romanticism is a broad movement crossing artistic boundaries that gave more importance to the representation of internal feelings. It started as a reaction to naturalism in the 19th century and harked back to the Romantic era, but it has since become a reaction to modernism and post-modernism. Neo-romanticism began in Britain around 1880, but later spread to other parts of the world including Eastern Europe, America and even India. It covers painting, literature and music.

Lewis Carroll is sometimes called a neo-romanticist.
Lewis Carroll is sometimes called a neo-romanticist.

Characteristics of neo-romanticism include the expression of strong emotions such as terror, awe, horror and love. The movement sought to revive romanticism and medievalism by promoting the power of imagination, the exotic and the unfamiliar. Other characteristics include the promotion of supernatural experiences, the use and interest in Jungian archetypes and the semi-mystical conjuring of home and nation.

The Lord of the Rings contains many neo-romantic characteristics.
The Lord of the Rings contains many neo-romantic characteristics.

Human emotions were as important as the supernatural. Neo-romanticism sought to promote ideas such as perfect love, the beauty of youth, heroes and romantic deaths. These included the romantic traditions of Lord Byron.

In terms of style, paintings tended to veer towards the historical and the natural. There was a conscious and intellectual movement away from the ugly machinery of the industrial revolution and towards the simplified beauty of a bygone era. Most of this was nostalgia mixed with fantasy, ideas of the past shorn of their grim realities.

Neo-romanticism continued into the 20th and 21st centuries in painting. They perhaps reached their pinnacle after World War 1 and again after World War 2, when the style was used to represent the somber experiences of war. Such paintings include Keith Vaughn’s “Communication of Hate” and John Caxton’s “Dreamer in Landscape.” Other renowned neo-romantic painters include Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Eugene Berman.

Writers and poets from Lewis Carroll to Alan Ginsberg have been called neo-romantics. Other writers include J.R.R. Tolkien and Dylan Thomas. Tolkien, for one, was influenced by the landscapes of the village of Sarehole in comparison to the industrial revolution’s ravaging of nearby Birmingham. This juxtaposition greatly influenced his writing and the “Lord of the Rings” contains a number of neo-romantic characteristics including comparing the love of nature seen in the Hobbits and Rohan against the industrialization imposed by Saruman.

The term neo-romanticism has also been used in music. It began earlier than in literature and is generally accepted as covering a style of music from 1950 onwards. Richard Wagner first used the term to denounce poor versions of romantic music being made in France, but in an ironic twist, the term was then used to categorize his own musical creations.

Kipling and Yeats are among the neo-Romantic writers who are often studied in college-level English courses.
Kipling and Yeats are among the neo-Romantic writers who are often studied in college-level English courses.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - I guess too often people treat neo-romanticism as a response to modernism or postmodernism rather than as a movement with its own virtues. If you are throwing things in simply in opposition to a particular movement, I don't think that makes for a very good piece of art most of the time.

But, if you take care to explore what's really behind your reaction, and why you don't like whatever it is that you're reacting against, you can go further into an exploration of what you consider to be your key values. Those values are what can build a movement and there were certainly enough wonderful people exploring them in this movement to make it worthwhile.


@pleonasm - Yes, it is difficult to contain the emotion and epic nature of neo-romanticism within a creation, but it is possible, and when it is done well, it's gorgeous. It's OK to like gorgeous things, things with lots of texture and movement and space and that's what neo-romanticism was trying to say.

I mean, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered to be of this movement and most people would consider it to be a pretty big achievement, rich symbolism and all. And as long as they stay away from trite images, I think that a lot of neo-romantic paintings are wonderful and can give you a break from real life, which is, let's face it, too often bereft of absurdity.


To some extent I've always found neo romanticism, particularly in music, to be a bit too inauthentic. Which is a shame because in some cases I guess they are striving for authenticity, for something real. But, it seems like they try too hard to make it big, because their emotions feel big.

It takes rare skill to make that kind of huge emotion palatable and most of the time it comes across as something teenagers would make or imagine, just because it has too many frills, too much stuff crammed into it.

To me, you can achieve the same thing with a more modern approach, without needing to use metaphors and symbolism and huge amounts of emotion and imagery. A cleaner approach allows the viewer to experience whatever the artist intends without being drawn out by absurdity.

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