While the word “Romanticism” may call up visions of Cupid or declarations of eternal love, this period of art has far less to do with actual romance than it does with notions of passion, sensitivity, and imagination. First defined in literary criticism around 1800, Romanticism flourished until the mid-19th century and championed ideals such as unfettered creative expression, depth of feeling, and spiritual connection. Spurred on by a rejection of the detached rationalism of the Enlightenment and the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789, Romantics viewed industrialization and cold reason as degrading to man’s transcendent, limitless capacity.
Writers, musicians, and artists of the period faithfully elevated this perspective, rejecting what they viewed as an excessive emphasis on the cerebral and instead arguing for heightened emotion as a wellspring of aesthetic opportunity. Horror, passion, and awe, especially when experienced in the face of nature’s sublime landscape, offered an artistic antidote to the perceived disconnect from spirituality occurring as the theory of evolution took hold around the world. Artists longed for an earlier time when the pastoral, untouched grandiosity of nature and its mysteries offered a fountain of self-discovery and wonder. This nostalgia inspired the Romantics to shift the spotlight onto the individual’s imagination and his or her interpretation of the world.
Patriotism and burgeoning nationalism also became a focal point for many Romantic artists. Hoping to humanize what they perceived as detached industry, Romantics focused their attention on mankind’s unbridled potential and originality. Romanticism’s ideals diverged slightly as the movement crossed borders. During the period, inherent differences between countries resulted in renewed demands for autonomy and sovereignty. Folk customs and traditions lauded as essential to national identity were featured prominently in Romantic works.