The Age of Enlightenment dominated European cultural life for much of the 18th century. During this period, advances in knowledge through objectivity and rational reasoning significantly improved the quality of life. This ideology found its perfect aesthetic expression in Neoclassicism
and its emphasis on harmony, proportion, and classical teachings from ancient Greece and Rome. However, during the latter half of the century, many began to question the Neoclassicist values. They believing it severely limited the artists’ ability to explore the depths of the human experience. As a result, the focus of philosophical thought shifted from the objective to the subjective, and a new generation of inquiry was born. This new perspective explored the potential of emotion and instinct, and celebrated the powers of imagination and expression. Rather than adhering to a strict doctrine of style and form, this movement advocated a rich variety of expression to better reflect the complexity of the world and the intimacy of the individual. Artists sought alternatives to the dominant forms of the classical tradition, often looking within themselves for new direction. This emphasis on the individual eventually became a steadfast belief that the individual sensibility was the only faculty of aesthetic judgment, and the artists’ only laws were his feelings. The era of Romanticism was born.
There is no linear progression in Romanticism. The emphasis the Romantics placed on individuality made it impossible to identify one single Romantic style, leading instead to an array of divergent aesthetics. In this respect, it is easier to define the Romantic aesthetic by what it rejected, rather than by what it subscribed to. To the Romantic artists, any norm was inherently antipathetic. Such traditional and customary form was deeply impersonal and only resulted in formulaic one-note compositions. Romantics also rejected the idea that symbols and icons had systemized meanings. Rather, they believed that symbols should possess whatever significance or meaning the artist chooses to express. Art, they believed, should be at all costs, the unique point of view of its creator. A timeless example of this is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog.
Instead of reflecting the timeless, universal themes of Classicism, Romantic art was a direct reflection of the artist’s own living experience. Romantics explored the darker sides of life, seeking to unveil hidden truths they believed Classicism obscured. Often, this included violence, rebellion, and suffering amidst exotic landscapes, supernatural phenomena, and scenes from literature and history. Romantic artists also possessed a new appreciation and understanding of color, which they used to appeal to the emotions and senses of their audience. Artists also concerned themselves with texture and mood over form and outline. Paintings became a direct extension of the artist’s mind, an organic manifestation of inner truth.
Romanticism was, by its very essence, transitional. It reacted against the status quo, was constantly changing, and rejected the ideals of the Age Of Enlightenment. Romantic artists such as Francisco Goya
, Eugène Delacroix
, Théodore Géricault
, and J.M.W. Turner were prolific Romanticists, transforming nearly everything they touched with these new ideals. Yet as provisional as the Romantic Movement was, its values proved much more pervasive than those of the Enlightenment. All art in the early nineteenth century, Realism
in particular, was to some extent influenced by Romantic ideals. This is likely a by-product of the massive shift in philosophical doctrine. Romanticism empowered the individual, extolling the artist’s sensibilities and emotional sphere. It gave way to a considerable change in the character of self, rejecting the artificial and celebrating the search for truth. Even today, Romantic ideals continue to flourish and continue to inspire future generations of artists throughout the world.