Romanticism, usually identified as a reaction against reason, is actually based on reason. Aesthetics is an unappreciated branch of philosophy of profound importance. Though greatly varied, works of art can generally be divided into two broad categories: Romanticism and Naturalism. Romanticism, very popular in the 19th century, was replaced by Naturalism. Since that time, however, Romanticism made a steady resurgence and now once again dominates the popular art. Museums of so-called “modern art” may capture the attention of the intelligentsia, but most people just make jokes about their menstrual-blood paintings and grotesquely contorted sculptures. Although on the rise, Romanticism requires a new definition and a new appreciation.
The 18th century Enlightenment created in society an affinity for the scientific. By the 19th century, the pendulum started swinging the other way. “[E]motionalism could organically enhance the stern sobriety of the rationalistic and classicistic ideology characteristic of more consistently revolutionary sections of the bourgeoisie (Antal 16). Victorian Realism must not be confused with the later art movement that, as a variant of Naturalism, supplanted Romanticism. The Victorian style in painting was almost photorealistic but the highly idealized subject matter reveals the Romantic aspect. “Literary realism emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries concomitantly with the rise of the novel and coterminous with industrial capitalism. In general, it means the use of the imagination to represent things as common sense supposes them to be” (Thomas 194). When Romanticism arose in the 19th century, the artists were rebelling against Classicism. “Romanticism came to stand for an emotional reaction against the rational classicism of the 18th-century Augustanism” (Thomas 198). This established movement gave very precise—and very arbitrary—rules governing a work.
Some of [those rules were] based on Aristotle’s esthetics and can serve as an example of what happens when concrete-bound mentalities, seeking to by-pass the responsibility of thought, attempt to transform abstract principles into concrete prescriptions and to replace creation with imitation. (Rand 104)
According to Clark, “classicism and romanticism in artists of the first rank always co-exist and overlap” (19). However, two theoretical works appeared that made the distinction between the schools deep and clear. Winklemann’s 1755 Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Art established itself as the “sacred text of classicism” (19) the year before Burke’s Inquiry into the Origins of the Sublime “described the aims and categorized the subject matter of romanticism” (19). Ernest Bernbaum describes this subject matter in detail:
Among the recurrent topics are Religion; Nature; the past, Present, and Future of Mankind; Ethics and Politics; man and Woman; childhood, Love, and Marriage; Death and Immortality; Science and Art. (iv)
Aesthetic movements are not created in a vacuum. An artist draws convictions and inspiration from the era he lives in and as such, the political and philosophical climate reflects in the art.
We have seen that the work of art emerges from the totality of the individual consciousness of the artist as an expression of the momentary highest artistic cognition and that it continues to live as a visible, durable, memorable record of this consciousness for a limited period of time. (Fiedler 64)
In this manner, the artist communicates the politics and culture through a work of art. According to Bernbaum, “The Romantic Movement rose to its heights during the period from about 1783 to 1832” (xxv). Europe experienced numerous revolutions during this period. Centuries-old dynasties fell and, in France, were replaced with a bourgeoisie republic. Elsewhere, the monarchies remained but only after the people placed limits on them, usually in the form of constitutions.
Not all revolts against the established order ended in street-fighting. For some intellectuals, alienated from the real world, the main form of protest was aesthetic. This did not necessarily empty it of political content: art was, to some extent, the continuation of politics by other means. The manifestation of this protest was the Romantic movement, which revolutionized literature, painting, and music in the first thirty or forty years of the nineteenth century. (Gildea 126)
For Gildea, the connection between art and politics is so strong that he calls this period the “Romantic Revolt.” Eitner, writing on the French Revolution that eventually catapulted Napoleon to the position of emperor, writes that “the revolutionary enthusiasm of the last decades of the 18th century had pervaded every sphere of life, raised every hope, and released immense energies” (3). Revolutionary ideals grew because of the spread of classical liberalism. Liberalism champions individualism, a tenet of Romanticism. In a book on the leading Romantic authors, Jackson notes “[Emerson] is also sufficiently near to European liberalism to believe that government is best when it is least. One of the good signs of the times is the importance given to the single person” (173). The direct influence of politics on art can thus be seen. In the earlier part of the 19th century, Europe was likened to a bouquet of flowers. Each flower was different, and their differences celebrated. Over the course of the century, however, the idea of realpolitik—the politics of realism—replaced the rose-colored view of the world. As in politics, the same shift occurred in art. The pendulum swung back the other direction and Naturalism displaced Romanticism. The brutal reality of World War I so demoralized the Western world that few ventured to create the type of works that typified the previous era. The Roaring Twenties of the post-war period soon ended the mourning. Art Deco, a highly stylized and Romantic form of art became popular. Economic prosperity led to the feeling of the enormous potential of man and the vision of a benevolent universe. The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building stand as monuments to the optimism of the period. The subsequent Great Depression and World War II resulted in fewer works of fine art, but that soon ended. The 1960s represent the darkest hour for Romanticism. The aging style had once been prominent, and had even made a few comeback attempts, but hippies and Vietnam brought “modern art” into prominence instead. A few minutes of silence could pass as music and drizzles of paint on a canvass came to be considered great works of art. Now, however, the movies that make the most money, and the books read by the most people are almost invariably works of Romanticism. The epic tale of Gladiator, the bubble-gum pop Lizzie McGuire Movie, the bloodbaths of The Terminator trilogy and even the laughably fake WWE Wrestling matches all exhibit Romantic qualities. They may not compare to the greats, but the same underlying sense of life shows in all. In these, the good guy always wins and tragedy serves only to make the characters more appreciative of the good.
Why then did Romanticism make such a comeback? There exists a profound need in man’s nature for art. A Romantic hero is more than empty bromides and disconnected edicts. He is a unified whole, a concretization of abstractions. Art, properly defined, is “a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical viewpoint” (Rand 19). Everyone has the same fundamental concept of a tree but no two people will draw the exact same tree. Art itself, but not the judgment of art, is highly subjective. An artist must choose which details are worthy of inclusion in a piece. So-called Naturalism consists merely of a different set of criteria as to which details should be included. Should a mole or a scar be included in a woman’s portrait? The answer, seemingly superficial, actually relies on fundamental metaphysical convictions. These convictions determine the artist’s values and, consequently, his abstract notions. Art is the concretization of those abstractions. The importance of art, particularly literature, is that abstractions are the means by which specific concretes can be analyzed. No modern couple is going to undergo the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and no one will suffer going from a general to a gladiator as Maximus does in Gladiator, but people can still relate to the characters. The problems faced by a great man such as Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead apply to everyone, even a grocery clerk. “But the value-conflicts of a grocery clerk cannot be made applicable to Gail Wynand, nor even to another grocery clerk” (Rand 84). To maintain the universal applicability of those abstractions, the concrete form must be larger than life. “Art brings man’s concepts into the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts” (Rand 20). The fundamental distinction between Romanticism and Naturalism lies in the artist’s concept of man’s nature. A Romantic sees man as a volitional being, capable of choosing values and then designing means to those end goals. A Naturalist view, by contrast, sees man as a victim of cosmic circumstances. This contrast results in strikingly apparent aesthetic manifestations. The Romantic art portrays heroic figures on a grand scale fighting for their values. The Naturalist art looks at the everyday. This leads back to the poor traditional definition of Romanticism. As seen, the Classical standards resulted not from a critical process of rational thinking but from the arbitrary copying of millennia-old standards. The Romantics were identified with emotions and Classicists with reason. Emotions are a product of values. A man who does not value his property will feel little if someone robs him; a man who values the product of his efforts will feel indignation towards a thief. Values are freely chosen by individuals using the faculty of volition. The faculty of reason enables volition. Therefore, Romanticism must properly be associated with reason. The arbitrary rules of Classicism, ironically, were completely irrational. The erroneous definition of Romanticism resulted from the failure to define on the fundamentals.
Romanticism recreates life as it could be. It holds that man is a volitional being and thus holds claim as the legitimately rational aesthetic. The history of Romanticism is closely interwoven with the politics of the age and that history reflects in the art.
Antal, Frederick. Classicism and Romanticism. New York: Basic Books, 1966.
Bernbaum, Ernest. Anthology of Romanticism. Third Ed. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1948.
Clark, Kenneth. The Romantic Rebellion. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Gildea, Robert. Barricades and Borders. New York: Oxford, 1996.
Fiedler, Conrad. On Judging Works of Visual Art. Berkley: University of California Press, 1978.
Eitner, Lorenz. Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750–1850. Vol. II. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice, 1970.
Jackson, Holbrook. Dreamers of Dreams. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1971.
Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto. New York: Signet, 1975.
Thomas, Jane. Ed. Bloomsbury Guides to English Literature: Victorian Literature. London: Bloomsbury, 1994.