The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


romanticism, term loosely applied to literary and artistic movements of the late 18th and 19th cent.

Characteristics of Romanticism

Resulting in part from the libertarian and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the romantic movements had in common only a revolt against the prescribed rules of classicism. The basic aims of romanticism were various: a return to nature and to belief in the goodness of humanity; the rediscovery of the artist as a supremely individual creator; the development of nationalistic pride; and the exaltation of the senses and emotions over reason and intellect. In addition, romanticism was a philosophical revolt against rationalism.

Romanticism in Literature


Although in literature romantic elements were known much earlier, as in the Elizabethan dramas, many critics now date English literary romanticism from the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the preface to the second edition of that influential work (1800), Wordsworth stated his belief that poetry results from "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," and pressed for the use of natural everyday diction in literary works. Coleridge emphasized the importance of the poet's imagination and discounted adherence to arbitrary literary rules.

Such English romantic poets as Byron, Shelley, Robert Burns, Keats, Robert Southey, and William Cowper often focused on the individual self, on the poet's personal reaction to life. This emphasis can also be found in such prose works as the essays of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt and in Thomas De Quincey's autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822). The interest of romantics in the medieval period as a time of mystery, adventure, and aspiration is evidenced in the Gothic romance and in the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott. William Blake was probably the most singular of the English romantics. His poems and paintings are radiant, imaginative, and heavily symbolic, indicating the spiritual reality underlying the physical reality.


In Germany the Sturm und Drang school, with its obsessive interest in medievalism, prepared the way for romanticism. Friedrich Schlegel first used the term romantic to designate a school of literature opposed to classicism, and he also applied the philosophical ideas of Immanuel Kant and J. G. Fichte to the "romantic ideal." Major German writers associated with romanticism include G. E. Lessing, J. G. Herder, Friedrich Hölderlin, Schiller, and particularly Goethe, who had a mystic feeling for nature and for Germany's medieval past.

France and Other European Countries

The credo of French romanticism was set forth by Victor Hugo in the preface to his drama Cromwell (1828) and in his play Hernani (1830). Hugo proclaimed the freedom of the artist in both choice and treatment of a subject. The French romantics included Chateaubriand, Alexandre Dumas père, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, and George Sand. Other leading romantic figures were Giacomo Leopardi and Alessandro Manzoni in Italy, and Aleksandr Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov in Russia.

The United States

In the United States romanticism had philosophic expression in transcendentalism, notably in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Poets such as Poe, Whittier, and Longfellow all produced works in the romantic vein. Walt Whitman in particular expressed pride in his individual self and the democratic spirit. The works of James Fenimore Cooper reflected the romantic interest in the historical past, whereas the symbolic novels of Hawthorne and Melville emphasized the movement's concern with transcendent reality.

Romanticism in the Visual Arts

In the visual arts romanticism is used to refer loosely to a trend that appears at any time, and specifically to the art of the early 19th cent. Nineteenth-century romanticism was characterized by the avoidance of classical forms and rules, emphasis on the emotional and spiritual, representation of the unattainable ideal, nostalgia for the grace of past ages, and a predilection for exotic themes.

Romantic artists developed precise techniques in order to produce specific associations in the mind of the viewer. To convey verbal concepts they would, for example, endow inanimate objects with human values (e.g., the wild trees and shimmery moonlight used in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich to suggest an infinity of human longing, the weltschmerz of his time). The result was often sentimental or ludicrous. In the case of Delacroix, however, his painterly style and color sense exalted the romantic attitude in a singularly effective fashion.

In England landscape gardening was used to express the romantic aesthetic by means of deliberate imitation of the picturesque in nature. In architecture Wyatt's preposterous, mock medieval Fonthill Abbey displayed the romantic building style in extreme form. The host of lesser artists of the romantic tradition included the French Géricault, the Swiss-English Henry Fuseli, the Swiss Arnold Böcklin, the English Pre-Raphaelites, the German Nazarenes, and the American artists of the Hudson River school.

Romanticism in Music

Romanticism in music was characterized by an emphasis on emotion and great freedom of form. It attained its fullest development in the works of German composers. Although elements of romanticism are present in the music of Beethoven, Weber, and Schubert, it reached its zenith in the works of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner. Less totally romantic composers usually placed in the middle period of romanticism are Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Grieg; those grouped in the last phase include Elgar, Puccini, Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius.

Many romantic composers, including Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms, worked in small forms that are flexible in structure, e.g., prelude, intermezzo, nocturne, ballad, and cappriccio, especially in solo music for the piano. Another romantic contribution was the art song for voice and piano, most notably the German lied (see song). Romantic composers, particularly Liszt, in combining music and literature, created the symphonic poem. Berlioz also made use of literature; much of his work is described as program music. Romantic opera began with Weber, included the works of the Italians Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, and culminated in the work of Wagner, who aimed at a complete synthesis of the arts in his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art].

While Tchaikovsky was inspired by a more universal romanticism, the movement in Russia was nationalist in nature, exemplified by the works of Mikhail Glinka. The music of the Czech composers Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák and that of the Norwegian composer Grieg also expressed romantic nationalism. Toward the end of the 19th cent. interest in classical forms was revived by Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Franck. The end of the romantic period—frequently described as decadent and grandiose—is often referred to as postromanticism and is represented by the works of Holst, Elgar, Mahler, and Richard Strauss.


See J. Barzun, Romanticism and the Modern Ego (1944); L. R. Furst, Romanticism in Perspective (1970); R. F. Gleckner and G. E. Enscoe, ed., Romanticism (2d ed. 1970); M. Praz, The Romantic Agony (tr., 2d ed. 1970); I. Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (1999).

For treatment of romanticism in the visual arts, see K. Clark, The Romantic Rebellion (1974); H. Honour, Romanticism (1979); C. Rosen and H. Zerner, Romanticism and Realism (1984); A. K. Wiedmann, Romantic Roots in Modern Art (1984). In music, see A. Einstein, Music in the Romantic Era (1947); R. M. Longyear, Nineteenth Century Romanticism in Music (1969); P. Conrad, Romantic Opera and Literary Form (1981).

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