26 Sep 2014

Romanticism Part I

Historical Background and Literary Romanticism

“Liberty in Art, liberty in Society, behold the double end towards which consistent and logical minds should tend; behold the double banner that rallies the intelligence.”

Victor Hugo penned these words in the preface to his 1830 play Hernani, and with them, he suggests that Romantic literature reflects the cultural and political turmoil nineteenth-century Europe was experiencing.  The storming of the Bastille in 1789 had heralded major political change for the continent.  The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars initiated a series of revolutionary conflicts—including additional pan-European uprisings in 1830 and 1848—that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of many hereditary monarchies.  As more democratic forms of government emerged to take their place, international hostilities like the Crimean War (1853-56) weakened the spheres of influence granted to France, Austria, Britain, and Russia following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. These shifts in the balance of power, combined with the nascent nationalist sentiment prompted by the Napoleonic Wars, effected a reconfiguration of the continent’s map: Greece (1821-32), Italy (1848-66), and Hungary (1848) took up arms against their foreign oppressors in hopes of securing independence, while Prussia used wars against Austria (1866) and France (1870) to achieve its vision of a unified Germany(1871).

The social upheaval resulting from the Industrial Revolution further exacerbated the uncertain social climate resulting from these conflagrations.  European cities expanded rapidly as people poured in from rural areas seeking new employment opportunities and the promise of financial gain.  The poor experienced extremely harsh living and working conditions, and the lack of sanitation in the overcrowded working-class neighborhoods caused disease to spread rapidly.  The aristocracy too suffered setbacks as it yielded its former prestige to the burgeoning middle class in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Nevertheless, positive gains occurred as well: the railroad, for example, made travel between industrial centers much more accessible, and the steam powered factory machinery that produced items improved the quality of life, though only for those would could afford them.
Yet despite the close alignment that Hugo perceives between nineteenth-century European society and its art, the final decades of the 1700s had already witnessed the coalescence of the literary style that would became known as “Romanticism.”  Eighteenth-century writers associated with the philosophy of Enlightenment prized reason and logic; in contrast, the emerging type of poetry and prose accentuated emotion, intuition, and imagination.  A capacity to feel deeply now became a necessary component of intellectual thought, and the heroes of contemporary novels and dramas started to demonstrate their character through their preternatural sentiment rather than through extraordinary deeds. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s widely-read novel from 1774, succinctly illustrates these traits.  Because the author reveals that the protagonist commits suicide within the first several pages of the book, Werther’s fate never hangs in the balance; the reader follows the story not to discover what will happen to the title figure, but to experience the emotional highs and lows that brought Werther to his unfortunate end.


Though considered an iconic image of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David’s Le Serment des Horaces (The Oath of the Horatii) of 1784 accords to the principles of Enlightenment.  David has foregrounded balance and proportion—and by extension, rational thought and logic—with the stratified arms naturally leading the viewer’s eye to a focal point of the open palm, which the painter has deliberately placed at the golden section.  Emotion, in contrast, remains in the background, with only the female figures displaying overt sentiment.


Eugène Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People) of 1830 both celebrates the July Revolution and illustrates Romanticism.   Although this canvas also demonstrates an interest in balance and proportion, the artist has foregrounded emotion.  Delacroix also depicts a wide range of emotional states, from death and destruction to determination and the nurturing comfort offered by the allegorical mother-figure of Liberty herself.

Many scholars categorize Goethe’s work under the period of ” Weimar Classicism”; however, he, together with Friedrich von Schiller, represents the most famous name in the first generation of German-speaking writers to adopt aspects of this “Romantic” approach to literature.  The ideology spread across western Europe, embracing the likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in England, as well as François-René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Hugo in France.  Although disagreement exists as to who first applied the designation “Romanticism” to the style, most music historians attribute the label to several thinkers working in Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century: Friedrich Schlegel (a literary critic and philosopher), his older brother August Wilhlem Schlegel (an author most respected for his translations of Shakespeare), and Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (the novelist better known as Jean Paul).  These writers used the term to indicate a kinship between the drama, fiction, and poetry of their day and the chivalric “romances” of the Middle Ages.  These medieval tales narrate the heroic deeds of King Arthur and other marvelous adventurers; in doing so, they necessarily involve the elements of fantasy and imagination shared by the Romantic era.
© 2014 by Bettie Jo Basinger