Dates: 1780-1880

Origin: Europe

Key Artists: Eugène Delacroix, François-René de Chateaubriand

Inherently the most unstable of the major definitions of a particular period or style, Romanticism can at one level be seen simply as a late 18th- to early 19th-century reaction against the reason of the Enlightenment and the order of Neoclassicism. Implicit to this process were beliefs in the primacy of individual experience and in the irrational as well as the rational. Romanticism was more an attitude of mind than a set of particular traits, hence in the visual arts it could embrace such apparently diverse artists as Goya, Blake and Turner, Delacroix and Géricault, Friedrich and Runge. Originally, however, it was a literary term, first defined by the German critic Friedrich Schlegel in an essay of 1798 on Romantic poetry which, he stated, was ‘in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence; that it should forever be becoming and never be completed’. The sketch-like quality (and indeed the growing importance of the sketch) characterized much Romantic visual art. The word itself was derived from the late medieval Romance, seen as a fruitful literary alternative to the traditions of Classicism. Romanticism was not essentially backward-looking, however, and was responsible for a general ‘freeing-up’ of content and form in art. Classical subject-matter was largely rejected in favour of that drawn from a wide variety of literary sources—the aforementioned medieval Romances, Dante, Shakespeare, and contemporary literature (especially Sir Walter Scott). Nature, hitherto viewed as an ordered part of man’s environment, was seen as an elemental force inspiring an emotional reaction in man and a concomitant interest in landscape painting of all types. Romanticism remained the dominant current in European art until around 1840 when it was superseded by Realism.

“Romanticism.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford Art Online. 11 Mar. 2010 <;

Eugène Delacroix


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