When we think of the word “romantic,” we often associate it with expressions of love and affection. However, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the term “Romanticism” was used to describe a cultural movement that went far beyond matters of the heart. In this blog post, we will delve into the history and cultural context of the Romanticism movement, examining key themes and stylistic techniques that define this fascinating era. Whether you are a literary enthusiast or a visual art connoisseur, this post will offer insights into the cultural and artistic significance of Romanticism. 

What is Romanticism in History?

First, let’s define Romanticism

Romantic artists showcased their versatility across different mediums and time periods. Everything from J.M.W. Turner's stormy landscapes to the poetic works of William Wordsworth and John Keats. Despite the variety, their works all embody the key themes and stylistic features that define Romanticism.


What is Romanticism in art?

Romanticism is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe during the late 18th century and lasted until the mid-19th century. It was characterized by an emphasis on emotions, individualism, imagination, and nature. The Romantics rejected the rationalism and order of the Enlightenment period, and instead celebrated the unpredictable and subjective. 

One of the defining features of Romanticism in art was a focus on the individual experience and subjective perception, rather than an emphasis on objective reality or accuracy. Romantic artists often sought to capture the moods, feelings, and emotions of their subjects, using expressive compositions, vivid colors, and dramatic contrasts of light and dark.

Nature was another important theme in Romantic art, with many artists exploring the beauty and power of the natural world. They often depicted landscapes, flora, and fauna in a highly stylized and idealized way, using bold brushstrokes and vibrant colors to convey the intensity of the experience.

Romantic artists also often incorporated elements of the supernatural and the mysterious into their works, reflecting a fascination with the unknown and the unseen. Many artists explored themes of death and mortality, depicting ghosts, demons, and otherworldly creatures in their works.

Some of the most famous Romantic artists include William Blake, Eugene Delacroix, Francisco Goya, J.M.W. Turner, and Caspar David Friedrich. Their works continue to influence and inspire artists to this day, and Romanticism remains an important movement in the history of art.

Characteristics of Romanticism:

  • Emphasis on emotions and individualism
  • Celebration of nature and the natural world
  • Interest in the supernatural and mysterious
  • Focus on the imagination and the subconscious

What is Romanticism in Origin?

Brief history of Romanticism

Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement in Europe that aimed to break free from the strict traditions and norms of the 18th century Enlightenment period. It originated in the late 18th century in literature and spread into art as well as music in the early 19th century. 

The Romanticism movement placed a strong emphasis on individualism, emotion, and imagination, in contrast with rationalism and order. This video by The School of Life breaks down how Romanticism began and evolved as one of the most influential movements in history.

HISTORY OF IDEAS  •  What is Romanticism in History?

In literature, the Romanticism movement emerged as a response to the Enlightenment, with poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and John Keats emphasizing the power of emotions, imagination, and nature. These writers believed that true beauty and truth resided not in objective reality but in the individual's subjective perception of the world. Their works often portrayed the natural world in glorified and idealized form, showcasing the magnificence of nature in a way that resonated deeply with their audience.

The literary movement then seeped into the visual arts during the early 19th century, spearheaded by painters such as Francisco Goya and Jacques-Louis David. Romantic artists rejected the rigid rules of Neoclassicism, a style that predated Romanticism, that insisted on portraying objects in their most objective, rational form. 

What is Romanticism in Art The Birth of Venus by William Adolphe Bouguereau

"The Birth of Venus" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Instead, Romanticism artists sought to convey the emotions and feelings that were inspired by the objects they painted, often portraying nature and humanity in a more mystical and idealized form.

Romanticism in music began to emerge around the same time period as that in art. Composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Frederic Chopin put heavy emphasis on the expression of emotions and the ideas of individual subjectivity. 

Chopin - Nocturne op.9 No.2  •  Romanticism examples in music

Among the hallmarks of Romantic music are increased use of harmony, tonality, chromaticism, and new instrumentation. Romantic music is characterized by a sense of atmosphere, mood and richness of melody that is unmatched by the music of any other era.

Romanticism was a movement that aimed to push the boundaries of artistic expression, emphasizing emotion, individualism, imagination, and nature. It ultimately transformed the literary, visual, and musical art forms, influencing forms of artistic expression well into the present day.

Define Romanticism Traits

Characteristics of Romanticism

To understand this movement, we must explore the characteristics of Romanticism that define this artistic and literary movement. From an emphasis on emotion and imagination to a fascination with the natural world and the supernatural, Romanticism is a multifaceted and complex movement that has captivated audiences for centuries.

Emphasis on emotions and individualism

Emphasis on emotions and individualism is a core characteristic of Romanticism, particularly in literature and art. These writers and artists believed that an individual's personal experiences and emotions were integral to their creative expressions, leading them to prioritize the subjective over the objective.

Romantic writers used first-person narratives to express innermost feelings and thoughts, breaking free from traditional conventions to explore complex emotions. Romantic artists conveyed intense emotions through dramatic lighting, rich colors, and bold details. 

For example, The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault depicts a group of survivors struggling to stay alive on a raft in a tumultuous sea, with the use of dark shadows and light to create a sense of urgency and drama.

What is Romanticism in Art The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault Romanticism paintings

"The Raft of the Medusa" by Théodore Géricault  •  Romanticism paintings

The romantic emphasis on individualism meant that artists felt no obligation to cater to traditional standards of beauty and perfection in their artistic creations. Instead, they sought to express the raw, honest, and unvarnished emotions that capture the essence of human experience.

Celebration of nature and the natural world

The celebration of nature is a defining characteristic of Romanticism that emerged in response to industrialization and urbanization in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Romantic artists portrayed nature's raw beauty using bold brushstrokes and vivid colors. Literature idealized nature as a source of inspiration and a reflection of deeper truths about the human experience. 

What is Romanticism in Art The Haywain by John Constable Romanticism paintings

The Haywain by John Constable  •  Romanticism paintings

This celebration of nature was intertwined with themes of mysticism and the supernatural. Today, environmental art and contemporary writers continue to explore the beauty and fragility of the natural world.

Interest in the supernatural and mysterious

Interest in the supernatural and mysterious is a defining characteristic of Romanticism and is often associated with the movement's emphasis on emotion, imagination, and individualism. This fascination with the supernatural can be seen in literature and art, where writers and artists often explored themes of magic, the occult, and the unknown.

What is Romanticism in Art John Henry Fuseli The Nightmare () Romanticism paintings

John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)  •  Romanticism paintings

Romantic literature frequently featured supernatural elements, such as ghosts or supernatural beings, as a means of exploring deeper, mystical aspects of the human experience. The work of Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, often drew upon Gothic themes to explore the darker, more mysterious aspects of the human psyche.

In visual arts, Romantic painters often incorporated supernatural and mysterious elements into their works, such Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son.

The Most Disturbing Painting  •  Romanticism Art

The interest in the supernatural and mysterious was in part a reaction against the Enlightenment's emphasis on rationality and scientific inquiry, which left little room for the mystical or supernatural. Additionally, it reflected the broader cultural fascination with the unknown and the unknowable, as people sought to explore deeper, more mysterious aspects of existence.

Concern with the past and nostalgia

For Romanticism artists the past was viewed as a source of inspiration because it was seen as a simpler and more authentic time, and therefore a way to connect with our more primitive and emotional selves.

Examples of Romantic works that highlight this characteristic include Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," which writes about a fantastical world of the past that is both beautiful and mysterious. 

One iconic example of concern with the past and nostalgia in romantic painting is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, where the lone figure looks out over the misty landscape, evoking a sense of awe and melancholy as if longing for a past era of unity with nature.

What is Romanticism in Art Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich

Furthermore, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" also reflects the Romantic fascination with the past — this time with the idea of resurrecting the dead.

Romanticism's concern with the past and nostalgia was deeply ingrained in the movement. It reflected writers' yearning for a simpler time and emphasized the power of emotion and imagination to connect us with the past.

Romanticism Art in Literature

Notable Romantic works and authors

Romanticism was a pivotal period in both literature and art, showcasing a creative outpouring of works that embodied the qualities of the era.

One of the most iconic examples of Romantic literature is William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." This poem is a perfect example of the Romantic depiction of nature and emotions. 

William Wordsworth Headshot StudioBinder

“I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.”

Similarly, Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” employs the language of the supernatural, and John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” questions the nature of life, death and the beauty.

In art, J.M.W. Turner was a master at capturing the beauty and intensity of natural landscapes. His use of vivid, contrasting colors and dramatic contrasts of light and shadow set him apart from other artists of his time. 

His paintings, such as The Fighting Temeraire and Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth are considered masterpieces of the Romantic period, representing the era's idealization of nature and the sublime.

What is Romanticism in Art ()

The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W. Turner

Romanticism played a crucial role in shaping the art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, and its influence can still be seen in contemporary art today. The legacy of Romanticism can be seen in the works of modern-day artists, who continue to push boundaries and challenge conventional thinking. 

Understanding Romanticism is not only essential for appreciating the art and literature of the past but also for inspiring new and innovative works that can shape the cultural landscape of the future.


Explore More Styles and Movements

This was just one of many fascinating segments of art history. There are many eras, styles, artists, and movements to discover. Let's continue our study by choosing the next stop on your way to becoming an art aficionado. Below you can visit our Art Styles Index, our Art History Timeline, or choose an individual movement.

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  • Kyle DeGuzman graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Science in Television, Film, & New Media. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado spending his time writing, filmmaking, and traveling.

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