Storia dell'Arte

Romanticism from eighteenth-century aesthetics to new trends

Fundamental concepts

By Romanticism traditionally we mean the artistic-cultural trend that originated in the late eighteenth century and matured in the early nineteenth century, up to the middle of the century.

The artists paint drawing on pictorial sources (archaic or gothic or pre-Raphaelite or baroque or …) according to the form that at the moment seems the most appropriate.

The genius

J.H. Füssli, L’Incubo, 1790-91, olio su tela, 75,5 x 64 cm Francoforte, Goethe Museum

The subjectivism romantic reflects not only an escape from reality in mind, burdened by the imminence of a disaster, but also an escape from the future, looking for a utopian place.

Typical of Romanticism, the conception of genius, from which art is born.

Genius is the mediator between infinity and the world; the infinite to which man mostly subjects, which is incomprehensible and inexpressible with conceptual logic or, in general, with rationality.

Rather it can be transmitted by walking freely.

The death

Joseph Mallord William Turner, paesaggio 

With Romanticism, death is part of human life.

During the Enlightenment period it had been “banned”, excluded, marginalized by society, one had to avoid thinking about it and even cemeteries were built outside the cities.

Now with the romantic tendency, feelings are adored and sadness is one of the sides of man, again three-dimensional, erroneous; finally he is again allowed to experience pain, fear, suggestion, hope, trust, bewilderment, loss.

The historical terms of Romanticism are loosely included between the fall of the Napoleonic empire and the mid-nineteenth century.

Elettra Nicodemi
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Pescatori in mare, 1796, olio su tela, dim. 91,4 x 122 cm, Londra, Tate

Intermediate areas, the Italian case

Italy, Romanticism in painting is studied mostly for foreign authors, Renaissance theories and classical tradition prevent Romanticism from taking root, rather we speak of intermediate areas between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, that is, between the two almost contemporary currents, originating from eighteenth-century aesthetic ideals.

The editorial

Joseph M. William Turner (1775-1829) is Britain’s best-known romantic painter, the biography and considerations on his painting , then the romantic art that is not learned through study but is the result of personal qualities and sensitivity, finally “Genius” is one of the most interesting themes of the artistic current. The in-depth analysis on Romanticism reserved for video content deals with this and the pictorial techniques that propose solutions aimed at Impressionism. A particular reference goes to the Barbizon School.

Editorial by Elettra Nicodemi, the video is subtitled

The impact of Romanticism

As far as the impact of Romanticism in the course of history contemporary and immediately following is concerned, its scope is without doubt underestimated.

Usually we tend to consider the vastness of the romantic artistic movement in relation to its geographical expansion .

The fact that Romanticism spread throughout Europe is, in short, something well known even to those who chew a few notions, in fact in the summaries and didactic explanations this so to speak territorial fact is always underlined, I would like to reflect in a broad way on this thing note, therefore trying to jump beyond the fence that this fact outlines, that is, we try to reason beyond the question which we are led to think when we speak of the “European reach of Romanticism”.

It is not just about the fact that it is easy to find romantic works in all corners of Europe (with the exception of the Italian case as mentioned above).

Rather it is a way of seeing that has spread everywhere in the old continent, it is a feeling that has found fertile ground in a transversal way compared to the cultures that still made up the idea of ​​Europe at that time, like pieces of cloth a patchwork blanket.

The romance gives Europe a first unit, a unit that had not previously and will not for much longer, at least until the distances does not shorten significantly thanks to low-cost flights of the third millennium, or rather until the the second half of the 20th century, we did not start to speak brazenly about Europe, freely, constructively, responsibly and completely sensibly.

In the second half of the twentieth century, when Romanticism had already been overcome for a century, all that was done was to remove barriers and create connections , unions on unions to merge a union; monetary, procedural unions related to safety at work, similar parameters on the quality of food, accommodation, teaching have been taken on, efforts have been made to copy welfare policies and new trends in pedagogy with each other, he tried to remove duties and combine technology as well as technique and minds, he tried to make an open and freely circulated space.

This was possible in the second post-war period and at the end of the Cold War when we were all united before by the terrible tragedies of the world conflict or of the world conflicts -the reference goes to the historiographic studies that see the Second World War as an extension of the first- although perhaps it would be better to say united by the desire to overcome those tragedies and also by feeling united as they are certainly different from the way of thinking and acting that had brought European sides to the battlefield in the name of unity or of something incomprehensible.

The thought then goes to the period of great technological push, to the mixing of cultures with the new openings that air links, but also virtual ones have brought with them with the common denominator of speed in putting people so distant from each other in contact.

People who then actually bring other people with them, then places, objects, in general are holders of a culture that was up to the previous moment linked to canons and forms and who were ready to change in substance, little by little, always much faster than in the past century and in all previous centuries, those people were ready to mix and find a new explanation for why we pass under a slice of heaven.

By the time of romanticism men had completely left behind the concept of honor, the idea related to blue blood (or real blood), they had completely freed themselves from the fears that the powerful instilled through manifestations of prestige and pretensions of superiority linked to birth had become more than vain, they were now real nonsense that belonged to the previous century or rather to “centuries ago” to a very remote past not to be taken into consideration, completely overcome, gone, consumed, finished , incinerated as dust of time.

Yet not many years had passed since the Revolution shook the minds and social cadres.

But the Revolution had been -like in a score- the end bar, so going to the head, the music was completely different, the pentagram had another key, another time other indications on halftones, even the rhythm would have been different, but they still could not know.

At the time of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century people began to think of a society that could be made by men and not by old agreements to be respected, that was made by business, which would be based on the economy of free trade, honesty and enhancement of the company and of personal work, we were still far from the large totalitarian theorizations that would sooner or later appear to philosophy.

American War of Independence

At that time, when the artists were romantic, you could not beat your nose with pretensions to command, there would have been the abolition of slavery in the majority of the world and the consequences of the American War of Independence were running their course, great, in America, and Europe but in particular France, as too often forgotten, had a director role, as regards public opinion on the ideas of the overseas revolution.

Between 1775 and 1785 pamphlets flourished and legitimacy was discussed, there was talk of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, talks of Franklin.

The American Constitution was not an easy undertaking; the founders of the United States of America were inspired by the philosophy of enlightenment in Montesquieu and the Spirit of the Laws was the most quoted text in the debates that animated the drafting of the American Constitution.

John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson who drafted much of the American Constitution, then John Adams and James Madison who theorized the structure of the Federative Republic as the best tool for their country and the separation of the three powers (executive, legislative, judicial) that had once again been cradled by French philosophy, again by Montesquieu, made them aware that they were founding a nation and that they would be able to keep it from collapsing into tyranny and anarchy, while maintaining the freedom of American colonies, freedom of people, freedom from European tangles, freedom of worship – this time inspired by John Locke-, in the full legality carried out by the purely puritanical right idea that the real rebels are not those who oppose power, but are the legislators who act contrary to the purpose in view of which they were established and that men are men not servants.

European connections

At the time when Romanticism inflated the sails of Europe, men now saw death in their faces and art was free.

The men of the early nineteenth century in Europe, having capitulated the experience of the French monarchy and brilliantly overcome the period of Terror, they had felt the possibility to use their reason publicly and to share opinions with others.

They finally felt human after freeing themselves from the yoke of slavish thought that the monarchy carried with it.

Art was no longer at the mercy of patronage and so the artist was fully free to keep their feet on the ground and rediscover part of nature, nature from which he was attracted and at the same time afraid, for which he began to feel a new need of description, in order to reproduce it.

Nature is alongside cities, like as in a William Turner’s London sunset.

Just as we saw a new, perhaps more serene conception of death as part of life, like as it is a natural and therefore reproducible, a copiable thing.

It is given at the time of the Romantics in which man was a man even when he was dead, he was a man as drunk as a sleepwalker, he was a man in sleep and wakefulness, a new importance to mental manifestations such as the dream and it is in that period that the unconscious in figurative representation it begins to have its own autonomy and legitimacy.

You can feel fear, sadness, you can be fragile with Romanticism.

It was time to justify your hopes and to fulfill your destiny and to start talking about humanity in terms of protecting for this concept.

The message of Romanticism

Painters as well as romantic writers carried on a message that they had never been precisely outlined before and which was not banal at that time.

Romantic uniqueness

They thought, wrote, preached that there is a uniqueness of which people are bearers.

They spoke overwhelmingly of genius, of the fact that some individuals are more capable than others of coming into contact with the complexity of nature and they are able to explain something to us about the many questions that can be asked, because they relate to the world and relativize compared to the totality, therefore they are salvific.

This romantic uniqueness is not yet a characteristic that affects each of us albeit in different shades, as will be evident in the following century.

We speak rather, at the time of Romanticism, of the subject that is its bearer to the highest degree and which vibrates like the lightning between held and the sky, we speak of genius, because genius as an icon of human nature holds all the others humanity, therefore genius drives away the old thought of superstition, the old thought of diversity, the deaf brooding over the divine.

Follows to Romanticism

The nineteenth-century romantic production is one of the most wonderful manifestations of a “mental form” that accompanies humanity with greater or lesser latency and that will leave the deliveries to Symbolism.


odison redon bouquet de fleur dans une vase a long col, circa 1912
Odison Redon, Bouquet di fiori dentro un vaso a colo lungo, circa 1912, dim. cm 57 x 35, Parigi, Musée d’Orsay

Symbolism was officially born in Paris with the 1886 poster written by the poet Jean Moréas.

The movement developed, as well as in the figurative arts, in literature and music, in Literature, symbolism develops especially in poetry.

It has as its sole principle that the poet must transmit vague and highly personal impressions.

The symbolist current belongs to the 19th century, but it will be loved during the 20th century.

Period that of the twentieth century in which the artists keep in mind a good principle: my art is what I see, passed through my subjectivity.

Symbolist painting is intimately connected to the dreamlike, the other derivations have different declinations.

Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon, Pegaso e le muse, 1900 circa, Parigi, collezione privata
Odilon Redon, Pegaso e le muse, circa 1900,  Parigi, Collezione privata

Odilon Redon (FR / 1840-1916) was in contact with Gustave Moreau (FR, Paris / 1826-1898) in Paris in 1864 .

At that time, already close to the symbolist themes, together with the Parisian poet he came to the conclusion that the true dimension of painting is the dream .

Odilon Redon, Ritratto di Violette Heymann, 1909-1910, pastello 72 x 92,5
Odilon Redon, Ritratto di Violette Heymann, 1909-1910, pastello 72 x 92,5

Odilon Redon’s painting is symbolist

The Frenchman from Bordeaux chooses subjects from classical mythology, from a romantic derivation.

The other fringe of eighteenth-century aesthetics is therefore recovered, the neoclassical one in so far as the subjects of neoclassicism were the myths, symbolism proposes reinterpretations of the classic myth.

Odilon Redon recalls the knowledge of the Greek myth, his works are an image of what emerges from consciousness after the myth has settled.


Italian readers are kindly invited to visit page 2

I lettori in Italiano sono gentilmente invitatati a visitare pagina 2

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