The Romantic Period, which is placed between 1780 and 1850, came about in the midst of a great era of revolution. The first wave of romanticism, a school of thought that characterized the period, was heavily influenced by the spirit of revolution and the optimism of the idea of "liberty, equality and fraternity." With the disappointment of the French Revolution's regime of terror and Napoleon Bonaparte, romanticism turned to a critique of imperialism, logic and the artificial materialism of industrial society.
Though the idea of the French Revolution energized the early Romantic movement, its reality turned Romantics against it. Conflict between political factions and the failures of the revolutionary government caused a period of excessive violence known as "the Terror," in which Robespierre's inflexible justice was carried out as oppression and mass executions of suspected "enemies of the people." Approximately 40,000 people were killed, and many peasants were accused of trumped-up charges regarding their own ideas, morals and opinions. After the fall of Robespierre in 1794, faction warfare was no better, and resulted in new rebellion that allowed previous revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte to rise in favor and seize control in 1799 as head of a ruling Consulate. His military excursions outside of France continued, and the expansion of France resulted in attempts to assimilate and crush existing cultures.
Romantics living during the period of revolution traced all of the ideas they did not like about its outcome back to Enlightenment thinking, which placed reason as the common factor uniting humanity and promoted logic and science over the religious and mystical. Neither movement respected its predecessors: Enlightenment supporters had denounced the previous, church-based society, just as the Romantics would denounce their reason-based society. The persecution of the religious and promotion of the cult of Reason in Robespierre's regime of terror hearkened back to these times. Romanticism truly flourished when it had an enemy to stand against.
Whereas the pre-Romantics in the time before the French Revolution supported the ideas of political and social change, the Romantics of the revolutionary years formed a hard line against the democratic wave that had led to French imperialism. Rather than focusing on the common aspects of man, Romantics celebrated diversity of the individual and a return to the natural and mystical. At first an effort to escape the cruelty of reality, the focus on nature and man's spirit became a non-practical way to describe and think about social, economic and political issues. The idea of a truth outside of reason and physical senses--of a human spirit--was the foundation for support of nationalism, or collective cultural spirit. As Napoleon worked to enlarge the French empire and spread French culture, Romantics put value on the individual spirit of a nation, as expressed by the language and culture before the customs imposed by a foreign entity like the French.
In the creative realm, romanticism emerged as a celebration of emotion, medievalism, folk tradition and classic ideals. Elements of romanticism can be found in the art, literature and music of the time, as well as in political or philosophical writings. In literature, romanticism is often associated with William Wadsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poets who were involved in post-revolutionary utopian ideas and valued the use of the common tongue in writing. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Keats are also associated with romanticism and the rise of the Gothic novel. In music, Beethoven was viewed as the ideal, while art was turned toward the heroically-influenced styles of William Blake, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.
By the 1820s, a new generation of Romantics turned their critical pens toward the wave of industrialization and city life. The 19th century in the West is characterized by intense social strife and widespread greed, which did not go unnoticed by the Romantic movement. As Enlightenment thinking was viewed as cold, unfeeling and mechanical, so was the industrialization of labor. Materialism and industrial greed seemed to overtake social concern and other virtues prized by the Romantics, and the bourgeoisie were heavily criticized for their perceived lack of morality and taste. In the years after Napoleon, Romantics strove to create change in the form of a new social system to replace what they saw as an old, dying social model. Free exchange of ideas and art allowed for the rise of utopian socialists and other critics who were ready to work toward a brighter future.