The History of Romanticism

American Romanticism was a philosophical movement that influenced art, poetry, novels, music and politics. Romanticism's surprising legacy extends, to one degree or another, into many aspects of today's society. Though its impact altered the way Europeans and Americans perceived and interpreted the world, few people know much about the history of Romanticism. Learning more about it can help you appreciate how even small changes in the way people interact with the world can have long-lasting effects.

18th Century

For most of history, the vast majority of Europeans and Americans had to struggle and contend with nature on an almost daily basis. Hunting, agriculture, disease and defending the home and hearth from animal and human predators occupied the bulk of people's lives well into the 18th Century. By the end of the 18th Century, improved living conditions and a more stable political environment in most European countries and their North American counterparts allowed artists and politicians to view the world differently. Romanticism placed humans within nature. That is, rather than struggling against nature, the natural world reinforces the idea of the divine. To connect to the natural world on an emotional level is to connect with God.


Romanticism was interpreted in various ways by different artists and philosophers, but all retained a common thread; an emotional appeal to the audience. Typically, the emotions were bittersweet melancholies that evoked thoughts of yesteryear or the fading character of a noble people. A prime example of this was James Fenimore Cooper's book "The Last of the Mohicans." In Cooper's story, the Mohican tribe represents the idea of a fading "noble savage" culture in 19th Century America. Though the tribe is dying out, Natty "Hawkeye" Bumppo upholds the "rustic virtues" of American Indians and acts with universal honor. Cooper's novel, as do many works in the Romantic period, uses broad generalities and overarching themes to cover up some inaccuracies (such as Uncas being a member of the Mohegan, not Mohican, tribe).


In music, Romanticism also evoked emotion. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven's stirring, bold compositions and operas usually had nature themes and/or evoked feelings of nostalgia. His so-called "Middle" or "Heroic" works are particularly emblematic of Romanticism in that they also are melancholy; perhaps a reflection of Beethoven's gradual hearing loss. For example, his "Moonlight Sonata" is both sad and reflective of nature in its movements.

Visual Arts

In paintings and sculptures, Romanticism did not evoke nature quite as much as heroism, though they were still very nostalgic and played on feelings of pleasant sadness. One of the most famous Romantic paintings is "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix. A 19th Century French painter, Delacroix's work placed "Liberty" as a half-naked woman leading the French peasants around her toward a just revolution. Delacroix's entire painting was one of nostalgia; a pure French peasantry, unsullied by political intrigue, overthrowing a corrupt government, struggling bravely for Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood. Even Delacroix's nude depiction of Liberty carries deep symbolism; her flesh is young and pure, her bare breast symbolizes honesty and openness, and her gender evokes feelings of protection in men.


Romanticism even affected the political discourse of Europe and America; a connection with a "pure" past, or at least more "innocent" time, allowed many politicians or other political leaders to rally the people in defense of the "homeland." Nationalism, or a pride in a national (rather than regional or provincial) identity, used the same methods to stir the people; evocation of a shared past and glorification of bygone times, a unified folklore and a feeling of connection through virtue of language or political identity. For example, the modern nation of Great Britain is comprised of Welsh, English, Northern Irish and Scottish heritages, but is considered a "nation" because of a shared language (English), political institutions (parliamentary representation) and geography (islands separate from mainland Europe).


Romanticism essentially faded with the wars of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Man's ability to create weapons of war, the horrors of combat and the advance of industrialization all served to separate humanity from nature. Some legacies, however, still remain. Though not a "Romantic" per se, John Muir helped found California's Yosemite, King's Canyon and Sequoia parks, as well as found the Sierra Club. It was Muir's love of nature, and a feeling of connectedness to it, that prompted his activism. Likewise, the more recent "going green" initiative in business and culture draws upon feelings of connectedness and of a melancholy for a more "pure" past in ways that are similar to 18th and 19th Century Romanticism.

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About the Author

Michael Hinckley received a Bachelor of Arts degree in US history from the University of Cincinnati, a Master of Arts degree in Middle East history from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Hinckley is conversant in Arabic, and is a part-time lecturer at two Midwestern universities.

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