Romanticism, in art, European and American movement extending from about 1800 to 1850. Romanticism cannot be identified with a single style, technique, or attitude, but romantic painting is generally characterized by a highly imaginative and subjective approach, emotional intensity, and a dreamlike or visionary quality. Whereas classical and neoclassical art is calm and restrained in feeling and clear and complete in expression, romantic art characteristically strives to express by suggestion states of feeling too intense, mystical, or elusive to be clearly defined. Thus, the German writer Hoffmann declared "infinite longing" to be the essence of romanticism. In their choice of subject matter, the romantics showed an affinity for nature, especially its wild and mysterious aspects, and for exotic, melancholic, and melodramatic subjects likely to evoke awe or passion.
The word romantic first became current in 18th-century English and originally meant "romancelike," that is, resembling the strange and fanciful character of medieval romances. The word came to be associated with the emerging taste for wild scenery, "sublime" prospects, and ruins, a tendency reflected in the increasing emphasis in aesthetic theory on the sublime as opposed to the beautiful. The British writer and statesman Edmund Burke, for instance, identified beauty with delicacy and harmony and the sublime with vastness, obscurity, and a capacity to inspire terror. Also during the 18th century, feeling began to be considered more important than reason both in literature and in ethics, an attitude epitomized by the work of the French novelist and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. English and German romantic poetry appeared in the 1790s, and by the end of the century the shift away from reason toward feeling and imagination began to be reflected in the visual arts, for instance in the visionary illustrations of the English poet and painter William Blake, in the brooding, sometimes nightmarish pictures of his friend, the Swiss-English painter Henry Fuseli, and in the somber etchings of monsters and demons by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya.
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Last Update February 19, 2002