Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While romanticism in painting is not easy to define, common characteristics and themes can provide us with some clues.

Characterizing Art

What makes a painting romantic? A picture of flowers and chocolates? Maybe a heart? Or a passionate couple kissing? While these images may be the first that come to mind, Romantic paintings often include pictures of landscapes, indigenous peoples, or overgrown ruins. In this lesson, we’ll look at some key features of Romantic paintings.

Romanticism: Definition

Romanticism was a late 18th-century/early 19th-century art movement defined by its rejection of the popular idea that nature could be known, controlled, and mastered. Other movements in art history, like the Rococo or Baroque movements, were defined by internal characteristics like their adherence to Greek and Roman aesthetics.

As an art movement, Romanticism was more difficult to pin down because, while the Romantics disagreed that humanity should dominate nature, they also disagreed in terms of a substitute for that belief. Few of the major figures in the movement defined themselves as Romantics. However, despite their lack of central principles or ideals and use of a wide variety of techniques and subjects, there are some characteristics common to Romantic paintings.

Themes: Nature

The Romantics believed that applied science had failed to respect the power and mystery of nature and had ravished its majesty. As such, one recurrent theme in Romanticism was the worship of nature as divine. In the seascape painting, Calais Pier by JMW Turner, the ships, are overshadowed by the ominous sky and swirling waves.

Calais Pier by JMW Turner
The Slave Ship by JMW Turner

Turner’s focus on the power of nature is clear. The water and atmosphere have more detail than the sailors and ships.

Themes: Native Cultures

Painters associated with the Romanticism movement were inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s description of ”The Noble Savage.” They tried to capture indigenous and tribal cultures living in harmony with nature and often depicted their subjects in bold and striking poses.

This fascination with native cultures sent the message that civilization had gone astray and there was a purer and better way to live in harmony rather than at odds with the natural world. In this painting by Luis Monroy, called The Last Moments of Atala, note how noble the Native American’s pose is, and how Monroy depicts him in such a dramatic stance.

Luis Monroy The Last Moments of Atala
Luis Monroy The Last Moments of Atala

Themes: Ruins

Another common element found in Romanticism is the presence of ancient, overgrown ruins that symbolized the belief that nature would ultimately triumph over the forces of science and industry. The use of ruins as compositional elements also suggested that humanity is a transient rather than a permanent feature of the world.

During the Enlightenment, neoclassicism dominated art and emphasized aspects of Greek and Roman culture, such as balance, harmony, and logic. Unlike Renaissance painters, who showed clean whole columns to bring these structures back to their former life and glory, artists like Caspar David Friedrich, in his painting the Temple of Juno Agrigento depicted a world empty of our presence with nature slowly reclaiming the space.

Temple of Juno in Agrigento by Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich Ruins

Lesson Summary

Romanticism, an 18th-century/early 19th-century art movement, has not always been easy to define. Core challenges include its lack of central principles or ideals and use of a wide variety of painting techniques and subjects. However, Romantic paintings in general do have some characteristics in common, including depicting the power and awe of nature.

Romantic painters were also inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the idea of noble indigenous peoples living in harmony with nature. Additionally, romanticism involved the use of ancient ruins that symbolized nature conquering civilization and science. Artists associated with romanticism in painting included Caspar David Friedrich, Luis Monroy, and J.M.W. Turner.