The romantic impulse: 18th – 20th century AD
Changes in society, beginning in the 18th century and continuing into our own time, underlie the romantic movement. It starts as a reaction against the intellectualism of the Enlightenment, against the rigidity of social structures protecting privilege, and against the materialism of an age which, in the first stirring of the Industrial Revolution, already shows signs of making workers the slaves of machinery and of creating squalid urban environments.
Unlike classicism or the baroque, romanticism has no definable standards. Indeed rejection of rules is almost a touchstone of the romantic temperament.
As a result a mood which pervades much of western life during the past two centuries is hard to define except in terms of opposites. The romantic temperament responds to emotion rather than reason, is excited by mystery rather than persuaded by clarity, listens more intently to the individual conscience than to the demands of society, and prefers rebellion to acceptance.
This is a mood which can inspire political activists as much as artists. It can result in the irresistible crescendo of a romantic symphony or in a mock-medieval castle perched dramatically above a craggy ravine. It can range in merit from great poetry to sentimental tales in magazines.
The new mood begins to appear in the 1760s. The year 1761 sees the publication of an immensely successful novel which satisfies both the yearnings of romanticism and the demands of convention. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Hélöse echoes in its title the great medieval romance of Abelard and Héloïse.
Like the true story, the novel begins with passion and ends in respectability. Julie falls in love with her tutor, St Preux, and yields to her feelings. She is forced to marry an elderly baron. Knowing his wife’s inclination but trusting her honour, the baron invites St Preux to become tutor to his children. Virtue prevails. The readers, stirred by the sentiments of the first part, can relax.
The theme of impossible love in a marital triangle reappears a decade later in Germany in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a romantic novel even more successful than La Nouvelle Héloi°se – and one providing the tragic end which the story demands.
Meanwhile romantics in Britain are seeking out the mysterious romance of long-forgotten literature (in Macpherson’s Celtic researches) and the awesome appeal of hitherto unappreciated landscapes (in the quest for the picturesque).
Macpherson and Chatterton: AD 1760-1777
In the late 1750s James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolmaster, begins travelling in the Highlands and islands to collect Gaelic manuscripts and oral accounts of traditional Celtic literature. The result is a collection of supposed translations of ancient texts, published in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.
Macpherson follows this in 1762 with a much more ambitious publication, an entire epic poem by the semi-legendary Irish poet Oisin, supposed son of the Celtic warrior hero Finn McCool.
Transferred by Macpherson to Scotland, the pair become Ossian and Fingal – and the poem itself is published as Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem composed by Ossian. This is rapturously received as a romantic relic from the Middle Ages, with only a few dissenting voices such as Dr Johnson’s.
It is later proved to be almost entirely Macpherson’s own book, with a few scraps of ancient ballads inserted here and there, but its success has another significance. The Celtic twilight imagined in Ossian’s name chimes perfectly with a new longing for something more mysterious than the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
This developing mood of romantic medievalism (less frivolous than Horace Walpole’s self-indulgence at Strawberry Hill) is given another boost in 1765 with the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. This contains genuine medieval ballads, mainly taken from a single surviving manuscript. In many cases they are somewhat over-restored by Percy, as an editor, but this is a trivial detail in the developing mood of the time.
Both Ossian and Percy are read with avid interest by a brilliant and lonely boy in Bristol, now in his early teens. Thomas Chatterton lives his own imaginative life in the late Middle Ages.
Chatterton invents a 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley, and sets him among historical Bristol characters of the period. He writes Rowley’s poems for him, and forges documents and correspondence relating to his life. These are sufficiently convincing to deceive various local antiquaries. Horace Walpole at first accepts as authentic a treatise by Rowley on painting which Chatterton sends him (The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande).
In March 1769 Chatterton has a supposed early medieval work (Ethelgar. A Saxon poem) accepted by the Town and Country Magazine. Two months later the same periodical publishes one of his Rowley poems.
In April 1770 Chatterton moves to London to seek his fortune. But no one in the capital city pays much attention. In August, in a garret, the 17-year-old boy takes arsenic and dies.
Seven years later a volume of the Rowley poems is published in London, assumed by the publisher to be by the 16th-century author. For many years argument rages as to whether these poems are by Rowley or Chatterton. Unlike Macpherson’s forgeries, those believing them to be Chatterton’s see in them a fresh and original talent. Called by Wordsworth ‘the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride’, Chatterton becomes a powerful influence in early romanticism.
British watercolours: 18th – 19th century AD
In 1771 the topographical artist Paul Sandby sets off with a wealthy patron for a tour of Wales. Sandby’s job is to sketch the magnificent scenery, now coming into fashion with the beginning of the Romantic movement. This new interest will be popularized a decade later by the Rev. William Gilpin, an indefatigable pilgrim in pursuit of the picturesque who publishes accounts of his own sketching tours, beginning with Observations on the River Wye, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1782).
Watercolour is the natural medium for sketches of this kind. The passion for the picturesque therefore lies behind the development of the most distinctively British strand in art history – that of the landscape watercolour.
Soon British watercolour artists are travelling abroad to bring back views from regions such as the Alps which have scenery even more picturesque than Wales can provide. In a nice paradox, classical ruins in Italy are also now found to be romantic.
From the start very individual styles emerge among these artists. Many attempt a neat topographical precision, particularly in subjects such as ruins. Others go for much bolder effects. John Robert Cozens, touring in Switzerland and Italy in 1776, brings back wonderfully misty and evocative images. Francis Towne, in the same regions in 1781, turns landscape into simple blocks of wash so bold that the effect is almost abstract.
Other leading watercolourists who develop their own personal vision of the British landscape include Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, David Cox and Peter de Wint. Vision tips over into visionary in the richly intimate views painted by Samuel Palmer at Shoreham in Kent (under the influence of William Blake, a master of watercolour in his own visionary scenes).
One figure above all personifies the development of the watercolour in England. Turner in his twenties paints brilliantly in the detailed topographical style. Later in his life he produces bright shimmering washes as bold as his large canvases of the same period. Constable says that they seem to be painted ‘with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy’.
Sturm und Drang: AD 1771-1782
The phrase Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) is the title of a wild and extravagant drama by Friedrich Klinger, first performed in 1776. Its mood is typical of a fashion among young writers in Germany during the 1770s. Critics have subsequently adopted the title as the ideal name for the entire school. Storm and stress are the ingredients with which these writers challenge the calm certainties of 18th-century rationalism.
The first significant success in the new style is the play which brings Goethe fame throughout Germany – Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand), written between 1771 and 1773 and first performed in Berlin in 1774.
Based on the buccaneering autobiography of a real character of the 16th century, Goethe’s play presents Götz as a hero fighting for natural rights against the repressive and corrupt bishop of Bamberg. His last words, as he dies, are Freiheit! Freiheit! (Freedom, Freedom).
Three years later, in 1777, the 18-year-old Friedrich Schiller, a resentful student in a military academy, begins writing an even wilder play, Die Ra:uber (The Robbers), which can be seen as the final fling of Sturm und Drang. Schiller borrows money to publish the play privately in 1781. It causes a sensation when it is performed at Mannheim in 1782.
Die Räuber tells the story of two sons of a nobleman. The evil younger son schemes to disinherit his brother and then systematically torments his father. The good son, reacting against unjust rejection by his father, joins a robber band and is implicated in appalling crimes. When his brother is finally unmasked, and his father found naked in a dungeon, the good son’s evil deeds prevent his returning to normal life.
This family triangle is a more extreme version of Gloucester and his sons in King Lear, and Shakespeare is one of the strong influences on the Sturm und Drang generation. The first collection of his plays in German is published in 1762-6.
Young Werther: AD 1774
The influence of Rousseau, the man of feeling, is particularly strong in the book which brings Goethe a European reputation. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) has an immediate success in 1774. Like many first novels, it has strong autobiographical elements.
In 1772 Goethe lives for some months in Wetzlar, where he falls in love with the 19-year-old Lotte Buff. She is already engaged, but her fiancé very tolerantly allows the tormented poet to share their social life as an informal trio. Just after Goethe’s departure from Wetzlar, a friend – in love with a married woman – shoots himself. This tragedy too is directly reflected in Werther.
Werther, an exceptionally sensitive young man, arrives in spring in a new town (as Goethe did) and is bowled over by the beauty of his new environment – and soon by the beauty of Lotte (the name in the novel as well as in real life).
The triangular friendship continues through the summer, mingling joy and torment, until Werther tears himself away in the autumn. But he cannot resist returning in the following spring. After a while, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his position, he shoots himself with the fiancé’s revolver.
Young Werther’s almost morbid introspection, heightened by extreme sensibility and made irresistibly convincing by Goethe’s genius, captures the mood of a young generation increasingly inclined to a romantic view of the world. Werther’s favourite clothes (blue jacket, yellow breeches) immediately become the fashion. So too, in a few unfortunate cases, does his fate. Several suicides seem to imitate the book. One woman, in 1777, even drowns herself near Goethe’s house with a copy of the novel in her pocket.
A reader less enthusiastic than the majority is Lotte’s fiancé, now her husband. On publication of Werther he breaks off contact with Goethe, ending the triangle which until then has continued in correspondence.
The romance of the artist: 19th – 20th century AD
By the mid-19th century the poems, the paintings and the revolutions most commonly associated with the Romantic movement have occurred. But these have been merely the identifying moments of romanticism. The theme and the cast of mind remain a powerful thread in western culture, up to and including our own time.
A great deal of art is romantic at each successive period – at one extreme in the grandiose mysteries of Wagner, at the other in the self-indulgence of Oscar Wilde or the similar determination of the surrealists to defy expectation. Much of extremist politics is romantic, from the anarchist’s rejection of all restraint to fascist dreams of fatherland and superman.
Artists have been the main exponents and perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the romantic impulse. The rejection of the classical ideal of clear rules by which art can be judged has placed much greater emphasis on the artist himself. When Duchamp exhibits a ready-made ceramic urinal in 1917, calling it Fountain, the rules change. An artist is no longer someone who creates what is recognizably art. Art is whatever is created by someone recognized as an artist.
This brings the paradox that conceptual art, while seeming intellectual, is essentially romantic. Its appeal lies in mystery, surprise, transformation, in a shrine with the artist as high priest.