Romanticism in Art: The rise of self-expression

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault, men on a small raft, post war

In the late 18th century, romanticism subtly started to make its appearance in art. First observed in European art, romanticism emphasizes introspection, emotion, and subjective expression. In a sense, romanticism gave artists much-needed liberty to express themselves with spontaneity. The Romantic movement developed initially on the idea of rejecting established orders, such as social and religious structures.

Famous Romantic Paintings

The true essence of Romanticism can only be understood when you relate all this information with actual art. Following are some of the world’s most famous romantic paintings:

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up is an oil-on-canvas work by the English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, painted in 1838.

JMW Turner is often credited as being the pioneer of incorporating landscapes in the Romantic art movement. At the beginning of his career, Turner was a neoclassical artist, where his work lacked symbolism and deeper appreciation beyond its aesthetics.  A vacation to the Swiss countryside kindled his artistic passion for nature which manifested in his landscape art.

Turner has been described as:

“A master of history, landscape, and marine painting, he challenged the style of the old masters, trailblazing in technique and subject matter,”

Tate Britain

Turner’s work is characterized by loose brush strokes that progressively become precise and take the shape of breathtaking landscapes. He layers his colors meticulously, beginning from a duller palette and moving on slowly to more vibrant hues. This is a stark shift from the classic austere color palette of the time. A glimpse of romanticism is seen in today’s modern art in terms of vibrant colors.

Painting of the Temeraire ship by JMW Turner
The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner. Public Domain

The artwork shows an iconic British ship named the HMS Temeraire being pulled up the Thames in 1838 where it would be dismantled for scrap. The ship had served the British navy heroically in important wars and had since become a cultural emblem of bravery. 

The blackened, filthy tugboat with its tall chimney stirs the calm river’s surface and contrasts with the antique ship’s elegance. It is ironic how the smoke coming out of this small tugboat obscures the grand Temeraire almost completely. The contrast between the size of these vessels points toward the industrial revolution. The sinking sun highlights the inevitable yet glorious end of the Temeraire. It has been speculated that the ship represents the artist himself, who is now reflecting on his mortality after a successful and illustrious past.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 

Casper David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ is a prime example of romanticism in art. Friedrich skillfully combines a mesmerizing landscape with a sense of self-reflection and introspection.

By keeping the subject’s face away from the audience, he enables us to adopt his perspective of the world. In this manner, the painter conveys his thoughts and emotions more subjectively. 

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, man on precipice above thick blankets of Fog
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. Public Domain

Taking the optimistic approach, one would think that the wanderer having climbed the top of this rugged crag basks in his achievement. His stance may be reflective of his feeling dignified and inspired standing at an elevated precipice looking over the world before him.  The pessimist would see the wanderer as being lost, distressed by doubts gazing into nothingness, unsure where the answers lie. The fog enhances the man’s inner turmoil. The cauldron of blinding mist obscures the land below almost completely. This is indicative of the ambiguity in a man’s mind, do we already have all the answers, or are we further away than ever? 

His placement on the verge of the rocks gives a sense of impatience which points toward an incomplete journey.  Despite this ambiguity, the intensity of emotions is not reduced in the slightest. The entire composition evokes feelings of both optimism and loneliness.

The Raft of Medusa

The oil painting titled ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ was created by French artist Théodore Géricault between 1818 and 1819. The painting features common people and their efforts rather than well-known heroes and their glorious stories.

The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault, men on a small raft, post war
The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault. Public Domain.

The enhanced physique of the central figure, who is waving to the rescue ship, might be a reminder of Neoclassicism, but the natural light and shadows and the intensity of the survivors’ despair give this composition a sublime quality that clearly makes it a part of the romantic movement. Since the painting portrays contemporary occurrences with common and unheroic individuals, it further gives this piece a relatable component which is characteristic of romantic art. 

“the fallacy of hope and pointless suffering, and at worst, the basic human instinct to survive, which had superseded all moral considerations and plunged civilized man into barbarism”.

– Christine Riding

The History of Romanticism in Art

Romanticism was first noted in literature, mostly poetry, and later in visual art. William Wordsworth was an English poet whose work was characteristic of the romantic movement. Literary artists felt that poetry was a natural way for suppressed feelings to be freed. Similarly romantic visual artists had the same outlook on people, the natural world, and the arts, but each was distinctive in the ways they expressed that outlook.

The romanticists put forward that imagination and most importantly freedom of expression are essential for the development of art. Romanticism may be considered a cultural movement that emerged in Europe and even the United States of America around the 1780s. Before this, the Neoclassicism movement was prevalent. It was characterized by a concentration on classical subjects, a desire for visual minimalism, and concepts in accordance with the Enlightenment. This was an ideological, moral, and intellectual movement that put an emphasis on the individual, and predominated early 18th-century European art.

The most important names in the romanticism movement are artists like Joseph Mallord William TurnerTheodore GericaultFrancisco Goya, and Caspar David Friedrich. These artists expressed themselves in a way that primarily examined the spiritual aspect of humanity, the beauty of nature, and the importance of complete liberty in art.

The 5 Characteristics of Romanticism

Romanticism in art is a reflection of the artist on canvas, their experiences, and their relationship with their surroundings. Romantic artists may express themselves differently, each artist has a selected genre where they express their prowess. Romantic art may be categorized into the following five groups:


Romanticism emerged in response to the growing unrest around the world. The French Revolution had a major hand in the increasing appearance of patriotism in art. Patriotism in poetry had become a necessity as it proved to be an important source of motivation for soldiers. Moreover, the French revolution followed the American Revolution which further strengthened the strain of nationalism in art. This patriotism is sometimes subtle but it can be extremely bold and emotionally charged as well. The subtle representations include an emphasis on important landscapes, traditional attires, presence of signs and symbols that represents the artist’s nationality. Most famous paintings portray a scene from a war that exudes emotions and national pride. Through their paintings, these artists fostered a sense of national belonging and identity.


Introspection refers to the process of analyzing one’s own cognitive and emotional experiences. Where the neoclassicists would feel that it is rather bold to express their internal thoughts in art, subjectivity lies at the heart of romanticism. Romanticism has emerged as a direct reaction to the preceding Neoclassical period which favored logic and de-emphasized imagination. 

The exploration of their own psyche gave rise to art that was relatable on a deeper level by the masses. There was a deviation from presenting things that were “worthy” to emotions that could be shared by all without the fear of judgment. 

Nature (‘en Plein Air’)

Nature has been heavily depicted in art since time immemorial. However, romanticism has been different in the sense that it doesn’t just emphasize the beauty of the scenery. In romantic art, nature is used as a way to express emotions and its symbolic side has been given more attention. Thus, a scene is worthy of being painted only if it has a worthwhile history. Painting en Plein air, or outside, became more popular as a result of artists’ growing fascination with nature. The close and detailed monitoring of the natural world resulted in a more emotive narration of scenes.


The quest for fairness, freedom and the promotion of justice was embraced throughout the Romantic period, which was naturally fueled by the French Revolution. The oppressed classes finally spoke up for themselves and new idealistic ideas gained popularity around the world. Many Romantic painters started depicting the turning point of social ideologies in their works. Romantic artworks are characterized by a sense of spiritual rebirth that would help to bring about a new era of liberty and independence among the masses. 

The Sublime

With its emphasis on the more negative human feelings, such as helplessness in the face of the world and nature, the sublime developed into one of the key concepts of German Romanticism. Edmund Burke’s 1757 conception of sublime art introduced the idea that the sublime has an aesthetic influence that creates the strongest sensation a person can feel. 

“whatever is in any way horrific, knows dreadful things, or behaves in a manner like terror, is a wellspring of the Sublime.” – Edmund Burke on Sublime

Following the 1756 publication of Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, the sublime became associated with Romanticism. Thus, the sublime has become a core value of romanticism in art. 

The End of Romanticism in Art

Today, when we use the term ‘romantic’ it is associated with the physical expressions of love. However, the real meaning of romanticism comes from art. To be romantic is to have the ability to find beauty in things. Artists not only appreciate beauty privately but also have the ability to share their perspectives with others. Under the Romantic movement, art has become a safe haven for artists who can speak their minds without the fear of judgment. For this reason, romantic art is often seen as a medium of catharsis. 

The cycle of art history continued throughout the middle of the 19th century until artists started to rebel against Romantic ideals. This shift in preferences resulted in the rise of Realism, a French movement that promoted the idea that common, working-class individuals, modern surroundings, and everyday scenes were deserving topics for art. The Romantic movement is still a significant part of art history and has a massive influence on the art movements that followed. 


When did the romantic movement take place? 

The romantic movement occurred first in France and Britain during the 1770s and lasted till the early 1850s. More precisely the movement was seen all around the world in the year 1800 and was at its peak till the year 1850. 

What is romanticism a reaction to?

Romanticism was an almost direct reaction to the unrest caused by the French Revolution. Artists felt suffocated by the increased emphasis of the Neoclassicists on logic and reason. As a result, they chose to incorporate their personal emotions into the work they created. 

How is Romanticism shown in art? 

Romanticism in art may be perceived both objectively and subjectively. From an objective perspective, romanticism involves a more vibrant palette, soft realistic contours, and accurate representation of lights and shadows. On a subjective level, romantic art is symbolic and usually has a moving back story. 

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