The virtual dictator of European painting during the first two decades of the nineteenth century was the French neoclassicist Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). David became a baron and court painter under Napoleon, then was exiled by the restored Bourbons. No matter how revolutionary the subject, David employed traditional neoclassical techniques, stressing form, line, and perspective.
Romanticism, Reaction, and Revolution
Romantic musicians, like romantic poets, sought out the popular ballads and tales of the national past; they also sought to free their compositions from classical rules. Composers of opera and song turned to literature: Shakespeare’s plays, Scott’s novels, Byron’s poetry, and the poems and tales of Goethe and Pushkin.
The romantics’ enthusiasm for the Middle Ages in general and for the earlier history of their own nations in particular linked the universal (nature) to the particular (the nation-state). Nationalism was an emotional, almost mystical force.
The romantic return to the national past, though intensified by French expansionism, had begun before 1789 as part of the repudiation of the Enlightenment. The pioneers of romanticism tended to cherish what the philosophes detested, notably the Middle Ages and the medieval preoccupation with religion.
Romanticism is best revealed through literature. Literary romanticism may be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century—to novels of “sensibility” like Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse and to the sentimental “tearful comedies” of the French stage. In the 1770s and 1780s a new intensity appeared in the very popular works of the German Sturm and Drang, for example, Goethe’s morbidly sensitive Sorrows of Young Werther, and The Robbers, a drama of social protest by J. C. E von Schiller (1759-1805).
The romantic period (usually dated 1780 to 1830) was one in which political and cultural thought showed such a varied concern for tradition that many historians dispute that there was sufficient unity of thought to refer to a “movement” at all. Moreover, writers of “the romantic school” in Germany were quite different from writers in England or France at the same time; the various romantic thinkers tended to be united by what they disliked more than by what they liked.
The origins of the Modern West lay in the French Revolution, and the rising nationalism stimulated by it and by the conquests of Napoleon.
They lay also in the developments of the short, intense period between the Congress of Vienna and the wave of revolutions that moved across Europe in 1848. During this time and into the 1880s, the industrial revolution was also transforming Western societies, especially Britain, Germany, and the United States.