Romanticism in France  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

(Redirected from French Romanticism)
Jump to: navigation, search

"It is not yet sixty years since the Romanticists and the Classicists first met in battle-array; and it is but little more than fifty years since Hernani sounded his trumpet, and the hollow walls of Classicism fell with a final crash. This half-century is a period of no slight importance in the history of the drama : it is one of the two epochs when the plays of France have been conspicuously and incomparably superior to the plays of any other country."--French Dramatists of the 19th Century (1881) Brander Matthews

"At first Romanticism was, in its essence, merely a spirited defence of localisation in literature. The Romanticists admired and glorified the Middle Ages, which the culture of the eighteenth century had anathematised, and the poets of the sixteenth century--Ronsard, Du Bellay, &c.--who had been supplanted by the classic authors of the age of Louis XIV. They attacked pseudo-classicism, the tiresome and monotonous Frenchifying and modernising of all ages and nationalities. They took as their watchword "local colouring." By local colouring they meant all the characteristics of foreign nations, of far-off days, of unfamiliar climes, to which as yet justice had not been done in French literature. They felt that their predecessors had been led astray by the premise that every human being was simply a human being, and, moreover, more or less of a Frenchman. In reality, there was not such a thing as universal humanity; there were separate races, peoples, tribes, and clans. Still less was the Frenchman the typical human being. It was imperative, if they were to understand and represent human life, that they should free themselves from themselves. This idea gave the impulse to the art and criticism of nineteenth-century France."--Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature – Vol 5. The Romantic School in France (c.1872-75) by Georg Brandes

"Romanticism is the star which weeps, the wind which cries out, the night which shivers, the flower which gives its scent, the bird which flies...It is the infinite and the starry, the warmth, the broken, the sober, and yet at the same time the plain and the round, the diamond-shaped, the pyramidal, the vivid, the restrained, the embraced, the turbulent."--"Sur l'Abus qu'on fait des adjectifs" (1836) by Alfred de Musset

"French romanticism was neither mediaeval nor pious. It took up its abode rather in the Renaissance period as regards remoteness in time, and in the East or the realms of faerie, if it wished to be spacially remote from reality. In Victor Hugo's works the one drama of Les Burgraves takes place in the thirteenth century ; but in all the others, Cromwell, Maria Tudor, Lucrezia Borgia, Angela, Ruy Blas, Hernani, Marion Delorme, Le Roi s'amuse, the scenes were laid in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ; and his one mediaeval romance, Notre Dame de Paris, can be set over against all the rest, from Han d'Islande, which has for its scene of action a fancied Thule, to Les Miserables and 1793, which take place in an apocalyptic Paris and in a history of the Revolution suited to the use of hashish-smokers. The bent of French romanticism towards the Renaissance is natural. That was the period of great passions and great crimes, of marble palaces, of dresses glittering with gold, and of intoxicating revels ; a period in which the aesthetic prevailed over the useful, and the fantastic over the rational, and when crime itself was beautiful, because assassination was accomplished with a chased and damascened poniard, and the poison was handed in goblets wrought by Benvenuto Cellini.

The French romanticists made use of the unreality of their scene of action and costumes chiefly for the purpose of enabling them, without restraint, to attribute to their characters all the qualities, exaggerated even to monstrosity, that were dear to the French, not yet ailing with the pain of overthrow. Thus in the heroes of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Theophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset, we become acquainted with the French ideal of man and woman. The subtle inquiries of Faust, the soliloquies of Hamlet, are not their affair. They talk unceasingly in dazzling witticisms and antitheses; they fight one against ten; they love like Hercules in the Thespidian night, and their whole life is one riot of fighting, wantoning, wine, perfume, and pageantry a sort of magnificent illusion, with performance of gladiators, Don Juans, and Monte Christos; a crazy prodigality of inexhaustible treasures of bodily strength, gaiety and gold. These ideal beings had necessarily to wear doublets or Spanish mantles, and speak in the tongues of unknown times, because the tightness of the contemporary dress-coat could not accommodate all this wealth of muscle, and the conversation of the Paris salon did not admit of the candour of souls which their authors had turned inside out."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854) by Louis Janmot. The shift from French Romanticism to French Symbolism?
Poem of the Soul, Nightmare (1854) by Louis Janmot. The shift from French Romanticism to French Symbolism?
The "Pégase romantique" caricature by Jean-Gabriel Scheffer  Left to right: Petrus Borel, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas
The "Pégase romantique" caricature by Jean-Gabriel Scheffer
Left to right: Petrus Borel, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas

Related e



Romanticism (Romantisme in French) was a literary and artistic movement that appeared in France in the late 18th century, largely in reaction against the formality and strict rules of the official style of neo-classicism. It reached its peak in the first part of the 19th century, in the writing of François-René de Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, the poetry of Alfred de Vigny; the painting of Eugène Delacroix; the music of Hector Berlioz; and later in the architecture of Charles Garnier. It was gradually replaced beginning in the late 19th century by the movements of Art Nouveau, realism and modernism.

French Romanticism was epitomized by Victor Hugo (the preface to Cromwell, 1827 and Hernani, 1830) in literature and by Delacroix (Raft of the Medusa, 1819 and Death of Sardanapalus, 1827) in painting. A key dictum in understanding French Romanticism is from Baudelaire's essay "Qu’est-ce que le romantisme ?" and reads "to speak of romanticism is to speak of modern art".

French Romanticism was influenced by German Romanticism and English Romanticism.




French literature of the 19th century was dominated by Romanticism -- associated with such authors as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, père, François-René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, Gérard de Nerval, Charles Nodier, Alfred de Musset, Théophile Gautier and Alfred de Vigny -- and their revolutionary work in all genres (theater, poetry, prose fiction). The effect of the romantic movement would continue to be felt in the latter half of the century in wildly diverse literary developments, such as "realism", "symbolism", and the so-called fin de siècle "decadent" movement.

French romanticism is a highly eclectic phenomenon. It includes an interest in the historical novel, the romance, traditional myths (and nationalism) and the "roman noir" (or Gothic novel), lyricism, sentimentalism, descriptions of the natural world (such as elegies by lakes) and the common man, exoticism and orientalism, and the myth of the romantic hero. Foreign influences played a big part in this, especially those of Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Goethe, and Friedrich Schiller. French Romanticism had ideals diametrically opposed to French classicism and the classical unities (see French literature of the 17th century), but it could also express a profound loss for aspects of the pre-revolutionary world in a society now dominated by money and fame, rather than honor.

Key ideas from early French Romanticism:

  • "le vague des passions" (waves of sentiment and passion) - Chateaubriand maintained that while the imagination was rich, the world was cold and empty, and rationalism and civilization had only robbed men of their illusions; nevertheless, a notion of sentiment and passion continued to haunt men.
  • "le mal du siècle" (the pain of the century) - a sense of loss, disillusion, and aporia, typified by melancholy and lassitude.

Romanticism in England and Germany largely predate French romanticism, although one finds a kind of "pre-romanticism" in the works of Senancour and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (among others) at the end of the 18th century. French Romanticism took definite form in the works of François-René de Chateaubriand and Benjamin Constant and in Madame de Staël's interpretation of Germany as the land of romantic ideals. It found early expression also in the sentimental poetry of Alphonse de Lamartine.

The major battle of romanticism in France was fought in the theater. The early years of the century were marked by a revival of classicism and classical-inspired tragedies, often with themes of national sacrifice or patriotic heroism in keeping with the spirit of the Revolution, but the production of Victor Hugo's Hernani in 1830 marked the triumph of the romantic movement on the stage (a description of the turbulent opening night can be found in Théophile Gautier). The dramatic unities of time and place were abolished, tragic and comic elements appeared together and metrical freedom was won. Marked by the plays of Friedrich Schiller, the romantics often chose subjects from historic periods (the French Renaissance, the reign of Louis XIII of France) and doomed noble characters (rebel princes and outlaws) or misunderstood artists (Vigny's play based on the life of Thomas Chatterton).

Victor Hugo was the outstanding genius of the Romantic School and its recognized leader. He was prolific alike in poetry, drama, and fiction. Other writers associated with the movement were the austere and pessimistic Alfred de Vigny, Théophile Gautier a devotee of beauty and creator of the "Art for art's sake" movement, and Alfred de Musset, who best exemplifies romantic melancholy. All three also wrote novels and short stories, and Musset won a belated success with his plays. Alexandre Dumas, père wrote The Three Musketeers and other romantic novels in an historical setting. Prosper Mérimée and Charles Nodier were masters of shorter fiction. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a literary critic, showed romantic expansiveness in his hospitality to all ideas and in his unfailing endeavour to understand and interpret authors rather than to judge them.

Romanticism is associated with a number of literary salons and groups: the Arsenal (formed around Charles Nodier at the Arsenal Library in Paris from 1824-1844 where Nodier was administrator), the Cénacle (formed around Nodier, then Hugo from 1823-1828), the salon of Louis Charles Delescluze, the salon of Antoine (or Antony) Deschamps, the salon of Madame de Staël.

Romanticism in France defied political affiliation: one finds both "liberal" (like Stendhal), "conservative" (like Chateaubriand) and socialist (George Sand) strains.


French Romantic painting

French Romantic painting is epitomized by Eugène Delacroix (Raft of the Medusa, 1819 and Death of Sardanapalus, 1827).

French romantic painting was sometimes called "theatrical romanticism". Unlike the romanticism in Germany, it was based less on expressing philosophical ideas than upon achieving extravagant effects, with the dramatic use of color and movement. Figures were twisted or stretched out, canvases were crowded with figures, and lines were sometimes imprecise. The locations used were often exotic, usually in Egypt or the Turkish Empire.

One of the early prominent figures in French romantic painting was Hubert Robert, famous especially capricci, picturesque depictions of real or imagined ruins in Italy and of France. These included his view of what the Grand Gallery of the Louvre would look like, collapsed and overgrown with vines.

Anne Louis Girodet was one of the first important painters in French romanticism. A pupil of Jacques Louis David. His work was greatly admired by Napoleon; he painted The Shadows of French Heroes who died in the wars of Liberty, received by Ossian (1802) especially for the main salon of Napoleon's home at Malmaison. It featured the mysterious lighting, symbols, mythological figures and theatrical effects which were to be recurrent romantic themes.

The first major painter of French romanticism was Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). He had first made his reputation painting the chasseurs of Napoleon's Imperial Guard. His most famous work, however, was the Raft of the Medusa, (1818–1819), based on a real incident, showing the survivors of a shipwreck on a raft, waving desperately to be noticed by a faraway ship. the work was painted with extreme realism, after numerous studies, and captured in the most dramatic fashion the mixture of desperation and hopelessness of the passengers.

The French painter most frequently associated with romanticism is Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). Delacroix had tried seven times to enter the Academy of Fine Arts without success; he finally entered with the political support of Napoleon's foreign affairs minister, Talleyrand. Delacroix's favorite authors were Shakespeare and Lord Byron, and he sought to vividly portray the summits of tragedy. Delacroix introduced a dramatic contrast of action, violence and nudity in an exotic setting, in his Death at Sardanapale (1827), a theme inspired by Byron.

Delacroix's work was an example of another tendency of romanticism, the use of exotic settings; in French romanticism, these were usually in Egypt or the Middle East. He is best known for Liberty leading the People (1830), shown in the Salon of 1831, inspired by the combat outside the Hotel de Ville in Paris during the July Revolution of 1830. The semi-nude figure of Liberty, raising a flag, surrounded by the violence and death of combat, next to a small boy raising a pistol too large for his hand, was something new and dramatic.

Later romantic painting

Later romantic painting retained the romantic content, but was generally more precise and realistic in style, adapting to the demands of the French Academy. Important figures in later French romantic painting included the Swiss-born Charles Gleyre (1806–1874), who specialized in mythological and orientalist scenes. He painted in a more realistic style and with paler colors than the earlier romantics, but his works were equally charged in exoticism. He was famous as a teacher, and some of his students later became prominent in very different styles; they included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Thomas Couture was another prominent late romantic painter, who combined history painting and romanticism. His most famous painting is The Romans in their Decadence (1847), an enormous canvas, almost five meters by eight meters, crowded with scenes of decadence. He was a teacher at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and, like Gleyre, he taught a number of famous later painters, including Édouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In the center is a reclining woman with a look of despair, surrounded by all the possible vices of Rome, encircled by statues of ancient Roman heroes recalling the more virtuous classical age.


The major sculptor of the romantic movement in France was François Rude (1784–1855). His best-known work is THe Departure of the Volunteers on the facade of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (1833–36), made at the peak of the romantic movement, with its vivid depiction of the passion and fury of the volunteers setting out from Paris in 1792 go defend the French Revolution. The model for the figure of the Genius of War, above the others with wings spread, sword pointed forward and arm raised, was Rude's wife, the painter Sophie Frémiet.

Another notable romantic work by Rude later in the period was Napeoleon awakening into immortality (1845–47). Napoleon, in his uniform with a crown of laurels, is emerging from his shroud and seems to be floating upwards, above a rocky pedestal and the body of an eagle.


Victor Hugo was the first major figure in French romantic theater. His play Hernani, which premiered on 23 February 1830 at the Théatre-Français in Paris, a few months before the overthrow of the Charles X of France and the Bourbon monarchy, was a sort of manifesto of romanticism. It was seen as a direct attack at the formal classicism of French theater. There were fights inside the theater, as more conservative playgoers jeered the performance. The play was later made into a successful opera, Ernani, by Verdi. However, Hugo's career as a romantic playwright did not last long; his next work, another historical play Les Burgraves, which premiered on 22 April 1843, was a dismal failure, and Hugo abandoned playwrighting entirely. The Paris theater turned instead to historical dramas, such as La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas, which premiered on 19 February 1847.


Hector Berlioz was the best-known French romantic composer. His major works included the Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy, choral pieces including the Requiem and L'enfance du Christ, and three operas: Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Béatrice et Bénédict, a "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette and the "dramatic legend" La damnation de Faust.

Another important figure in French romanticism was Charles Gounod, best known today for his operas Faust and Romeo and Juliet and his arrangement of Ave Maria based on a melody by Bach.

French music was enriched by the presence of some of the most important romantic composers. Frederic Chopin moved to Paris in 1830, at the age of 20, and lived and composed there until his death in 1849.

Beginning in 1824, Gioachino Rossini lived and composed in Paris; he created a series of operas, including The Siege of Corinth and the opera William Tell, with its famous overture, which premiered on August 3, 1829 at the Royal Academy of Music, It was not a popular success, and Rossini retired from writing operas, though he lived another forty years.

The Composers Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner all spent time in Paris during the romantic period, composing, influencing and being influenced by its music.


Romantic ballet first appeared in Paris in the 1820s, developed by the company and school of the Paris Opera Ballet, and performed at the Salle Le Peletier One landmark event was the 1832 début in Paris of the ballerina Marie Taglioni in a new ballet La Sylphide, followed by Giselle (1841), Paquita (1846), Le Corsaire (1856), Le papillon (1860), La source (1866), and Coppélia (1870).

Other celebrated dancers of romantic ballet included Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle, and Carolina Rosati, who originated the role of Medora in Le Corsaire (1856). Famous male dancers included Lucien Petipa, who created the role of Count Albrecht in Giselle. From 1860 to 1868, he was ballet master of the Paris Opera Ballet. His brother Marius Petipa, also a dancer, became the ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, and created a series of romantic ballets, including La Bayadère (1877); and The Sleeping Beauty (1890).

The Romantic ballet gave prominence to the ballerina, where previously the male dancers had been the stars, and introduced the Pointe technique, with ballerinas on their toes, seeming to float across the stage, as well as the use of the tutu as a performance costume. Other innovations of Romantic ballet included a separate identity of the scenarist or author from the choreographer, and the use of specially written music by one composer rather than a pastiche of works by several composers. The invention of gas lighting also enhanced the atmosphere of the romantic ballet; it allowed gradual changes of lighting and a sense of mystery. Various other stage devices and illusions were introduced in romantic ballet, including the use of trap doors and wires to make it appear that the dancers could fly.


Romantic architecture in France was highly eclectic, drawing upon earlier periods, particularly Gothic architecture, exotic styles, or upon literature and the imagination.

A celebrated early example is the Hameau de la Reine created for Queen Marie-Antoinette in the park of the Palace of Versailles between 1783 and 1785. I was designed by the royal architect Richard Mique with the help of the romantic painter Hubert Robert. It consisted of twelve structures, ten of which still exist, in the style of villages in Normandy. It was designed for the Queen and her friends to amuse themselves by playing peasants, and included a farmhouse with a dairy, a mill, a boudoir, a pigeon loft, a tower in the form of a lighthouse from which one could fish in the pond, a belvedere, a cascade and grotto, and a luxuriously furnished cottage with a billiard room for the Queen.

The writer François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) played an important part in the popularity of romantic architecture. In his writings, including The Genius of Christianity, (1802) he attacked what he considered the materialism of the Englightenment, and called for a return to the Christian values of earlier years, through the religious feelings inspired by Gothic architecture. He described the Gothic style as the native architecture of France, comparable to the role played the forests in the pagan religion of the Gauls.

The revival of the Gothic style was also greatly enhanced by immense popularity of the novel Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, published in 1821. That led to a movement for the restoration of the Cathedral, and to the creation in 1837 of a commission of Historic Monuments, headed by Prosper Mérimée, who was himself the author of popular novellas and stories in the romantic style. Restoration was first begun of the crumbling chapel of Sainte-Chapelle and then, between 1845 and 1850, of the battered cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, which had been semi-ruined and stripped of its decoration. The restoration was carried out by the young Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1834-1879) and Jean-Batpiste-Antoine Lapsus (1807–1857).

Movement for a Gothic revival led to the construction of the first neo-Gothic church in Paris, the basilica of Sainte-Clothilde, begun in 1845 by architects Christian Gau and Thédore Ballu. The new church had two towers and a purely Gothic nave and apse, with an abundance of sculpture and stained glass, but was slightly was more linear and streamlined, following the classical tendency. Nonetheless, the project was harshly judged by the rigorously neoclassical faculty of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who denounced it as "plagiarism" and "false Gothic."

A notable shift in French official architecture took place in the 1830s, with a change in the direction of the Academy of Fine Arts. The devoted classicist Quatremère de Quincy departed, and the Academy turned to Italian Renaissance architecture as the new model. Major examples included the Sainte-Geneviève Library, Paris by Henri Labrouste (1844-1850), with its pure Renaissance facade. Labrouste designed the interior of this library and of the reading room of the National Library of France with an innovative use of new materials: he employed cast iron columns and arches, combined with simplified Renaissance decorative motifs, to create large and elegant open spaces with abundance of natural light. Italian Renaissance architecture, combined with modern materials, was also adopted for use in the new train stations constructed in Paris, particularly in the Gare de l'Est by François Duquesnoy

Later in the 19th century, Some architects sought more exotic sources. Byzantine architecture was the inspiration for French some buildings in the late 19th century, notably the domes of the church of Sacré-Cœur, Paris begun by Paul Abadie (1874–1905). Marseille is home to two remarkable romantic churches, the Marseille Cathedral (1852–1896), in a Romanesque-Byzantine style, and Notre-Dame de la Garde, consecrated in 1864.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Romanticism in France" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools