French Romanticism  

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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?

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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).

Key figures

See also

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