Romanticism in France in the 19th century

Romanticism in France in the 19th century

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The " romanticism "Is a form of literary and artistic sensibility expressing the heartbreak of amorous passions and the anguish of human loneliness. Around 1800, the whole of Europe was affected by the Romantic movement. In France, the classical tradition has dominated letters and the arts for nearly two centuries. It stifles all subjectivity until the Revolution. From then on, romanticism was there both later and more violent, the French romantic authors will have a lot to do to establish themselves.

The agony of classicism

The term "romantic" comes from the German adjective romantisch. It has a complex and fuzzy meaning. Some relate it to the term "novel" which means first "vulgar language (as opposed to Latin)", then "narrative in the vulgar tongue". But the German romantic Friedrich von Schlegel opposes it to "classical" when speaking of literature. It is therefore the refusal of an outdated aesthetic. A pre-romantic movement developed in Germany and England from the end of the 18th century. As for romanticism, it appeared around 1800 in Germanic literature. In France, we do not speak of romanticism before 1815. Only Rousseau and Chateaubriand renew the classic themes and sensibilities.

Apart from these isolated experiences, one sticks to the rules of gender separation, ancient subjects, formal games and a certain reserve. Poetry lacks breath. It wants to be didactic and becomes boring. It imitates without genius, without even originality, the productions of the "generation of models" (17th century). The playwrights are also content with pale imitations of Racine. Classicism is dying. A good part of the public is demanding a radical change because, following recent political and social upheavals, the dramaturgical rules are losing their meaning and flavor. This audience appreciates Shakespeare's theater, Walter Scott's historical novels and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). As in other European countries, he is very interested in folklore.

Literary romanticism in France

Two fundamental works by Mme de Staël (1766-1817) call for a literary revival in France: Literature considered in its relation to social institutions (around 1800) and Of Germany (1813). The author emphasizes the demands of his period. In the name of aesthetic relativity, Madame de Staël calls for a decompartmentalization of genres to free sensitivity and individualism.

A generation of romantic writers was born under the Restoration, although many authors remained classical. The latter disdain the taste for the Middle Ages, considered for three centuries as a period of decadence. As early as 1820, romantics gathered in Charles Nodier's living room in the Arsenal library. They quickly made a name for themselves with Poetic meditations for Lamartine (1820), the Odes for Victor Hugo (1822) and the first Poems for Vigny. If Hugo remained relatively moderate at the beginning of the 1820s, he became the leader of the movement in 1827, with his preface by Cromwell, a veritable literary manifesto. The theater, mirror of universal life, must not respect the rules of decorum which place a veil between the drama represented and the spectator. Hugo advocates the juxtaposition of the sublime and the grotesque within the same piece. He protests against the three-unit rule.

His claims, shocking in the eyes of the classics, lead to the battle of 1830, when he makes represent Hernani or the Castilian Honor, at the Comédie-Française. If some stop the Romantic period at 1848, they overlook the fact that the spirit of this movement does not fade in a few years. Opposition to tradition has left its mark on people's minds to this day, and so-called Symbolist writers (Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, etc.) remain the direct heirs of the movement, without acknowledging it.

French romanticism in the arts

In the pictorial domain, David reigned over painting until 1815. He drew inspiration from Antiquity and developed static and austere compositions. His pupil, Gros, quickly breaks with his master’s austerity. He innovates with his chromatic power and his epic breath, visible in Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa (1804), a painting that shocks supporters of classical aesthetics. Two great French painters recognize their descent from Gros: Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Géricault responds to the academic tradition.

However, the theme turns out to be purely romantic. The painter refers to a news item. On July 16, 1816, a ship called La Méduse was wrecked. One hundred and forty-nine survivors board a raft. Fifteen survivors are taken aboard the Argus. The others were thrown into the water or eaten up. Géricault expresses the full intensity of the drama as the survivors see Argus. In Paris, conservative journalists violently attack this canvas in which they see a criticism of the regime. On the other hand, in London, it met with great success and appeared as a manifesto of the romantic school. Through its subject, it also becomes the symbol of a generation without a guide.

In 1831, Delacroix finished Liberty Leading the People to commemorate the revolution of July 1830. There he shows his sense of drama, movement and color. The bare-breasted woman represents freedom and victory. Delacroix also shows a taste for oriental subjects that can also be found in Hugo. In the musical field, French romanticism is represented by Hector Berlioz and César Franck.

In the middle of the 19th century, romantic sensibility gave way to the development of a "realistic" current carried by Baudelaire, Hugo or Balzac.


- Romanticism in France and Europe, by Gérard Gengembre. Pocket, 2003.

- History of romanticism, by Théophile Gautier. The Untraceable, 1993.

- French Romanticism, an essay on the revolution in feelings and ideas in the 19th century, by Pierre Lasserre. Hachette, 2016.

Video: The Origins of Romanticism