Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Age of Revolution was also the Age of Romanticism, and the one is incomprehensible without the other. Of course, political and religious change has always been reflected in artistic change. But the relationship is closer than usual here. The image of the Decembrist revolutionary Ryleev ascending the scaffold with a volume of Byron in his hand encapsulates that relationship: the revolutionaries were impelled to their acts of violence by their visionary Romanticism. Their love of political freedom was seen as being born from the love of freedom expressed in their Romantic art; the theoria of the one engendered the praxis of the other.

     The revolutionary nature of Romanticism inevitably meant that it was linked to the revolution in politics. “During the 1820s,” writes Sir Richard Evans, in spite of the conservative reaction imposed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, “writers and thinkers began to move towards a more liberal point of view. Victor Hugo, who in 1824 declared that literature should be ‘the expression of a religious and monarchical society’, was by 1830 propounding the principle that ‘Romanticism, taken as a whole, is only liberalism in literature… Freedom in art and liberty in society are the twin goals to which all consistent and logical thinkers should march in step.’ In 1827 the French art critic August Jal (1795-1873) declared that Romanticism was ‘the echo of the cannot shot of 1789’, and as if to prove his point, Eugène Delacroix produced in 1830 what is probably the most famous representation of revolution in any artwork, Liberty Leading the People. For many Romantic poets and writers, the Greek uprising was a turning point, symbolized by Byron’s death at Missolonghi. The opera that launched the Belgian revolution in 1830 was only one example of a new trend, begun in Italy, of portraying ancient struggles for liberty in words and music in such a way that their contemporary relevance was unmistakeable.”[1 

     The connection between the revolution and romanticism became especially clear and strong during the July Days of the 1830 revolution, as Adam Zamoyski notes: “’People and poets are marching together,’ wrote the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in 1830. ‘Art is henceforth on a popular footing, in the arena with the masses.’ There was something in this. Never before or since had poetry been so widely and so urgently read, so taken to heart and so closely studied for hidden meaning. And it was not only in search of aesthetic or emotional uplift that people did so, for the poet had assumed a new role over the past two decades. Art was no longer an amenity but a great truth that had to be revealed to mankind, and the artist was one who had been called to interpret this truth, a kind of seer. In Russia, Pushkin solemnly declared the poet’s status as a prophet uttering the burning words of truth. The American Ralph Waldo Emerson saw poets as ‘liberating gods’ because they had achieved freedom themselves, and could therefore free others. The pianist and composer Franz Liszt wanted to recapture the ‘political, philosophical and religious power’ that he believed music had in ancient times. William Blake claimed that Jesus and his disciples were all artists, and that he himself was following Jesus through his art. ‘God was, perhaps only the first poet of the universe,’ Théophile Gauthier reflected. By the 1820s artists regularly referred to their craft as a religion, and Victor Hugo represented himself alternately as Zoroaster, Moses and Christ, somewhere between prophet and God.”[2]

     The forty years or so between the First and the Second French Revolutions (in 1789 and 1830 respectively) are among the most decisive and profound transition-periods in the history of the world. The changes are most obvious, of course, in politics; and there is no question but that the French revolution constitutes the vital link between the English revolution of the seventeenth century and the Russian revolution of the twentieth century, constituting the break-through that destroyed the old, and created the new world that we live in now. However, it could be argued that the political revolution was less profound and all-embracing than the revolution in thought and feeling that we call the Romantic movement,and that gave the revolution its long-term vitality.

      Romanticism was influenced by Rousseau’s concept of the “natural man”, which, as George L. Mosse writes, emphasized “that the individual was good and virtuous when removed from the fetters of civilization. In such an ideal state heart and head were unspoiled and therefore functioned properly. For Rousseau and other eighteenth-century thinkers this meant that humans were both reasonable and virtuous. However, the element of human reason in the state of nature played, for Rousseau, a lesser part than the goodness of the heart. This foreshadowed the romantic belief in the essential rightness and virtue of mankind’s proper emotions when they are left to develop freely. The concept of natural man became a widespread fad in the eighteenth century: Louis XVI and his queen had a rural village built for themselves behind their palace of the Trianon where they could play at ‘natural’ man and wife. Moreover, this image was associated with rural life, the kind of Arcadia which writer had idealized for centuries. It should be kept in mind that the ideal of natural man associated with rural life was not only a background for the romantic movement, but also went into the making of one of the most important preconceptions of the nineteenth century, indeed of modern times: namely, that the peasant represents the greatest virtues in a society which is growing ever more industrial and urban.

     “The concept of ‘natural man’ was not the only element which went into the making of the romantic atmosphere. Evangelicalism in England and pietism in Germany provided important stimuli for romanticism, just as they were to be important in the making of the new middle-class morality. Both stressed ‘piety of the heart’ – religion as an emotional experience. Pietism was more temperate than the evangelical movement; nevertheless, the emotional appeal was present. Evangelicalism with its outright appeal to emotional conversion, ‘coming to Christ’, implanted an emotionalism in all classes of the English population. The emphasis upon hymn singing together with preaching as the chief outward appeals of faith played an important part. Nor can the increasing stream of oratory and moral exhortations which marked both movements be neglected. Many other causes, like the Temperance League and the Society Against Vice, depended on similar methods. All over Europe the reading public was increasing; and what they read, above all, were books of edification or moral exhortation to lead a good life. Education by exhortation was prominent in the making of middle-class morality, as Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby can show, but it also created an atmosphere congenial to life viewed as an emotional experience.

     “Though Rousseau foreshadowed the romantic mood in France and evangelicalism did much to encourage it in England, Germany seemed at the head of the movement during the eighteenth century. Not only German pietism, but particularly a literary movement known as the storm and stress (Sturm und Drang, 1765-1785) set the romantic tone. Making its home in Weimar, the movement’s importance for the cultural revival in Germany was equal to its contribution to romanticism. Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), in particular, portrayed his heroes in terms of their inner responses to life, abstracting people from their environment. In depicting the Robbers, for example, he made their inner conflicts and the resulting tragedy take precedence over the morality or the effects of their actions. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the greatest German man of letters of that century, passed through the Enlightenment and classicism to a romantic period. The narrative of his journeys to Italy did much to stimulate a new emphasis upon nature as emotional and sentient rather than as imprisoned within rational laws of nature.”[3]

     Another aspect of Romanticism is its seeking of the unusual and the exotic, even the mad and the criminal, in human experience. Thus, as Evans writes, “a number of early Romantic works were written under the influence of opium, including, famously the poem Kubla Khan (1816) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who became a serious addict, consuming up to four quarts of laudanum (tincture of opium) a week. The drug’s impact was recorded in detail by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). Opium distorted perception of time and space and heightened emotional experience, something that strengthened its appeal to the Romantics. Whereas the Enlightenment had stressed the need to subordinate the emotions to the intellect, Romanticism instead stressed feeling as the fundamental source of truth and authenticity and their expression in art.”[4] 

     “In Romanticism,” writes Jacques Barzun, “thought and feeling are fused; its bent is toward exploration and discovery at whatever risk of error or failure; the religious emotion is innate and demands expression. Spirit is a reality but where it is placed varies and is secondary: the divine may be reached through nature or art. The individual self is a source of knowledge on which one must act; for one is embarked – engagé, as the 20C Existentialists say. To act, enthusiasm must overcome indifference or despair; impulse must be guided by imagination and reason. The search is for truths, which reside in particulars, not in generalities; the world is bigger and more complex than any set of abstractions, and it includes the past, which is never fully done with. Meditating on past and present leads to the estimate of man as great and wretched. But heroes are real and indispensable. They rise out of the people, whose own mind-and-heart provides the makings of high culture. The errors of heroes and peoples are the price of knowledge, religion, and art, life itself being a heroic tragedy.”[5]


     Romanticism was born as a reaction to the Enlightenment and, more generally, to the whole classical concept of civilization. For the dry, rationalist world-view of the Enlightenment, while it influenced everybody, left many with a feeling that an important part of the truth – especially that truth of the heart which is accessible only to intuition and the emotions - had been left out by it. Moreover, the Scottish philosopher David Hume had demonstrated, by purely logical arguments, that the empirical, rationalist view of the world had, paradoxically, no rational foundations; for it led to a denial of the objective existence of God, the soul, morality and even of the external world, thereby literally cutting the ground from under its feet. It was Hume’s withering criticism that drew Immanuel Kant out of his “dogmatic slumbers”; by his Critique of Pure Reason and other works, he re-established, at least to his own satisfaction, the necessity of believing in God, the soul, causality, free will and the external world. Ultimately, however, he begat, not a rebirth of empiricism on rational foundations, but the German philosophy of idealism, which turned everything on its head by defining the material world as spirit, the objective as the subjective, the irrational as the rational.

     Fr. Georges Florovsky writes that romantics such as Goethe, Carlyle, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hartmann, Renan and Maeterlinck “at first cautiously, and then with greater and greater ardour, swelled the waves of ‘irrationalism’. Everywhere and in everything, right to the religious feeling of the world and the aesthetic perception of life. Beginning with ‘literary’ phrases about the ‘bankruptcy’ of science and ending with immersion in the satanic abysses of black magic and the revival of the orgiastic cult of Dionysius and Ceres, from a superficial atheist denial of Christian dogmatics to an inspired justification of ‘the many forms of religious experience’, from a call to return to nature to futurism – everywhere we see clear manifestations of a profound disbelief in rational knowledge, in ‘the wisdom of systems’. ‘Intuition’ triumphantly squeezed out ‘logic’, and the very ideal of scientific knowledge of ‘the truth’ paled – sometimes in the unclear light of biological adaptation to the conditions of existence, sometimes in the vivid flame of mystical feeling and pantheistic joy. The dynamic nature of the cosmos began to be felt. The proud dream of Feierbach to ‘create’ God was revived, the old idea of ‘the evolving Absolute’ and the unfinished nature of the world was resurrected.”[6]

     The Romantic conception of a dynamic, unfinished world undermined faith in eternal values and verities, and, combined with the idea of ever-oscillating polarities, paved the way for the Hegelian schema of thesis-antithesis-synthesis – albeit usually without the synthesis.

     Sir Isaiah Berlin’s definition is also illuminating: “Since the Greeks, and perhaps long before them, men have believed that to the central questions about the nature and purpose of their lives, and of the world in which they lived, true, objective, universal and eternal answers could be found. If the answers could not be discovered by me, then perhaps by someone more expert or wiser than I; if not in the circumstances in which I found myself, then in others more propitious: in an innocent and happy past – a Garden of Eden from which our ancestors had for their sins been expelled, or perhaps in a golden age that still lay in the future, which posterity (perhaps after much labour and suffering) would, or at any rate could, one day reach. It was assumed that all the truly central problems were soluble in principle even if not in practice. Somewhere true answers to all genuine questions must exist, if not in the minds of men, then in the mind of an omniscient being – real or imaginary, material or ideal, a personal deity, or the universe come to full consciousness of itself.

     “This presupposition, which underlies most classical and Christian thought, orthodox and heretical, scientific and religious, was connected with the belief that, whether men knew it or not, the whole of life on earth was in some sense bound up with the search for answer to the great, tormenting questions of fact and of conduct; of what there is, was, will be, can be; of what to do, what to live by, what to seek, hope for, admire, fear, avoid; whether the end of life was happiness or justice or virtue or self-fulfilment or grace and salvation. Individuals, schools of thought, entire civilisations differed about what the answers were, about the proper method of discovering them, about the nature and place of moral or spiritual or scientific authority – that is to say, about how to identify the experts who are qualified to discover and communicate the answers. They argued about what constitutes such qualifications and justifies such claims to authority. But there was no doubt that the truth lay somewhere; that it could in principle be found. Conflicting beliefs were held about the central questions: whether the truth was to be found in reason or in faith, in the Church or the laboratory, in the insights of the uniquely privileged individual – a prophet, a mystic, an alchemist, a metaphysician – or in the collective consciousness of a body of men – the society of the faithful, the traditions of a tribe, a race, a nation, a social class, an academy of experts, an elite of uniquely endowed or trained beings – or, on the contrary, in the mind or heart of any man, anywhere, at any time, provided that he remained innocent and uncorrupted by false doctrines. What was common to all these views – incompatible enough for wars of extermination to have been fought in their name – was the assumption that there existed a reality, a structure of things, a rerum natura, which the qualified enquirer could see, study and, in principle, get right. Men were violently divided about the nature and identity of the wise – those who understood the nature of things – but not about the proposition that such wise men existed or could be conceived, and that they would know that which would enable them to deduce correctly what men should believe, how they should act, what they should live by and for.

     “This was the great foundation of belief which romanticism attacked and weakened. Whatever the differences between the leading romantic thinkers – the early Schiller and the later Fichte, Schelling and Jacobi, Tieck and the Schlegels when they were young, Chateaubriand and Byron, Coleridge and Carlyle, Kierkegaard, Stirner, Nietzsche, Baudelaire – there runs through their writings a common notion, held with varying degrees of consciousness and depth, that truth is not an objective structure, independent of those who seek it, the hidden treasure waiting to be found, but is itself in all its guises created by the seeker. It is not to be brought into being necessarily by the finite individual: according to some it is created by a greater power, a universal spirit, personal or impersonal, in which the individual is an element, or of which he is an aspect, an emanation, an imperfect reflection. But the common assumption of the romantics that runs counter to the philosophia perennis is that the answers to the great questions are not to be discovered so much as to be invented. They are not something found, they are something literally made. In its extreme Idealistic form it is a vision of the entire world. In its more familiar form, it confines itself to the realm of values, ideals, rules of conduct – aesthetic, religious, social, moral, political – a realm seen not as a natural or supernatural order capable of being investigated, described and explained by the appropriate method – rational examination or some more mysterious procedure – but as something that man creates, as he creates works of art; not by imitating, or even obtaining illumination from, pre-existent models or truths, or by applying pre-existent truths or rules that are objective, universal, eternal, unalterable but by an act of creation, the introduction into the world of something literally novel – the activity, natural or supernatural, human or in part divine, owing nothing to anything outside it (in some versions because nothing can be conceived as being outside it), self-subsistent, self-justified, self-fulfilling. Hence that new emphasis on the subjective and ideal rather than the objective and the real, on the process of creation rather than its effects, on motives rather than consequences; and, as a necessary corollary of all this, on the quality of the vision, the state of mind or soul of the acting agent – purity of heart, innocence of intention, sincerity of purpose rather than getting the answer right, that is, accurate correspondence to the ‘given’. Hence the emphasis on activity, movement that cannot be reduced to static segments, the flow that cannot be arrested, frozen, analysed without being thereby fatally distorted; hence the constant protest against the reduction of ‘life’ to dead fragments, of organism to ‘mere’ mechanical or uniform units; and the corresponding tendency towards similes and metaphors drawn from ‘dynamic’ sciences – biology, physiology, introspective psychology – and the worship of music, which, of all the arts, appears to have the least relation to universally observable, uniform natural order. Hence, too, the celebration of all forms of defiance directed against the ‘given’ – the impersonal, the ‘brute fact’ in morals or in politics – or against the static and the accepted, and the value placed on minorities and martyrs as such, no matter what the ideal for which they suffered.

     “This, too, is the source of the doctrine that work is sacred as such, not because of its social function, but because it is the imposition of the individual or collective personality, that is, activity, upon inert stuff. The activity, the struggle is all, the victory nothing: in Fichte’s words, ‘Frei sein ist nichts – frei werden ist der Himmel’ (‘To be free is nothing – to become free is very heaven’). Failure is nobler than success. Self-immolation for a cause is the thing, not the validity of the cause itself, for it is the sacrifice undertaken for its sake that sanctifies the cause, not some intrinsic property of it.

     “These are the symptoms of the romantic attitude. Hence the worship of the artist, whether in sound, or word, or colour, as the highest manifestation of the ever-active spirit, and the popular image of the artist in his garret, wild-eyed, wild-haired, poor, solitary, mocked - but independent, free, spiritually superior to his philistine tormentors. This attitude has a darker side too: worship not merely of the painter or the composer or the poet, but of that more sinister artists whose materials are men – the destroyer of old societies, and the creator of new ones – no matter at what human cost: the superhuman leader who tortures and destroys in order to build on new foundations – Napoleon in his most revolutionary aspect. It is this embodiment of the romantic ideal that took more and more hysterical forms and in its extreme ended in violent irrationalism and Fascism. Yet this same outlook also bred respect for individuality, for the creative impulse, for the unique, the independent, for freedom to live and act in the light of personal, undictated beliefs and principles, of undistorted emotional needs, for the value of personal life, of personal relationships, of the individual conscience, of human rights. The positive and negative heritage of romanticism – on the one hand contempt for opportunism, regard for individual variety, scepticism of oppressive general formulae and final solutions, and on the other self-prostration before superior beings and the exaltation of arbitrary power, passion and cruelty – these tendencies, at once reflected and promoted by romantic doctrines, have done more to mould both the events of our century and the concepts in terms in which they are viewed and explained than is commonly recognised in most histories of our time.”[7]


     The central false dogma of the Romantic era was the moral superiority and godlike status of the artist (like Byron) and/or the revolutionary (like Napoleon), standing alone and above the world. The political or artistic genius was truly a “genie” who, once let out of his bottle by his divine imagination, could create heaven or hell on earth – and for his worshippers, it didn’t really matter which. Revolutionaries and artists both saw visions unattainable to the ordinary mortal, and for that they were venerated as God-seers if not as gods.

     For Imagination for the Romantics was much more than the ability to fantasize. As Jacques Barzun writes: “Out of the known or knowable, Imagination connects the remote, interprets the familiar, or discovers hidden realities. Being a means of discovery, it must be called ‘Imagination of the real’. Scientific hypotheses perform that same office; they are products of imagination.

     “This view of the matter explains why to the Romanticists the arts no longer figured as a refined pleasure of the senses, an ornament of civilized existence, but as one form of the deepest possible reflection on life. Shelley, defending his art, declares poets to be the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. The arts convey truths; they are imagination crystallized; and as they transport the soul they reshape the perceptions and possibly the life of the beholder. To perform this feat requires genius, because it is not a mechanical act. To be sure, all art makes use of conventions, but to obey traditional rules and follow set patterns will not achieve that fusion of idea and form which is properly creation. It was Romanticist discussion that made the word creation regularly apply to works of art…

     “Those Romanticist words, recharged with meaning, helped to establish the religion of art. That faith served those who could and those could not partake of the revived creeds. To call the passion for art a religion is not a figure of speech or a way of praise. Since the beginning of the 19C, art has been defined again and again by its devotees as ‘the highest spiritual expression of man’. The dictum leaves no room for anything higher and this highest level is that which, for other human beings, is occupied by religion. To 19C worshippers the arts form a treasury of revelations, a body of scriptures, the makers of this spiritual testament are prophets and seers. And to this day the fortunate among them are treated as demigods…”[8]


     We may conclude that the long-term effects of Romanticism were disastrous, as disastrous as the political revolutions it inspired, even if in the shorter term they provided a much-needed corrective to the rationalism of the Enlightenment epoch.

     As Bertrand Russell writes, “Rousseau and the romantic movement extended subjectivity from theory of knowledge to ethics and politics, and ended, logically, in as complete anarchism as that of Bakunin. This extreme of subjectivism is a form of madness…”[9]

     Not for nothing was Adam Zamoyski’s excellent study of Romanticism entitled Holy Madness. And indeed, much of early nineteenth century history can be seen as a chronicle of madmen. By the middle of the century, reactionaries had succeeded in imposing straitjackets on them. But by the end of the century the madmen – Nietzsche is the most important example - were beginning to take control of the asylum.



      The defeat of the 1848 revolution, and the great industrial boom of the 1850s, placed a temporary damper on the romantic, mystical and irrationalist tendencies of the previous age. The post-1848 era was the age of reaction in politics, of the realistic novel in art and of positivism in philosophy, when  "the real” was defined as exclusively “the rational”.


     Romanticism, as we have seen, is characterized by the love of the exotic, the erotic and the extreme in human nature. Realism, on the other hand, describes the commonplace, which may be connected with the advent of the age of the common man, of democracy.

    Perhaps the earliest realist in the field of the novel was Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), whose masterpiece, La Comédie Humaine, “is made up of nearly 100 works, which contain more than 2000 characters and together create an alternative reality that extends from Paris to the provincial backwaters of France. Balzac’s works transformed the novel into a great art form capable of representing life in all its detail and colour, so paving the way for the ambitious works of writers such as Proust and Zola…

     “His imaginative gift and powers of description set the tone for the development of the 19th-century realist novel. As Oscar Wilde said, Balzac ‘created life, he did not copy it.’…”[10]

     Evans suggests that that the rise of realism in art has something to do with the advent of photography – the Duke of Wellington and the battlefields of the Crimean War were among the first subjects to be photographed. And he continues: “By mid-century the age of Romanticism was drawing to a close with the growing turn to Realism in the work of painters such as Gustave Courbet (1819-77), who eschewed mythical and religious themes of the past for the concerns of contemporary life. His landscapes abandoned the dramatic exaggeration and compositional artifice employed by the Romantics in favour of a naturalistic approach that suggested he had just come upon a scene and decided on the spot to paint it. In The Stone-Breakers (1849) Courbet depicted two peasants breaking rocks by the side of a road, while in A Burial at Ornans (1849) he showed the funeral of his great-uncle, depicting not richly clad models but the actual people who attended the event, participating in orderly manner rather than indulging in the emotional gestures that would have been expected in a Romantic representation of the same subject. ‘The burial at Ornans, Courbet remarked, ‘was in reality the burial of Romanticism.’ Later he complained that ‘the title of Realist was thrust upon me just as the title of Romantic was imposed upon the men of 1830.’ But his paintings undoubtedly inaugurated a new cultural style. Courbet was a political radical and a committed participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, and he painted scenes of poverty that were intended as social criticism rather than presentations of the picturesque. In The Gleaners (1857) Jean-François Millet (1814-75) showed poor peasant women bending over to pick up small ears of corn left on the fields after the harvest, while The Potato Eaters (1885) by Vincent van Gogh depicted a group of rough peasants sitting round a table eating the potatoes by the light of a little lamp. Van Gogh wanted, he said, to indicate by their appearance the fact that they had ‘tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish’.

     “Realist in a very different way were the English painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in 1848. From one point of view they paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-96) and their colleagues reflected the concern of Romanticism, with their focus on the Middle Ages and religious subjects and their break with Classical models and techniques in the search for authenticity of expression. But they also follow the new Realism in using ordinary people, including working-class girls and prostitutes, as models. Millais’ painting Christ in the House of His Parents, exhibited in 1850, was widely condemned: instead of employing transcendental religious imagery, it was set amid the dirt and mess of a carpenter’s workshop and showed the Holy Family as ordinary, poor people. Even more controversial was the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), whose sculptures were a far cry from the smooth Classicism of the Academies…

     “Realism spread rapidly to other countries, reaching Russia for example in the shape of ‘The Wanderers’, fourteen young artists who abandoned the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1863 to form their own co-operative, painting scenes such as the celebrated Barge Haulers on the Volga (1873) by Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844-1930). Similarly, the Realist novel was often, though not invariably, set in the present rather than in the Romantic past. It allowed readers to inhabit a world parallel to their own, where moral and social dramas were played out in ways that were recognizably similar to their own lives, but more eventful and exciting, and which sometimes prompted the desire to subscribe to the reforming ideas of the author. The chronology of literary Realism did not match that of its counterpart in the visual arts precisely: already in the 1830s, Balzac was turning away from writing historical fiction in the manner of Walter Scott, as in early novels such as Les Chouans (1829) and fantasy-fables like La Peau de Chagrin (1831), to writing in a Realist manner his series La Condition humaine. Of course some artists continued to paint Biblical, Classical and historical scenes regardless of the Realist trend. But there is no doubt that artworks and novels addressing contemporary life and attempting to portray it in a manner that was true to life predominated after the middle years of the century.

     “It was above all industrialization that called forth the Realist novel as a means of portraying the collectivity of society, with its teeming mass of characters and its description of the shifting relations between them. The master here was Charles Dickens, many of whose works sought to lay bare in literary form the evils of the age and to advocate by showing their dramatic consequences the urgent need to tackle them: Oliver Twist (1837-9) addressed the state of crime and disorder in London, Bleak House (1853) the expense and injustice of the antiquated English system of civil law, Hard Times (1854) the cruelties inflicted by the utilitarian philosophy of the new industrialists. The ‘social novel’ carried a strong charge of social criticism: Alton Locke (1849) by Charles Kingley (1819-75) reflected its author’s Chartist sympathies in its depiction of the exploitation of agricultural labourers and workers in the garment industry, while Mary Barton (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) showed what its author called the ‘misery and hateful passions caused by the love of pursuing wealth as well as the egoism, thoughtlessness and insensitivity of manufacturers’. Les Misérables (1862) addressed the three great problems of the age, identified by Victor Hugo as ‘the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night’. In L’Assommoir (1877), Émile Zola painted a drastic portrait of poor housing conditions in a Parisian slum, while his Germinal (1885) brought together the political and social features of life in a coal mining community over several decades in a dramatic narrative of a strike followed by an uprising. More drastic still was the account of impoverished Russians living in a shelter for the homeless in The Lower Depths (1902) by Maxim Gorky.

     “Realist novels could flourish in many European countries not least because of the emergence of a new market for books, as the middle classes grew in numbers and wealth, and merchants, industrialists, lawyers, bankers, employers and landowners were joined in the ranks of the affluent by doctors, teachers, civil servants, scientists, and white-collar workers of various kinds, numbering more than 300,000 in the 1851 census in the United Kingdom for example, the first time they were counted, and more than double that number thirty years later. Books became cheaper and more plentiful as steam-driven presses replaced hand-operated ones in the printing industry, and as mechanical production reduced the cost of paper while hugely increasing the supply. Novels, including those of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, were commonly printed in instalments and read in serial form. Alongside the ‘penny dreadful’ and the colportage serial a new type of bourgeois novel emerged, catering for an educated readership. Altogether, if 580 books were published in the United Kingdom every year between 1800 and 1825, more than 2,500 appeared annually in mid-century, and ore than 6,000 by the end of the century. In 1855 some 1,020 book titles were published in Russia, and by 1894 this figure had increased tenfold, to 10,691, a figure equal to the output of new titles in Britain and the United States combined.

     “In all of this, despite the growing taste for non-fiction, ranging from encyclopedias and handbooks to triple-decker biographies, the proportion of works of fiction published in Britain increased from 16 per cent in the 1830s to nearly 25 per cent half a century later. Novel-reading, once the province of upper-class women, became a general habit among the middle classes of both sexes. Perhaps by necessity, in order to gain a following, Realist artists and writers focused on the comfortably off as well as on the poor and the exploited. Portraits continued to be a significant source of income for painters, while in literature the bourgeoisie featured centrally in the family sagas of the age. Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev dissected the fraught relationship between a conservative elder generation and young nihilistic intellectuals; Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-1893), a cycle of twenty novels, attempted, as the author said, ‘to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world’.

     “In Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-2), George Eliot tackled the impact of change brought by the railways, medicine and other harbingers of modernity on a deeply conservative small-town society; Madame Bovary (1856), written by Gustave Flaubert after his friends had persuaded him to abandon early efforts at historical fantasy, described in realistic detail the daily life and love affairs of the bored wife of a weak provincial doctor; both Theodor Fontane in Effi Briest (1894) and Tolstoy in Anna Karenina (1877) dealt with adultery, real or imagined, and the constrained lives of married women in the upper reaches of society; and in the six-novel sequence The Barsetshire Chronicles (1855-67), Anthony Trollope traced the fortunes of the leading inhabitants of an imaginary provincial town, while The Pallisers (1865-80) focused on the engagement of a much grander family with parliamentary politics. As the American writer Henry James (1843-1916) remarked, in a somewhat backhanded compliment, Trollope’s ‘inestimable merit was a complete appreciation of the usual’. However quotidian their concerns, Realist novels and paintings shared one thing in common with the cultural products of Romanticism: their appeal to the emotions, achieved not least by plumbing the depths of character and arousing sympathy and identification in the reader or the viewer…”[11]   

     However, just as the triumph of reaction in politics did not mean the end of revolution, so the triumph of realism in art did not bring the end of romanticism. The revolutionary/romantic personality became a subject of realistic art, as in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Devils. As for music, the most romantic of the arts, it never went through a realist reaction, but went on to still wilder emotional extremes, as in Wagner’s Tristan or Strauss’s Salome.

     In philosophy, while the hard-boiled realists might insist that man was just a complicated animal or machine, the romantics still dreamed dreams and saw visions and believed in the world spirit and their inner divinity. If the men-gods had been brought down to earth, their dreams and fantasies were now part of the mental furniture of every European (and American). The bacillus was now in the bloodstream of western man, and it would require a still greater blood-letting, at the hand of a still crueler tyrant, to tame it…


March 26 / April 8, 2019.



[1] Evans, The Pursuit of Power. Europe 1815-1914, London: Penguin, 2017, pp. 81-82.

[2] Zamoyski, Holy Madness, p. 255.

[3] Mosse, The Culture of Western Europe, Boulder: Westview Press, 1988, pp. 30-31.

[4] Evans, The Pursuit of Power, London: Penguin, 2917, p. 449.

[5] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 491.

[6] Florovsky, “Khitrost’ Uma” (The Cunning of the Mind), in Vera i Kul’tura (Faith and Culture), St. Petersburg, 2002, pp. 49-50.

[7] Berlin, “The Essence of European Romanticism”, The Power of Ideas, London: Pimlico, 1998, pp. 201-204.

[8] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, pp. 473-474.

[9]Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, London: Allen & Unwin, 1946, p. 514.

[10] Montefiore, Titans of History, pp. 343, 345.

[11] Evans, op. cit., pp. 520-524.

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