Becoming Modern

Historical Context:

Refreshed with the revolutionary fervor of the 18th century, Europe entered into the new century with new and improved ideas regarding society, art, and science. The Industrial Revolution introduced new technology and rigid work schedules. The Romantics opposed this mechanization of the public and brought back nostalgia and the importance of freedom, emotion, and passion. The Realists later countered these ideals by arguing that something doesn’t have to be so magnificent and dramatic to be beautiful and turned their focus on the practical things in life. The art and literature of this century reflects these disputes as they shift from intense emotions to practicality to visual experiences and symbolism. Scientific advances dealt with the practical by helping the lives of the common people by improving industrial and home technology and went beyond with attempting to explain where we came from and why we act the way we do.


Romanticism, a movement of the early 19th century, developed as a response to the rationality of the Enlightenment and the organization of the Industrial Revolution. It prioritized emotion over reason and valued innocence, freedom, passion, chivalry, and nature. It allowed for experimentation in areas such as art, music, and literature.

Romantic Artists: Goya

Romantic art is known for provoking and intense emotional response. One can see this from Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808. At this time in history, Napoleon asserting France’s power all over Europe, and Spain was feeling the negative effects. The painting depicts a Spanish man lit up in a Christ-like posture and guarding his companions from the French soldiers, who are shaded in darkness. This painting serves to provoke a negative attitude towards the French and cause the viewer to favor the Spanish.

Romantic Composers: Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most iconic composers of Romantic music. He composed a variety of pieces for piano, strings, and symphonies. His music provokes emotion through varying dynamics, themes, and tempos, as opposed to the earlier Classical era with its structured and predictable patterns. His most famous pieces include Fur Elise, Ode to Joy, and Symphony No. 5.

Romantic Writers: Shelley

Frankenstein’s monster is more than a common horror trope. It came from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which deals with the debate of science and rationality versus emotion. Her book about a scientist who attempts to create the ideal man and fails horribly supports the romantic belief of not relying solely on science because of how destructive and pitiless it can be.

Realism and Science: Darwin

Following the Romantic movement and the revolutions of 1848, Realism, a movement focusing on perceiving things as they really are and not idealizing them, came into play. Charles Darwin was a scientist during this era of Realism and is famous for his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species. His research on the how traits in birds and reptiles developed over time and how they were affected by their environment changed views on geologic time the origins of the human species. It also caused another uproar with the church as the debate of science versus religion reignited. Darwin’s theories about natural selection were twisted into Social Darwinism and justified actions done for nationalism and imperialism.

Realist Artists

Charles Dickens wrote much of the realist literature we know today. He is known for capturing everyday life with every detail, positive or negative. In A Tale of Two Cities, he doesn’t hesitate to point out the cold hard facts of the desperation and grittiness of peasant life in France and the rift between the peasants and the nobles

Realism also affected the realm of art by shifting its focus from dramatic scenes that demanded an emotional response to depictions of everyday life. Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners in a prime example of this concept. It captures the back-breaking labor of gleaning stray grains of wheat and portrays it as something beautiful.

Science: Freud

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis and is famous for his studies of the human mind and behavior. He worked with conscious and unconscious thought, dream analysis, and neurology. His studies of human nature helped to explain irrational actions and how the conscious and subconscious interact with each other.

Modern Art: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Claude Monet was one of a group of artists who launched the impressionist movement. One can identify an impressionist painting by its brushwork. As one can see by the Monet’s The Argentuil Bridge, the brushwork is very spotted and pixelated, throwing away hundreds of years of the standard clearly defined lines. They used this technique to shift the focus from the subject to the visual experience.

The Post-Impressionist movement served as a reaction to the Impressionist movement. While Impressionism focused on spontaneity and capturing the moment, post-impressionists placed more emphasis on symbolic content and structure. Their works still look artificial, as one can see from the long brushstrokes in Vincent van Gogh’s The Bedroom. But the simplification and color scheme of the room serve to make the viewer feel comforted and right at home.

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Created By
Valerie Matula


Created with images by The Banff Centre - "Beethoven" • skeeze - "frankenstein monster boris karloff" • skeeze - "sigmund freud doctor neurologist"

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