Rinaldo and Armida (Francisco Hayez, 1814)

Welcome to Part I of our “Meet the Romantics” series to help you enter into the world of Giselle. In this series of posts you’ll get a taste of what the world of European arts and culture was doing at the time, and how this masterwork ballet fits into the defining movements of its time.

Meet the Romantics

“I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself. Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen. I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.”
–Jean Jacques Rousseau

In art, just as in history, time period designations don’t exist until someone looks back later and names them – just like how everyone who lived through World War I didn’t call it World War I, they called it “The Great War.”  It’s the same in the art world.  Sometimes our classifications come from the artists (we call painters like Rossetti and Waterhouse “Pre-Raphaelites” because that’s what they called themselves), and sometimes they’re applied later (you try telling a Baroque composer he’s not a “Modern” composer; every period is modern to the people who live in it).

The Romantic Period was a massive movement throughout America and Europe in direct reaction to the Enlightenment period that had preceded it, leading to some of the greatest works of art in Western civilization, from nearly all the great 19th century Italian operas to the Golden Age of British poetry.  But because time periods in art are so subjective, you’ll have a hard time finding any two experts who agree on when the period started and ended.  Loosely speaking, most of what we talk about as “Romantic” art appeared in the century between the 1780’s and the 1880’s, with an emphasis on around 1820-1850.  So a basic overview of this time period will be helpful to you if you’re unfamiliar with Giselle (which premiered in 1841) which is deeply representative of the literary, musical and visual aesthetics of its time.

First, it’s important that we define the word “Romantic”  when we talk about it with a capital R.  We’re not talking about this:

We’re talking about THIS:

You with me?  Not THIS:


Capital-R Romanticism is technically classified as a genre of art, music and literature that emerged in Europe around the second half of the 18th century, primarily as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment.  We’ve written a little about the German Romantics and the early “Sturm und Drang” movement on our blog before.  The world had been intellectual and science-y and left-brained for far too long, and after the French Revolution threw Europe into a turmoil, people began longing for a return to art that celebrated emotion and feeling over cold, rational thought.

A Brief Time-Out Between French Revolutions

A quick primer on what was going on in the French government around this time may be helpful.  Stick with us.  So, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and Louis XVIII (unflatteringly nicknamed “Louis the Unavoidable”) was installed as King of France by agreement of the Allied Powers at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  Louis had a lot of health problems and didn’t make it very long.  He died childless in 1824 so his brother Charles X inherited the throne.  It will become important later that both Louis and Charles ruled by hereditary right and not popular consent.  Charles attempted to appease the revolutionary spirit still alive and well in France by creating a constitution, but accusations of pandering to the church, censoring the press, and other desperate attempts to maintain control soon lost him what little public support he had.  In March 1830 the unrest reached boiling point, and the parliament passed a vote of no confidence against the king – at which point he dissolved the parliament.  He also passed a series of dramatic new restrictions punishing the Liberal party who had turned against him, one of which was a censorship ordinance shutting down all the newspapers.  The mainstream publications shut down, but radical newspapers popped up everywhere criticizing the government and inspiring the common people to take action.  Within a day and a half, thousands of barricades had been thrown up all throughout Paris, manned by students, factory workers and other ordinary people who had been motivated to become revolutionaries.  Within three days the populist revolutionaries had captured every major public building in Paris.  Charles X abdicated, leaving his infant grandson as heir to the throne with Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans serving as regent.  As the liberal politicians created a provisional government, they decided to declare Louis-Philippe (who was well known for his populist sympathies) as king.  He ruled until 1848 during what was termed “The July Monarchy.”

Battle at the Soufflot Barricades, 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

So during the period of Giselle, Paris was technically in peacetime, albeit a tenuous peace that had been short enough for everyone to remember what it had been like before.  Louis-Philippe was initially very popular with the French; he was a straight-shooter, he supported strengthening small businesses over indulging the big corporate interests of Paris, he had no interest in the pomp and circumstance that made his decadent predecessors so detested, and ruled as a constitutional monarch (meaning the general population had more voice in government than they had under the previous reign.)  The upper and middle classes breathed a little easier.  But the lower classes saw Louis-Philippe’s policies as no less indifferent to social reform and ending poverty as the rulers before him, and unrest continued to simmer throughout the 1830’s and 40’s.  Soon the king’s rule became more and more restrictive as he attempted to hold onto control.  By 1847, the monarchy was quietly but forcefully crushing peasant rebellions, France was in a depression, and about a third of Paris was on government assistance.  Through fall and winter of that year, and into early 1848, middle class Parisians organized secret fundraising banquets as a way to generate support for an emerging revolution without running afoul of government restrictions on political meetings.  When Louis-Philippe found out, they were shut down in February 1848, which was the last straw.  The Parisians took to the streets, both the oppressed lower classes and the Liberal middle classes united in protest.  Fires were set, a confrontation between armed resistors and the military ended in over 50 deaths, and Louis-Philippe hastily abdicated and fled to Great Britain, leading to the Second French Republic.  Though this provisional government lasted only three years, it gave us the iconic French slogan “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” and was a defining moment in the history of the French people.  Prince Louis-Napoléon (nephew of Bonaparte) was elected president and in 1851 launched a coup d’etat to declare himself King Napoleon III.  His reign was called the Second French Empire and lasted until 1870, when he was overthrown in the Franco-Prussian Wars and the Third French Republic was established, which lasted until World War II.

So what do we take away from all of this?  That the upper-class ballet lovers watching the curtain go up on opening night of Giselle in 1841 were sitting on a time bomb, and they knew it.


Machinery vs. Nature

“I hate this fast-growing tendency to chain men to machines in big factories and deprive them of all joy in their efforts – the plan will lead to cheap men and cheap products.”
–Richard Wagner

The Industrial Revolution had swept through America and Europe by the 1840’s.  With the exception of the very wealthy, most people lived in a world that looked like this.  Partly the Romantic movement emerged as a form of escapism – a return to an earlier and simpler way of life, a celebration of heightened emotional experiences that lifted people out of the daily grind.  Life for regular people in Europe was no picnic around this time.  Cities were crowded and polluted, factories were springing up in what was once farmland, and the genteel, sentimentalized poverty of the rustic, merry peasant had been replaced by a brutal, uglier reality of slums and disease.  And the arts, as they always have, gave people a way to escape from the pressures of their lives.  Small wonder that the great Romantic poets wrote about daffodils and ancient forests, and the great Romantic painters depicted pastoral landscapes or dramatic shipwrecks.  Whether sweeping, terrifying and haunting or quaint and sentimental, the art of the time had one thing in common – “Anywhere But Here.”  Chopin’s melodic piano preludes, Delacroix’ oil paintings of Greek goddesses, and Poe’s spooky short stories let ordinary, middle-class men and women escape to a less dreary, more interesting place.

Fra Hardanger (Hans Gude, 1847)

So Over the Enlightenment

The Romantics emerged in reaction to the movement that had preceded them, which we call “The Enlightenment,” which lasted from approximately the 1650’s through the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.  This period placed a new emphasis on science, logic and reason, prioritizing the head over the heart.  Iconic figures of this time included mathematician Isaac Newton, philosophers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant, and the Founding Fathers of the United States, who drew on the era’s passion for intellectual liberty, independence, rational thought and equality in creating the Declaration of Independence.  Emotion and spirituality took a backseat to science and reason.  It would be impossible to overstate the impact this new movement had on Western civilization; the populist uprisings, burgeoning middle class, and growing disapproval of monarchies which marked this period continued to echo for centuries.  The theme of this era was that of the common man taming the world.  Nature was most appreciated when it was subservient to the needs of humans, whether through colonial domination or, on a smaller scale, rigorously-structured landscaping with nary a leaf out of place.  Art of the time celebrated a strict adherence to form and structure as the creative ideal.  Small wonder that as the 19th century dawned, the artists, composers and authors of Europe felt an urge to break free of constraint and go a little wild . . .


Check back next week for our multimedia tour through the Romantic period, and check out the work of some iconic painters, poets and composers who will help you get yourself in the right frame of mind to enjoy Giselle even more!

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