Neo-Romanticism: Music & Art

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

Neo-Romanticism is a call for humanity to connect with nature but in a way that rejects both modern living and pre-industrial tradition and embraces progressive social ideals in art and music.

Defining Neo-Romanticism

Imagine you and a friend are looking at a painting of a landscape and admiring how beautiful it is, how there is great contrast between light and shadow, the subtle beauty of nature, and you hear a person say 'Oh, how neo-romantic!' What do they mean by this? Are they comparing this painting to the love shared by Keanu Reaves and Carrie-Ann Moss in The Matrix?

Neo-Romanticism is an art movement that begins around 1880 and continues to the present day. It is defined by three key characteristics:

1. A criticism of modern society as unconnected from nature

2. A wish or desire for a Utopian connection to nature uncoupled from social expectations and tradition

3. A rejection of the dichotomy between society and nature

Neo-Romanticism in the art of Minton, Sutherland, Butler, and Cross

Let's look at some examples of Neo-Romantic paintings that will let us understand the three characteristics better.

George Edmund Butler

Neo-Romanticism is classified by academics based upon its subject content, which is mentioned in characteristic #1 above. If you look at the above painting by George Edmund Butler, Bellevue Ridge(1918), you can see a desolate landscape marred by craters. The Neo-Romantics, inspired by the harsh critique of society by the Realists, applied this to their depictions of nature, showing it as a victim of human industry and civilization. This depiction of landscapes as desolate and scarred are classic features of Neo-Romantic artists, such as George Edmund Butler and George Sutherland, and exemplifies the 1st characteristic of Neo-Romanticism as a critique of a society that feels no connection to the natural world that it victimizes.

Henri-Edmund Cross Painting

Now, if we look at Henri-Edmund Cross's painting Le Bois (1906) above, we see a stark contrast to Butler's bleak and lifeless landscape. Cross depicts human figures, freed from culture and industry rooted, in a natural setting. Unlike the romantics who depicted native peoples in their worship of nature, the Neo-Romantics, like Henri-Edmund Cross or John Minton, chose subjects in their landscapes in more intimate settings and unconnected to tradition or social norms. This painting represents characteristic #2 from above as it shows an Utopian world where figures exist completely free of needs like Eden.

The simple white dress of the sitting figure and the blankets on the ground set the figures as modern subjects, rather than tribal or futuristic individuals. This feature represents characteristic #3: the rejection of the dichotomy of society and nature. The figures are modern and yet connected to nature, symbolizing the rejection of choosing between civilization and nature.

Neo-Romanticism in the Music of Barber and Britten

Neo-Romanticism was seen in music, too. Let's look at some music examples that demonstrate the three characteristics.

The Neo-Romantic movement found support in music in the works of American Composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) who was inspired by the conflict between nature and man from Georgics in the Aeneid. Barber uses tonal simple melodies to mourn the disconnection of person from nature in his famous 'Adagio for Strings' (1938). Listen to this haunting piece while you look at Butler's scarred landscape, and you can sense that the scene and score belong together as nature and mankind tragically struggle to find common ground. This is a good example of characteristic 1.

A Photograph of Samuel Barber
Photograph of Samuel Barber

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