"Arcadia" and the Aesthetic of Romanticism


Amelia Rauser, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History



    Towards the end of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," Thomasina shows her tutor the diagram of heat exchange she has devised-- a diagram which proves that Newton's theory of the universe is inadequate. Unlike the perfect, stable and symmetrical world Newton had imagined, Thomasina realizes that, just as a cup of tea will only and irreversibly grow cold, so the universe is tending not toward order, but toward chaos. "This is not science," the tutor Septimus says, "This is story-telling" (p.93). It is this kind of story-telling, this newly chaotic world-view, that also underlies the aesthetic of Romanticism. Romanticism was the dominant aesthetic movement in early 19th-century England, the period of Thomasina and Septimus, a period in which social, political, economic and scientific change combined to produce a new aesthetic of irregularity and irrationality, in place of the balanced and harmonious classical aesthetic that had dominated the previous century.

    Romanticism in art, literature and music was marked by a cult of feeling over thinking, and a belief that truth is found in the instinct of a genius more readily than the ratiocination of a group of dogged scholars. A great premium was placed on expressiveness and passion, therefore, and intuition and imagination had primacy over empirical reasoning. Because of this, works of art and artists themselves had a new, higher status in the Romantic era. As Hugh Honour says in his book, Romanticism (Harper and Row, 1979), "The work of art-painting, poem, novel, or musical composition—came to be regarded not simply as a reflection of reality or the embodiment of an immutable and rationally conceived ideal, but as an insight into the life of things" (p.21). Because the universe was now seen to be unpredictable, the Romantic believed more in the validity of relative and personal truths, than in the possibility of achieving empirical knowledge.

    If we look at a specific work of art like Eugene Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus, 1824, we can see this expressive passion represented in the florid, swirling brushstrokes and the circular, rotating composition. (If you could see it in color, you'd also notice the hot, orange-red hues that dominate the canvas.) Notice how all the figures seem to pivot around the central character, an Eastern despot called Sardanapalus. In this scene, he has commanded that his harem be killed and then all of them burned to death to escape being captured by a mob. This exotic, Eastern subject matter and extremist orgy of death are typical of Romantic works of art.

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugene Delacroix, 1824

    By contrast, classicizing artworks rely on principles of harmony and balance to accomplish their effects, often using stories from Classical antiquity to express these values. Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii, 1793, is a spare, open, rectilinear composition. The three brothers at left take a vow from their father to fight to the death to defend their country, while their sisters, at right, weep in elegantly drooping fashion. The men's lives are on the line here, but it is for a noble and rational reason. No action is frenzied or purposeless; the bodies are stiff, the gestures are deliberate. Thus, while this painting is also about death and passion, it is rational, stoic and honorable where Sardanapalus is irrational, sexy and sordid--a contrast in world-view between purposeful order and disorderly chaos.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, 1793

    In "Arcadia," we can see the redesign of the garden as representative of the aesthetic shift from classical to Romantic. Lady Croom, who does not favor Mr. Noakes' "modern" style, describes the change in this way:

    Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman's garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house, of water dashing against rocks where there was neither a spring nor a stone... (p.12)    

    Notice that she focuses on the artificiality of the picturesque here-- how, in order to create a suitably Romantic ruined castle in the midst of a landscape, the gardener must build a fake ruin where there never was a building. In spite of this chicanery, however, Lady Croom's daughter Thomasina, the future chaos theorist, wholeheartedly approves of the new style, which will eventually include a hermit-in-residence-her old tutor, a disillusioned exile from the classicizing world.

    By the time Mr. Noakes was doing his digging in 1809, many critical changes had occurred in Europe. The ambition and optimism of the Enlightenment to fully understand the world and to build, from scratch, a more just and equal society, had culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. But that revolution, born in hope, turned into a bloody Terror four years later, and many thinkers, writers, and artists were subsequently disillusioned about the perfectibility of humanity. Where once it seemed possible to simply reason one's way to a better world, where once knowledge of the whole truth of the universe seemed within reach, now many feared that humans were unfathomably dark, irrational and lost creatures. Misgivings and doubts began to undermine all kinds of old orthodoxies. In "Arcadia," we can see the characters-- both the 19th-century and the contemporary ones-- grappling with some agonizing dilemmas: are humans fundamentally rational, or irrational? Is the universe orderly or chaotic? Whereas the Enlightenment philosopher like Newton posited that the universe was governed by rationalism and order, the Romantic would have argued that irrationality and chaos were the true nature of things. Romanticism is, indeed, a very "modern style," and a world-view that still shapes our culture today.


Amelia Rauser is Assistant Professor of Art History at Skidmore College. Her research speciality is political prints and caricatures of the revolutionary era in Europe, and she teaches courses on Neoclassical, Romantic, Impressionist and Pre-Raphaelite art at Skidmore."