Western Aesthetics


Three primary aesthetics of Western art are classicism, Baroque, and Romanticism. The most straightforward possible explanation of these terms is attempted here, with primary reference to painting.


The qualities associated with classicism can be summed up in one word: stability. The elements of a classical composition are generally depicted as at rest (or in gentle motion), and are arranged in a balanced, harmonious manner (see Visual Composition). The impression of stability is enhanced by restraint: that is, an absence of "showy" elements, such as dramatic curves, rich decoration, or harsh lighting.1,3

Classical Painting
Classical Painting
Classical Furniture


Baroque qualities may be summarized with the opposite term: dynamism.4,5,6 The elements of a Baroque composition are generally depicted as being in vigorous motion, and arranged in an unbalanced, dissonant manner. The impression of dynamism is often heightened via extravagance: that is, "showy" elements like dramatic curves, rich decoration, or harsh lighting.

Baroque Painting
Baroque Painting
Baroque Furniture


One may therefore view art in terms of an aesthetic spectrum, with classicism at one end and Baroque at the other.

Romanticism can also be defined in opposition to classicism, but in a different way. The defining feature of Romanticism is the uninhibited expression of emotion. In order to achieve this, the constraints of classicism are rejected: whereas classicism is logical and ordered, Romanticism is intuitive and free.8,10 (The foremost literary genre of the later Middle Ages was the romance, an imaginative tale of fantasy and adventure; the term "Romanticism" is derived from this word.)

Romantic art may be classified according to mood: stormy Romanticism expresses overt emotions (e.g. joy, wrath, determination), while atmospheric Romanticism expresses calmer emotions (e.g. tranquility, pensiveness, wonder). Note that the aesthetic techniques of Baroque (dynamism and extravagant effect) can also be used to convey overt emotions. Consequently, there is often much similarity between a Baroque work and a stormy Romantic work, despite the difference in aesthetic approach.

Romantic Painting (stormy Romanticism)
Romantic Painting (stormy Romanticism)
Romantic Painting (stormy Romanticism)
Romantic Painting (atmospheric Romanticism)
Romantic Painting (atmospheric Romanticism)
Romantic Painting (atmospheric Romanticism)

Romantic art is also characterized by a number of typical themes (established largely by German literature), which were embraced by Romantic artists simply because they are so emotionally compelling.K338-339 This approach contrasts sharply with earlier periods, when artists typically selected from a narrow range of subjects (usually biblical or classical) considered appropriate by the artistic/scholarly community.

Romantic theme example in Romantic art
nature landscape painting
historical nostalgia revival of Gothic architecture
country life/folk traditions injection of folk styles into classical music
struggles for social justice portrayals of social conflicts and revolutionary heroes
supernatural elements/worlds
(other than classical and biblical)
fantasy literature

Romantic artists enjoyed increasing freedom in their choice of subject matter thanks to the rising prosperity of the Early Modern period. Up until the modern age, artists were generally dependent on patrons, who decided what types of works an artist would produce (and how quickly); an artist's creative freedom was therefore restricted by the open-mindedness of their patron. With the massive economic growth of the Early Modern age (and the consequent rise of the middle class), patrons were gradually superseded by a public audience. Artists thus attained much more creative freedom (limited only by the marketability of their work), and the pace of artistic innovation surged.


The term realism generally refers to art that portrays everyday life in a physically realistic manner (see Realism vs. Stylization). While classical, Baroque, and Romantic art embrace the latter quality, they typically lack the former.


Scenes of everyday life may also be executed in physically unrealistic styles; these works are not classified as realism.

Physically Unrealistic Scene of Everyday Life


While many works of art fit clearly within a single aesthetic category, many do not. A peaceful landscape painting, for instance, might be classified as atmospheric Romanticism or realism, while a dramatic public monument might be classified as Baroque or stormy Romanticism. One should always be prepared to consider a given work of art in terms of multiple categories.

1 - "Classic, Classical, and Classicism", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
2 - "Classicism", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
3 - "Classicism (arts)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
4 - "Baroque", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
5 - "Baroque, in art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
6 - "Baroque Period (art)", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
7 - "Romanticism", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
8 - "Romanticism", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2009.
9 - "Romanticism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2009.
10 - "Western Painting: Neoclassical and Romantic", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2009.