It would be no exaggeration to say that for me, and probably for many others, January is my least favourite time of the year. Despite the promise of longer days, we still spend most of the month rising before the sun and watching darkness fall in the afternoon. Even on sunny days it’s bitterly cold, usually with not even a flake of snow to make the cold worth it. The only way that I’m making it through the most depressing month of the year is by following the advice of everyone on social media and ‘romanticising’ January’s more negative aspects. Lighting a candle as soon as it starts to get dark so I can feel like a Victorian writer or appreciating the beauty in the subtle hues of dawn rather than complaining about the lack of daylight. To romanticise is, by its definition, to make something seem more appealing than it really is. It is, in a sense, to see everyday life through the eyes of an artist, a writer or a poet. Not as something mundane, simply to be put up with until better things come along, but as something beautiful in its normality.
The romanticisation and idealisation of everyday life is not a new idea, but something that has been explored in art and literature for centuries. The nineteenth century, in particular, saw European artists romanticising various themes such as rural life and folk culture. For the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites, nature and the environment were especially important aspects of their art. As the industrial revolution transformed the cities, these artists sought an escape, looking instead to the tranquillity and beauty of nature and a sense of nostalgia for a romantic past. In the same way that people living in cities today might romanticise taking a walk in the park or growing plants on a windowsill, the Romantics saw beauty everywhere in nature. Take William Wordsworth’s Daffodils, for instance. You’d never think that a few flowers could make a man so happy, yet Wordsworth beautifully demonstrates the benefits of appreciating the little things in life – an early pioneer of the ‘romanticise your life’ trend if ever there was one.
Other nineteenth century artists also idealised rural life and folk culture in their works. Paul Gauguin is the artist who immediately springs to mind, a former stockbroker who left his old life to make a new one on the remote island of Tahiti. His colourful paintings idealise rural village life on the island, appealing to a sense of nostalgia and a desire held by many Europeans to return to a pre-industrial era where people and nature worked together in harmony. However, Gauguin’s romanticised works do not reflect the realities of life in Tahiti in the 1800s, where French colonialism meant that it was not the unspoilt paradise that he hoped it would be. Here lies the problem with romanticisation and idealism in art. It often obscures the harsh realities of life and presents an inaccurate portrayal of non-Western cultures to a European audience. On the other hand, the romanticisation of everyday life in art and literature also fosters an appreciation of beauty and a respect for nature and the environment.
In the context of the current climate crisis, this nineteenth century’s valuing of nature for its beauty and tranquillity is more relevant than ever. This mindset is reflected in modern day romanticisation trends that are all over social media. Lifestyle writers will tell you to romanticise your life by doing simple things such as listening to the birds before looking at your phone in the morning or walking barefoot in the grass. In all these activities there is usually an emphasis on aesthetics, on seeing the beauty in things, as well as an emphasis on connecting with nature. Just as the Romantics attempted to escape the industrial revolution, many people living in towns and cities today see the concept of ‘romanticising life’ as a way to cope with the intensity of urban living. A line of daffodils was enough to leave Wordsworth feeling peaceful and contented and there’s no reason why appreciating the beauty in nature around us couldn’t do the same today.
As in the art and literature of the nineteenth century, there are still some negative aspects to idealising life. Gauguin’s paintings did not reflect the realities of rural life in Tahiti and likewise the carefully edited photos and videos posted to social media are not an accurate reflection of most people’s lives. However, there is still a lot of value in trying to romanticise life, even if we should know by now not to believe everything on social media. It could help us to foster a deeper respect for nature and benefit our mental health by focusing on having a more positive outlook. To see life through the eyes of an artist is to see the beauty in the mundane, but also to realise that art is not an accurate portrayal of life. January will always stay cold and dark, but focusing on the unique beauty that this time of the year has could make it seem much less depressing.