Romantic Landscape Painting and the Sublime

The Academic Hierarchy of Genres had placed landscape painting low in its scale of values, but landscape painting took on increasing prominence and prestige in the Romantic period.  Romantic landscapes are typically “moody” in atmosphere; they are more about the subjective feelings of the artist, than an objective record of the observable world.  Storms, shipwrecks, and the mysterious light of dusk and dawn were popular themes:

“In Romantic art, nature—with its uncontrollable power, unpredictability, and potential for cataclysmic extremes—offered an alternative to the ordered world of Enlightenment thought.”
Galitz, Kathryn Calley. “Romanticism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Landscape paintings of the Romantic period generally fall into three categories:

The Pastoral
The pastoral landscape refers to “inhabited” landscape:  placid scenes of well tended farms, that represent a reassuring view of human control of nature:

“Pastoral landscapes celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature. The scenes are peaceful, often depicting ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured lawns with broad vistas, and fattened livestock. Man has developed and tamed the landscape – it yields the necessities we need to live, as well as beauty and safety.”
University of Arizona Museum of Art

The Picturesque
The “picturesque” refers to the beauty of nature unspoiled by human intervention.  In the 18th century, people began to appreciate what we now call “scenic” spots:  charming views of mountains or stream, or a sunset, or simply watching wild life in their natural habitat.   If you have ever driven on a road and seen signs for a look out point, where you are likely to get a good photograph, that is a “picturesque” spot!  Ironically, this appreciation for the “picturesque” emerged in the context of the Industrial Revolution, when “unspoiled” nature was under threat of extinction.

The Sublime
Finally, the third type of landscape is called the Sublime:

“Sublime images, on the other hand, show Nature at its most fearsome; in fact, Burke believed that “terror is in all cases… the ruling principle of the sublime.” There is an awe and reverence for the wild that to Burke was akin to violent passion. Humanity is small and impotent in front of raging rivers, dizzying cliffs and canyons, ferocious animals, and violent storms. These works can also be uplifting, but in a deeply spiritual way. The Sublime emphasizes God’s dominion over humanity and considers the possible folly in mankind’s overriding confidence.”
University of Arizona Museum of Art

This is the kind of landscape that gives you goose bumps, and makes your heart race (think of huge mountains, tumultuous seas, powerful storms, or erupting volcanoes).  For thrill-seekers, this is the ultimate nature experience –and Romantic landscape painters became the “extreme-sport” thrill-seekers of their day, seeking out remote locations where they could capture nature in all of its sublime grandeur.

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, c. 1809, oil on canvas, 43
Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, c. 1809, oil on canvas, 43″ x 67 1/2″ (110 x 171.5 cm), Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

One of the leading Romantic landscape painters was the German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose work is often related to the 18th century concept of the Sublime — the sensation we experience when confronted with the boundlessness of nature, or the immeasurable power of natural forces.  In contrast to the Enlightenments faith in reason and science, Romantic landscape painters looked to nature for evidence of God’s power to render all of our efforts insignificant.  The Sublime evokes feelings of terror and wonder because it allows our mind to glimpse the infinite, or powers much larger than us.

Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (Smarthistory)

Thomas Cole, The Oxbow (View from Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm), 1836

The American Hudson River School was also influenced by the Sublime.  The Hudson River School focused on the awe-inspiring magnificence of the American landscape.  This painting by Thomas Cole depicts a sharp curve in the Connecticut River near Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts.  The painter is depicted in the foreground, a tiny speck overwhelmed by the vast forces of nature.  The left hand portion of the painting shows a dense forest under stormy skies, symbolizing the wilderness; the right hand portion depicts cultivated fields under a sunlit sky, symbolizing civilization.

Cole’s The Oxbow (Smarthistory)

John Constable, The Haywain, 1821

In England, the leading landscape painter was John Constable.  He painted pastoral scenes of the countryside near his boyhood home in Suffolk.  Constable’s landscapes were painted when the industrial revolution was transforming the English countryside.  They are a nostalgic representation of a rapidly disappearing way of life.

Learn more:  Constable and the English Landscape (Smarthistory)

John Constable, View on the Stour near Dedham (Smarthistory)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840

Constable’s contemporary, J.W.M. Turner, also responded to the impact of rapid modernization in the 19th century.  This painting was based on an account of the captain of a slave ship who threw his sick and dying slaves overboard in a storm, because his insurance only covered slaves lost at sea, and not those who died of other causes.  The artist uses turbulent colors and brushstrokes to express the violence of the scene.

Turner’s Slave Ship (Smarthistory)

See also:
Simon Schama’s J.M.W. Turner (The Power of Art 1 of 4) 


Web Resources:

Pastoral and Sublime:  The Two Faces of Romantic Landscape

“19th Century Landscape – The Pastoral, the Picturesque, and the Sublime,” The University of Arizona Museum of Art

End of Chapter
Back to Table of Contents

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.