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Theories Of The Picturesque And The Sublime

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3354 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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Joseph Mallord Turner and John Constable are the two acclaimed giants of English landscape. They were both influential exponents of Romanticism, an artistic movement that emphasized an emotional response to nature. According the Romantic school of thought, experiences could be divided in three ways: into the Beautiful, the Picturesque, and the Sublime. In a Romantic sense, the Beautiful was an example of natural perfection, a thing or scene that reached its full potential. [1] The Picturesque emerged in the era of Constable and Turner, when artists, as well as ordinary people, were encouraged to search for the quality of natural landscape, which could be illustrated by a painting: not an exact reproduction, but the landscape as the artist saw it. A painter of the Picturesque wanted to see the world through pictorial models and, with wilful control, as pictures. [2] The Sublime was a philosophical concept put forward by British writer Edmund Burke, who thought that a sensation of pleasure might arise from the contemplation of a terrifying situation.


During the period of 1750-1850, a complex literature of landscape developed, growing out of precise needs and helping to form answers to these. In the late 1770s Wales and Lake District opened up, causing increase of the literature on tourism. In 1793 Republican France declared war on Britain, and with only short breaks, the two nations remained in conflict until the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. For as long as a generation it was nearly impossible for the British to visit Europe. The tradition of the Grand Tour was stopped, and instead painters and poets had to look for inspiration in their native landscape. Also patrons, unable to travel abroad, became more and more conscious of the beauty of the British rural area. All these conditions encouraged the growth of national school of painting

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The Picturesque was originally introduced into English cultural dispute in 1782 by the Reverend William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770, a practical book which instructed England’s travellers to study natural world by the regulations of picturesque beauty. Meaning literally ‘like a picture’, the Picturesque became a measure whereby the traveller could judge the beauty the sites he visited. The growth of the middle class prosperity and leisure time also contributed to popularising the touring in the late eighteen century. Unlike the Grand Tour, those ‘Picturesque tours’ were quite modest, and undertaken by those who could find the money for it without taking a couple of years holiday, which only an aristocrat could afford. The fashion encouraged journeys within Britain. We can see the birth of the tourist industry there, which has flourished ever since.

Gilpin introduced his idea of a landscape. The Reverend was an amateur artists and a connoisseur himself, so he new the rules and compositional methods of picture-making and wanted to judge nature according to them. The principal mean was to find ‘variety’. The foreground of a view had to be diverse and the background smooth. This contrast was supposed to also help a sense of recession. Falling under the name of the Picturesque were elements of landscape: tree, rocks, rivers etc. What seems to distinguish the Picturesque traveller and the seeker of the Sublime was searching for “beautiful parts” or “the exhibition of a whole.”

The idea of the Sublime appeared along with major changes in attitudes toward nature. In the eighteen century people began to travel specifically to visit glaciers, high cataracts and vast, empty mountains, falling in love with fear. Aristocracy were including an artist to record their experiences (John Cozen for example, travelled to Alps in the party of a young nobleman).

The concept was propagated by the statesman and writer Edmund Burke. His Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful argued that both beauty and the overwhelming experience of the Sublime were perceived emotionally, and generated by subjective rather than objective criteria. Burke was the first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are exclusive. His idea of the Sublime was a contrast to the classical perception of beauty as the pleasurable experience described by Plato in several of his dialogues, and suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality able to establish feelings of powerful emotion, creating a pleasant experience. Burke’s thesis also concentrates on the physiological effects of the Sublime, mainly the emotional quality of fear and attraction. The writer described the sensation of the sublime as a ‘negative pain’ which he called delight, different and supposedly more intense than positive pleasure. [3] The Sublime can be than thought of as a dangerous, uncontrollable thing, a creative force, or an emotion that affects one greatly. In art, particularly in the paintings of artists like Turner and Friedrich, it is embodied in the violent, stormy sea, the vastness of the horizon, which reduces spectators to insignificance at last, the Sublime is reaching, and understanding greater than individual beings.

John Constable

Constable was a ‘natural painter’, a painter who tried to represent nature as he saw it. He considered bravura, “an attempt to do something beyond the truth”, to be the great vice of his day. To keep away from it, Constable decided to paint only the views he knew, and to rely as much as possible on direct observation. [4] He was the most provincial of major painters. As a young man he visited the Peak and the Lake districts, but found the mountains oppressive. Since then he never left Southern England and painted the most familiar places: Stour Valley, Hampstead Heath, Salisbury and Brighton.

Michael Rosenthal in his book about the artists says that A Mill at Gillingham in Dorset of 1926 is an evidence that Constable turned to a conventional picturesque. When John Fisher wrote to tell Constable in 1825 that this old mill had been replaced by a ‘new, bright, brick, modern, improved patent monster’ such a building as the Constable of the 1810s would have approved, the artist answered that there ‘will soon be an and to the picturesque in the kingdom’. That for Rosenthal intimates that not only Constable was turning to the Picturesque intentionally, but that he also come to associate it with an old England. It was a part of nostalgic vision of a world fatally threatened by the one developing in the 1820’s. [5] 

Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop’s Grounds, the 1826 painting by John Constable, is not violent, nor overwhelming. It is an example of a painting of the Picturesque. On the left corner there is a fashionably-dressed couple, the bishop of Salisbury and his wife. They stopped their walk along the pathway to admire the landscape. The bishop points upward with his walking stick and Mrs. Fisher follows it with her eyes. They stand rigid and tranquil, engaged in pleasant examination of their surroundings. They might look to us like William Gilpin’s Picturesque travellers. The joy that the Picturesque brings to the traveller, says Gilpin, comes first from the search of his object. He should think of his country as yet unexplored, with the expectation of new scenes constantly accruing. Constable’s painting gives us by its composition the sense of discovery, keeping the all important sense of security at the same time. The pleasure should come from studying the object of the Picturesque, examining it as the whole and then its parts -we may suppose that exactly what the bishop and his wife are doing in Constable’s painting. At this point Gilpin wanted his travellers to think about how the parts of the Picturesque object might be amended to create a more attractive whole.

The cathedral in the picture looks solid, and the cloud airy. The canvas is covered with naturalistic tones of brown and green. A wide meadow and a pond are cautiously depicted, and the scene is dominated by two big trees, framing a view of the cathedral in the distance. Their limbs echo the cathedral spires, ir foliage forms a window, through which we may look. The cathedral is a medieval relic, and makes the picture all the more Picturesque by its age. The Romantics were huge lovers of castles, temples, ruins, and all ancient things, and Gilpin explains it thus: “the elegant relics of ancient architecture…{are} the richest legacies of art. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself.” [6] The building rises from the background, like a sculpture or a palace, with its sharp, thin tower reaching the sky. The cathedral is imposing but delicate and beautiful at the same time. Animals drink from the pond and graze the grass, vaguely depicted by loose strokes of paint. The whole scene is immersed in sunlight. Trees cast dark shadows, the foliage sparkles joyfully, the effect Constable achieved through applying characteristic small patches of white, demonstrating dappled sunlight. To convey the effect of light and movement the artist used braked brushstrokes stumbled over lighter passages, creating the impression of sparkling light. A path on the left leads the eye into the painting. Constable took the third step prescribed by Gilpin’s: re-creation, adding sparkle to the foliage, perfecting the spatial arrangement of the grazing animals at the pond.

Constable’s picturesque phase culminated with the great 1828 Denham Vale. Gilpin urged everyone, not just artists, to go out into nature to look for scenes that reminded them of paintings by such masters as Claude Lorraine. He taught a generation of Englishmen to appreciate nature through the mediation of art, looking for composition, contrast, movement, and bringing their watercolor kit with them. And in an ironic turnabout, a surprisingly large percentage of the landscape of England was actually reformed to “make pictures”, by the landscape architects who worked on the large estates. The culmination of this Pastoral tradition is in the work of Constable, who painted the familiar English landscape within a short journey from his Dedham home, seldom venturing further than Brighton or Weymouth. By this time, Constable does not need the mediation of previous art to appreciate his surroundings: his attention to the infinite variety of the natural world is total. Constable’s sceptical attitude to the Old Masters resulted not in rejection but in a selective reinterpretation, as in the upright view of his native landscape, Dedham Vale, painted in 1802 as a tribute to a painting by Claude, Hagar and the Angel, then owned by Constable’s early mentor Sir George Beaumont. Seventeenth century landscape paintings, by the trio of Italian masters: Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa and Poussin, were enthusiastically purchased by British collectors. Constable recast the scene in a fresh, sparkling palette of greens and golds and with a light touch with the brush. In the beautiful painting of the Vale of Dedham no painter ever represented the English countryside with greater fidelity. His paintings were much more than straightforward topographical records. He sought to capture in them a childhood vision of nature;s harmony in its innocent purity. The artists produced numerous observational sketches, determined to become more scientific in his recording of atmospheric conditions.

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J.M.W Turner

Turner made much of sublime and picturesque landscape. His art was prolific and varied; he worked in oils as well as watercolours, engrossing the art of the seventeenth century classical landscape painter Claude Lorrain, as well as the Dutch and experimenting with a range of styles and techniques. Devoted from the beginning to the landscape, he was trained on topography and became skilful at drawing ruined abbeys, castles, crumbling villages and other sights, so typical for a fashionable taste for the ‘Picturesque’. Unlike Constable, who never went abroad, Turner travelled often and far. He visited picturesque districts of England, Wales and Southern Scotland when he was a young topographer, and at twenty he had a reputation as a first-class draftsman and architectural recorder. Turner’s visual memory was extremely good, but his engravings and watercolours of his early period were based on the innumerable sketches he always made on his journeys. The ninety-six engravings which made up Turner’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales were the most ambitious of the many publishing schemes Turner was involved in. The word ‘picturesque’ was often used in titles by print-publishers of the day. The series does not establish any real connection between it and the body of picturesque theory of the late eighteen century. The only connection between them lies in Turner’s choice of subjects: cathedrals, abbeys and ruins were chosen by him out of desire to explore the potential that these subjects still contained for genuine and imaginative expression. [7] 

Place was unimportant to Turner. As a painter he needed locations where he could observe the interaction of his phenomena: water, mist, and sunlight. He loved the sea, Venice and the Alps. He was captivated by the Alps, by “very fine thunderstorms among the mountains – fragments and precipices very romantic and strikingly grand”. Later he thought that Niagara Falls to be “the greatest wonder in nature”. [8] 

Crossing the Brook of 1815 marks the culmination of Turner’s studies of Devon, which he visited in 1811 and 1813. His watercolours and drawings of the area were very fresh and casual. Here he creates a more monumental and self-consciously artful image in the style of Claude Lorrain. Turner’s contemporaries recognised that the scene was intended to show a particular place in Devon: the Tamar valley. Turner’s adaptation of a Claudian style to Engliglish landscape seems though unexpected: it depicts in idealized form the river Tamar and, with its unnaturally raised foreground and tiny peoples, which the spectator see through a vignette of trees and clouds, is closer to a classical work of art than to a typically English landscape painting of that period. [9] In another of Turner’s early paintings, The Old Mill, the Picturesque is distinguished by the roughness and ruggedness, as in the outline and bark of a tree, or the rough side of a mountain. Later the artist found more expressive and direct means of depicting the landscape and largely abandoned the concept of the Picturesque.

Turner did not succeed in completely expressing his concern with human destiny until he had mastered his technique, which allowed him to realise peoples’ relationship with nature, exclusively in the ground he had always been most gifted – the illustrating of the elemental forces of the natural world. Already in such works as Hannibal Crossing the Alps painted in 1812, his real subject wasn’t a depiction of a specific event, but rather man’s battle with natural forces. The picture was inspired by observations of a storm in Yorkshire, although it represents Hannibal’s invasion of Italy in a year 218 BC. Turner does not show the General himself, but focuses instead on the distress of Hannibal’s army. He thus aims at a universal, pessimistic vision of mankind (Turner wrote a poem to accompany this work). This masterpiece invites a contemporary comparison between Hannibal and Napoleon, who had crossed the Alps to invade Italy in 1797.

Now his technique allowed Turner to exclude human figure entirely, and that surely strengthened the general meaning of artist’s message. Natural forces, both those that he took from the Sublime as images of horror (fire or storm) and those that he discovered for himself (light and colour), became the very essence of his art, embodying in their forms alone the emotions he wished to tell us about. The fire and storm conveyed his sense of the insignificance of man in the face of immensity and destructiveness of nature; the latter, light and colour, were hymns of praise to the life-giving essences of the physical world. [10] The picture was well received by the critics. The Examiner writes on 7 June 1812: ‘This is a performance that classes Mr. Turner in the highest rank of landscape painters, for it possesses a considerable portion of that main excellence of the sisters Arts, Invention… This picture delights the imagination by the impressive agency of a few uncommon and sublime subjects in material nature, and of terror in its display of the effects of moral evil.’ The main body of the army is ‘represented agreeably to that principle of the sublime which arises from obscurity’ but ‘an aspect of terrible splendour is displayed in the shining of the sun… A terrible magnificence is also seen in the widely circular sweep of snow whirling high in the air…’ [11] 

Hannibal Crossing the Alps exemplifies Turner’s achievement in the Sublime, adding a personal experience to complex historical and literary associations.


The art of Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable dominated the landscape painting for the greater part of the nineteenth century. [12] They both represented main, although different aesthetic ideas of the Romantic era. Turner stayed faithful to nature, but only the nature captured in the most unusual moment. He often depicted overwhelming and terrifying aspects of nature, which we would call the Sublime. He has made his contemporaries understand that man is much a phenomenon of a natural world as are mountains, fields and rivers. He painted the face of Earth as it is, inhabited and changed by man. It was a central theme of Romantic art: the sense of immanence of man and his works in nature is as important to Romanticism as was immanence of God. [13] John Constable on the other hand, turned away from the wild natural scenery associated with many Romantic poets and painters, infusing quite English landscapes with profound feeling.


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