A concept first introduced by the philosopher Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century to describe art that is truly extraordinary, invoking a powerful mix of awe, wonder and terror. Most prevalent in nineteenth century Romanticism, leading practitioners include William Blake and Joseph Mallord William Turner.
The Sublime as Concept
Leading Irish philosopher Edmund Burke first introduced the theory of sublime art in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke saw in the sublime a sense of wonder, awe and astonishment that merged overwhelming beauty with life threatening fear, writing, 'Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.'
Describing the sublime as exciting a state of heightened arousal and astonishment in viewers, he wrote '…it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.' The vast, seemingly infinite terrain of unspoilt landscape in the nineteenth century epitomised Burke’s concept, as he explained: 'Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime.'
German philosopher Immanuel Kant built upon similar ideas in his influential text Critique of Pure Reason, 1781, writing, 'Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.'
From the seventeenth century onwards artists and writers embraced the theory of the sublime, particularly when conveying idea related to the natural world. Although Burke saw poetry as the most potent invocation of the sublime, recalling Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667, as a key example, it was nineteenth century, Romanticist landscape painters who would ignite the most powerful and long-lasting realisation of the sublime. French-born, British based painter Philip James De Loutherbourg made epic, unfolding battle scenes and crumbling avalanches punctuated by stark lighting, while Joseph Mallord William Turner painted angry, swirling storms in dangerously wild terrain with free, expressive paint, as seen in Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819.
Following Turner’s lead, British painter William Stott adopted the same energised, emotive drama in his expansive landscapes. Stott travelled to the Swiss Alps in the late nineteenth century where he spent four months obsessively drawing the jagged, snow peaked mountains and capturing their freezing, inhospitable danger, as demonstrated in the pastel drawing The Fiersherhorn Glacier, 1888. Sublime landscapes were also popular with Scottish artists, who leaned towards an idealised or exaggerated vision of Scotland’s misty, mountainous terrain, as exemplified in Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, pained in about 1851, and Peter Graham’s sprawling, sun-dappled Wandering Shadows, 1878.
The Hudson River School
Building on the legacy of British Romanticism, sublime landscapes emerged from the United States through the Hudson River School in the nineteenth century. The ‘Hudson River’ name emerged as large numbers of artists celebrated the dangerous hills, valleys and waterfalls of the picturesque Castskill area North of New York City where the Hudson River flowed, but younger members of the group also expanded to explore other areas of America’s vast and unspoilt wilderness. Thomas Cole led the older generation, while his pupil, Frederic Edwin Church painted breath-taking scenery across the United States and beyond, including Niagara Falls from the American Side, 1867.
Modern and Contemporary Art
While the picturesque, illusionist spectacle of sublime landscape painting fell away in favour of flatness and abstraction in the later twentieth century, various artists sought to invoke similar emotional responses from their imagery. American painters such as Agnes Martin and Mark Rothko sought ways of investing a spiritual aura into their art through passages of colour and light. The rise of land art in the 1960s saw artists such as Joseph Beuys, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long celebrating the vastness of nature in relation to our bodies and human experiences. More recently, some artists have embraced imagery of the sublime through photographic imagery rather than first hand-experience, filtering our relationship to wild, dangerous places through a digital lens, as seen in the work of Ed Ruscha and Vija Celmins.