October 9, 2009 – March 2, 2010
The 19th century was the golden age of landscape painting in Europe and America. Three aesthetic concepts established during the Romantic era divided the natural world into categories: the Pastoral, the Picturesque, and the Sublime. The first two represent Nature as a comforting source of physical and spiritual sustenance. The last, as articulated by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), refers to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed Nature and its overwhelming forces, such as thunderstorms and deep chasms. Whereas the Pastoral and Picturesque reference mankind’s ability to control the natural world, the Sublime is a humbling reminder that humanity is not all-powerful.
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. The Picturesque — a category developed in the late 1700s by clergyman and artist William Gilpin — refers to the charm of discovering the landscape in its natural state. Gilpin encouraged his followers to engage in “picturesque travel” – the goal of which was to discover beauty created solely by Nature. The artist and the viewer delight in unspoiled panoramas: sunsets behind majestic mountains, an egret taking off from a quiet marsh, a deer bathed in a shaft of light in the woods. These scenes are uplifting, but not frightening.
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.
These three competing ways of looking at Nature are relevant today. In the 21st century, we still debate humanity’s right to use the planet for only our own good. Global warming, mining rights, wildlife preservation and land use are all controversial issues. As you look at these 19th century landscapes, think about how artists over time have contributed to our view of the natural world and its significance in our lives.
Lauren Rabb, Curator
University of Arizona Museum of Art & Archive of Visual Arts
1031 North Olive Road
Tucson, AZ 85721-0002