The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 3

See Part 1

See Part 2

Nostalgia of the Pastoral and the Industrial

Landscape in the second half of 19th century France was perceived as two polar images: the rural and traditional countryside versus the advancing modern and industrialized nation.1 While landscape art sometimes portrayed one or the other vision, often images were a combination of both the rural and the developed. Consequently, the pastoral and the industrial could be found in single images. Nostalgia played a prominent role in these types of images, either representing the longing for a simpler life of the past when one was perceived to be more in harmony with the environment, or dreaming of a present modern life that could bring a new type of harmony within society and lifestyles.

Unlike the paintings of the Romantic period that depicted emotions of humanity’s awe, fear, and melancholy in the face of cosmological nature, the landscape image of the modern era expressed more intimate and nostalgic feelings. Since nostalgia is often associated with the concept of belonging and returning home, one can presume that the nostalgia represented in the modern landscape images was towards a yearning to return to the past landscape that the French symbolically held in their imaginations as their true home. Pastoral images of idyllic fields where peasants quietly lived their lives were images from this end of the gamut of nostalgia.

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Charles-François Daubigny, Fields in the Month of June, 1874, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Many of Charles-François Daubigny’s paintings depict the anti-modern agricultural lifestyle of rural French peasants. Fields in the Month of June is a good example of this pastoral landscape image. Deduced to be set near the town of Auvers, which was northeast of Paris, the painting depicts peasants busy collecting hay in the background amidst the foreground of a field of blooming red poppies.2 The scene is set at daybreak with the moon still visible within a colourfully tinted sky. The feeling expressed is one of serenity and simplistic beauty, with no signs of the modernity found in the busy city nearby. Critics at the time were moved by the painting, viewing it as patriotic and symbolic of the precious agricultural landscape of France: “Nothing resembles our country more than this productive plain and nothing offers a better idea of our resources than this apologia for agriculture.”3 Fields in the Month of June was exhibited at the 1874 Salon and the 1878 Exposition Universelle.

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Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Le Chemin de Sèvres, Vue de Paris, c.1865, Louvre Museum. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s Le Chemin de Sèvres, Vue de Paris shows a nostalgic countryside landscape in a different way.   The scene takes place in suburban Paris following the road from the Sèvres hilltop leading to the metropolitan city seen far off in the distance.4 Although the paved road in the painting is a sign of modernity leading to the modern city, the figures in the painting are transporting by foot and donkey. Many of Corot’s paintings use similar compositions: lone peasants along a path by foot or horse within a hillside landscape, overlooking a far off horizon. This composition creates a feeling of solitude and prospect. On one hand, Le Chemin de Sèvres is idyllic and rustic, but on the other hand, it is not the nostalgia of looking backwards; the peasants and the viewer are all figuratively looking forward towards modernity.

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Paul Gauguin, Washerwomen, 1888, Museum of Modern Art. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Gauguin’s Washerwomen portrays the peasant worker in yet another manner. His scene is up-close unlike the picturesque portrayal of peasants in landscape in Daubigny and Corot’s paintings. Gauguin moved away from the realistic painterly method by using a stylized illustrated technique of crisp lines and bright colours. However, his content retains the nostalgic archetype of the traditional peasant woman. Similar to Giraudon’s photographs of the peasant women at work, the figures in Washerwomen represent a traditional ideal of humankind in nature: humble, hardworking, and harmonious. Like Washerwomen, Gauguin’s series of paintings of the Breton landscape also depict the traditional peasant woman in work or in leisure within the stylized pastoral landscape.

In contrast to the anti-modern countryside landscape, some artists embraced the marks of modernity in their art. The romanticism found in the natural world is unexpectedly displaced by the industrial. The modern artist’s vision in the modern city landscape can be revealed through Charles Baudelaire’s description: “He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone, now swathed in mist, now struck in full face by the sun.”5 In comparison to the countryside landscape, concrete buildings replace foliage in the city; smog from the smoke stacks replace the mist of the morning dew; the same sun shines on the landscape, but the atmosphere is different. Baudelaire’s quote aptly complements Claude Monet’s famous Impression: Sunrise, the iconic painting that represents the modern era, the subjectivity of Impressionism, and the acquired romanticism of the industrial landscape.

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Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Musée Marmottan Monet. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Many Impressionists, including Monet, celebrated modernity and depicted modern infrastructure in their landscape paintings. Ports, bridges, and train tracks were common elements in modern landscape paintings. Often these paintings would utilize the same picturesque quality as the pastoral anti-modern images, creating dialectical images of modernity as progress and nature as idyllic. Camille Pissarro’s The Oise near Pontoise and Monet’s Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower are two examples. Both paintings noticeably show the polluted smoke from the industrial stacks in the background in juxtaposition with the riverbank flowers blooming in the foreground. If The Oise near Pontoise and Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower are paradoxical views of modernity, Monet’s earlier painting Train in the Countryside can be seen as a welcoming of modernity. The painting reveals a train filled with passengers merging into a lush background of foliage in contrast with the green fields where leisurely tourists saunter in the foreground. The image portrays a new type of harmony between modern life and nature that has been intervened by humans.6

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Camille Pissarro, The Oise near Pontoise, 1873, Clark Art Institute. (Image source: WikiArt)
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Claude Monet, Argenteuil, the Riverbank in Flower, 1877, Private collection. (Image source: WikiArt)
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Claude Monet, Train in the Countryside, c.1870, Musée d’Orsay. (Image source: Wikimedia commons)

1. Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 16.
2. Ibid, 204.
3. Quoted by Jules-Antoine Castagnary, Ibid.
4. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape: productivity, technology, and urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 23.
5. Charles, Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 105.
6. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape, 98.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – Part 2

See Part 1: Introduction; Landscape beauty as both eternal and spontaneous

The artist as the objective and subjective observer

Romanticism was characterized by a need for individual expression. The individual’s way of feeling, in the form of emotions that emphasized one’s relationship with nature, allowed the landscape image to become an emblem of Romantic art. Gradually, the nature described through the landscape image became idealized at a personal and collective level for modern society. As European societies progressed into the 19th century, individual reason and objectivism increasingly displaced the subjectivity of individual feelings.

In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” George Simmel compares the mental processes of a rural inhabitant to a city dweller in response to environmental stimuli.1 The modern city dweller is described as one who emotionally detaches from his or her surroundings because of over-stimulation from environmental variances. As a result, he or she needs to remain rational and objective. The modern city dweller requires his or her own private space, physically and mentally to compensate. In contrast, the small-town dweller is more in sync with his or her senses and emotions, almost performing at an unconscious level. In many ways, the modern landscape artist embodies both of these mental processes: the objectivism and rationality of the city dweller and the emotional sensory functioning of the small-town inhabitant. On one hand, the artist is the objective observer, but on the other hand, the artist is the individual who expresses his or her own subjective experiences. This duality is particularly critical for the city dweller who travels to the rural environment for the artwork’s subject matter. The artist who practices modern objective reasoning on a daily basis now adjusts his or her rationality to the context of nature. Modern landscape art represents the relationship with nature in the dualistic consciousness of the modern person.

The dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity is quite evident in Impressionism. The Impressionist is at first a rational observer, perceiving and understanding the way a picture works: how colours in vision intermingle together when encountering a specific light, and how movements and energies of people relate in their environments. However, the Impressionist is not a imitator; the paintings created are self-expressions that are undeniably subjective.

Gustave Caillebotte, known for his realistic photo-like paintings, was highly influenced by the objectivism of the camera lens. His paintings often reflect the compositions of photographs with purposely-cropped borders, precise perspectival compositions, and special attention to detail. He was particularly interested in the specificity of the human figure during movement. While he took the role of an impartial observer, his paintings resembled vignettes of scenes found in daily life. There is enough ambiguity in the scenes to question whether the original source is imaginary or reality. His Père Magloire series: Père Magloire on Saint-Clair Road to Etretat, Père Magloire on the Road between Saint-Clair and Etretat, and Père Magloire, the Nap are perfect examples of this vignette-like representation. The paintings depict a labourer through the lens of a documentary reporter, showing the man neither working nor in the context of the worksite, but instead leisurely in idle harmony with the local landscape.2 Schrader describes the series as a paradigm for the Impressionist’s value of nature:

the dramatic landscape of Normandy with its steep coastline, houses rising in the background and perched precariously close to the abyss, and the breathtaking view of the sea give expression to an entirely different state of mind and transform the Père Magloire series into a paradigm for the Impressionist concept of the unrepeatable subjective impression of nature and the feeling of unity with it.3

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Gustave Caillebotte, Père Magloire on Saint-Clair Road to Etretat, 1884, Private Collection. (Image Source: The Ark of Grace)
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Gustave Caillebotte, Père Magloire on the Road between Saint-Clair and Etretat, 1884, Private Collection. (Image Source: The Art of Grace)
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Gustave Caillebotte, Père Magloire, the Nap, 1884, Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneva. (Image Source: Jeanne Fadosi Blog)

While the vignettes of Magloire inspire curiosity in the viewer, the labourer’s peaceful harmony with his idyllic surroundings also reveal Caillebotte’s ideals of nature. Similarly, the idealism of nature can be found in many Pointillist paintings. Considered as a Neo-Impressionist style, Pointillism built upon the Impressionists’ technique of short brush strokes. Using small dots of colour in equivalent values, Pointillism experimented with colour composition in a rational way. The technique is essentially observational in form and style. In fact, Paul Signac proposed that the style be called chromo-luminarist, as it resembled how varying lights combine together to produce brilliance in the optical process.4 Although quite scientific in principle, Pointillists such as Paul Signac, Georges-Pierre Seurat, and Camille Pissarro expressed their anti-modern romantic subjectivity in their paintings’ contents. Many of their paintings depict industrial elements within pastoral or idyllic contexts. Signac’s The Bois-Colombes Railway Junction and Pissarro’s The Dieppe Railway, Eragny-sur-Epte supposedly reveal railway scenes, yet the modern implications of the railway are restrained by the emphasis of tranquil landscape settings found in the tree hedgerow and rolling hills. Similarly, The Bridge at Courbevoie by Seurat mixes elements of industry with the modern harbor, showcasing a landscape that is leisurely and serene rather than demanding and progressive.

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Paul Signac, The Bois-Colombes Railway Junction, 1886, Leeds City Art Gallery. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Camille Pissarro,  The Dieppe Railway, Eragny-sur-Epte, 1886, Private Collection. (Image Source: The Web Gallery of Impressionism)
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Georges Seurat, The Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886, Courtauld Institute of Art, London. (Image Source: WikiArt)

1. George Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 52.
2. Kristen Schrader, “In Praise of Idleness,” in Gustave Caillebotte: An Impressionist and Photography, eds. by Karin Sagner, Max Hollein and Ulrich Pohlmann, (Munchen: Hirmer Verlag, 2012), 213.
3. Ibid.
4. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape: productivity, technology, and urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 154.

The paradoxical landscape: Romanticism in modern landscape art (France 1850-1900) – part 1

This is another series on the landscape image in European art. After exploring landscape paintings during the age of Romanticism, in the next few posts, I will be going through modern landscape art in France in the period between 1850-1900. While Romantic landscape paintings in the early 19th century contained a mixture of individualism, faith, and science, French landscape paintings in the latter half of the 19th century embodied more of a dualistic, paradoxical view of nature and everyday life – something that is characteristic of modernism itself.

The first thoughts that come to mind about modernity are ideas of progress, technology, and a new way of life. These ideas seem rather contradictory to the modern concepts of landscapes that suggest uncontaminated nature and feelings of pre-modern life. However, it is the irony of modernism that creates this seeming contradiction. Transformation results in confusion, fear, and anxieties. Marshall Berman suggested that “[t]o be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction.”1 Furthermore, “to be fully modern is to be anti-modern…it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.”2 Romanticism was an anti-modern movement. But if the prerequisite for modernity is to both embrace and loathe the so-called progress of society, by the circumstance that Romanticism is an antithesis to modernity also makes it a modern concept in itself.

Although the Romantic period ambiguously merged into classical modernity by the second half of the 19th century in France, the essence of Romanticism never ceased in landscape art. Rather, landscapes resonated with the ironies of modern life: sentimental and idealized perspectives of nature and pre-modernity in contrast with the progress of modern industry, technology, and commoditized values. Landscape art of this period was both innovatively modern and intuitively anti-modern. Infrastructural developments such as railways, roads, and bridges, as well as technological innovations such as photography and electricity changed how people viewed their lives in practical ways. The mental image of landscape was reflected in art. Aside from the works of John Constable, landscape paintings did not become major Salon exhibit features until mid-century.3 However, the landscape image became popular in paintings and photography by the 1860s, and became a symbol of modern innovation as Impressionism took over in the 1870s.4

Impressionism was viewed as a style of revolution and novelty. To James Rubin, Impression gave birth to modern landscape art for its “marks of modernity” and its non-traditional technique.5 However, I would say that modern landscape art at this time was more retrospective than it seemed. While some landscape images embraced modernity, some were completely anti-modern, and some exemplified both conditions. I will further examine the following dualistic relationships found in these landscape images: 1) landscape beauty as both eternal and spontaneous, 2) the artist as the objective and subjective observer, 3) nature as mystic wonder and commodity fetish, and 4) nostalgia of the pastoral past and the industrial present. While not every modern landscape image is arguably a dialectical image, the concept of landscape as represented through modern French art is certainly a dialectical representation of modernity itself.

Landscape Beauty as Both Eternal and Spontaneous

Landscape is often associated with beauty. The beauty of landscapes, particularly in the Romantic ideals of the sublime and the picturesque are inclined towards the notion of eternity. However, nature is ever changing. French landscape art of the later 19th century reflected this combination of eternality and spontaneous beauty. In “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire expressed the idea that absolute beauty is always a combination of both the eternal and the circumstantial. This duality is expressed through the artist: “In the most frivolous work of a sophisticated artist…the duality is equally apparent; the eternal part of beauty will be both veiled and expressed, if not through fashion, then at least though the individual temperament of the artist.”6 Similarly, the modern landscape image brought out the extremes of beauty through intent, technique and style. At the core of the landscape image is the attempt to eternalize, either to preserve a particular moment in time or to present an everlasting ideal.

The desire to establish a national image through the French landscape encouraged landscape paintings in the mid-19th century to adopt realistic styles. During the reign of Napoléon III (1851-1870), promoting the history of France became an important state policy. The State sponsored photographic records of medieval ruins, archaeological excavations and regional poetry traditions. Napoléon III also purchased and commissioned many landscape paintings, accounting to close to 20% of all State acquisitions.7 When the empire was overturned by the Third Republic in the 1870s, landscape images at the Salon returned to stability, order, and representations of rural communities that were rich in history.8 Sometimes, signs of modernity were purposely edited out of the image, rendering nature as pristine, untouched, and timeless.

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Élodie La Villette, The Shore of Lohic and the Ile des Souris, near Lorient – the Sea Stretches Out, 1875, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon. (Source: Scan from Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, 2013)

Élodie La Villette’s The Shore of Lohic and the Ile des Souris, near Lorient – the Sea Stretches Out is a landscape that depicts a sparkling harbor with rough cliffs, empty of all commercial and industrial activity that actually existed nearby.9 The scene was an idealized landscape, painted with illusory authority and realism. In turn, the idealized landscape solidified an eternal image of what the French landscape may have looked like, or should have looked like according to the State, regardless of changes due to modernity. The effect of realism in painting was influenced by the popularity of photography at the time. While daguerreotypes and early photography were widely used for portraiture, cityscapes and landscape photography quickly became popular in the mid-to-late 19th century.

Photography can be seen as a medium of contradictory elements. On one hand, it captures a particular moment in time, but on the other, it is the permanent record of that particular moment. The photo is both instantaneous and eternal. A photograph captures all the details within the picture frame. As Susan Sontag has stated, “Paintings invariably sum up; photographs usually do not.”10 Because of this circumstance, photographs carry an authority to imply the truth, and the ability to establish evidence of some sort. Walter Benjamin even described the similarity of Eugène Atget’s photographs of modern Paris to “scenes of crime,” “deserted,” and “for the purpose of establishing evidence.”11

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Eugène Atget, Saint-Cloud, 1924, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Because photographs have to the ability to imply truth and reality, they carry the implication of objectivism. However, photographs from the very beginning were not always used as permanent records for truth. Often photographs were staged to portray imagery of a long-standing ideal. In many cases, both photographs and paintings can manipulate the viewer’s belief of reality. Photographs commissioned by the Parisian publisher Adolphe Giraudon embodied this dichotomy of traditional ideal and authoritativeness. The photographs, which were taken by an anonymous photographer, depict a series of female peasants performing rural rustic activities.12 While these photos were meant as stock photos for artists’ studies, the use of photography almost solidifies the myth-like truth of the staged photographs. Two Female Peasants, One Standing, Doing Laundry show two female peasants doing laundry outdoors in an idyllic setting of rural France. The image offers a nostalgic rendering of peasant life as pure, simple, and in tune with nature. This is the image that many of the French society wanted to retain. Similar to La Villette’s untouched harbour that portrays the pre-modern image of nature, this photograph portrays the romantic pre-modern image of life itself. The nostalgic image of peasant women was a common theme in French modern landscape art, established as a symbol of the eternalized archetypal ideal of the unspoilt past.

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Adolphe Giraudon, Two Female Peasants, One Standing, Doing Laundry, c. late 1870s, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. (Source: Scan from Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April M. Watson, 2013)

The concept of pseudo-documented permanence represented by common ideals can be contrasted with the aspirations of other modern French artists. These artists desired to document spontaneity through personal responses with the environment. The essence of Impressionist art carried this desire. Impressionism was a movement that developed as a reaction to the classic, realistic techniques of earlier styles in painting. The Impressionists desired to record a spontaneous response to nature that was both an objective documentation of the external world and an internalized interpretation of the world.13 The examination and articulation of movement, colour, and light played a big part in the paintings, emphasizing the capturing of a particular moment in time. While painting instant reactions en plein air was popular in the 19th century, there was still an empirical quality to the approach. Behind the quick brush strokes were carefully constructed images with intended viewpoints and compositions.14 The ideals of the picturesque were not forgotten but instead were updated to modern tastes. Diagonals, treatment of foregrounds and backgrounds, as well as deliberate cropping of views were common in Impressionistic art.

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Ker-Xavier Roussel, Landscape Figure Carrying an Umbrella, 1899, Museum of Modern Art New York. (Source: Scan from French landscape: the modern vision, 1880-1920 by Magdalena Dabrowski, 1999)

Roussel’s lithograph Landscape Figure Carrying an Umbrella is a prime example of spontaneity and composition. Although more likely categorized as a Post-Impressionist, Roussel used limited colours and minimal patterns to record the “impression” of the landscape. The image is composed to allow the viewer’s attention to move to the centre of the pathway where the ambiguous figure of a woman with an umbrella is located. The path blends in with the background and is purposely obscured by the vegetation in the foreground. When comparing La Villette’s painting, Giraudon’s photo, and Roussel’s lithograph, the most obvious of differences are found in the techniques of representation. While changes inevitably occurred over the course of modernity in France, the images retain a sense of romanticism in the expression of the ideal in the beauty of landscape: La Villette’s harbour landscape as an almost imaginary past only to be engraved permanently in an image; similarly, Giraudon’s peasant lifestyle photographs do the same thing; and Roussel’s leisurely countryside marks a moment of individual expression.


1. Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 13.
2. Ibid, 14.
3. Kathryn Calley Galitz, “Romanticism,” in Heibrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art website, Oct. 2004, accessed Dec. 2014, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/roma/hd_roma.htm.
4. Magdalena Dabrowski, French Landscape: The Modern Vision, 1880-1920, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 11.
5. James Rubin, Impressionism and the Modern Landscape: Productivity, Technology, and Urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 2.
6. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 103.
7. Simon Kelly and April Watson, Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet, (St. Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2013), 19.
8. Ibid, 26-27.
9. Ibid, 27.
10. Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Picador, 1973), 166.
11. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations/Water Benjamin, ed. by Hannah Arendt, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 226
12. Kelly and Watson, Impressionist France, 63.
13. Rubin, Impressionism and the Modern Landscape, 12.
14. Galitz, “Romanticism.” 

The Romantic landscape image: The paintings of Johan Christian Dahl

This will be picture-focused appreciation post for Norwegian Romantic landscape painter Johan Christian Dahl. In summary of the previous posts, the Romantics looked to nature for divine revelation but also used objective observation of nature’s material processes to yield truths into nature’s divinity. An individual’s creativity, which was seen as a gift from God, provided a means to return nature materially back into the world of humans. Romantic art, thus had to balance between divine-spiritual connectivity, scientific accuracy, and personal expression. Dahl, who was a good friend of Casper David Friedrich, exemplified the midpoint between mystic expressionism and scientific enthusiasm. For me, he is the one who best represented the balance of the three aspects of Romanticism.

Dahl was a prolific painter, producing numerous landscape paintings that included many detailed study versions of repeated scenes during his lifetime. Fellow artist and friend Carl Gustav Carus criticized him as over “materialistic.”1 However, Dahl came from a humble craftsman background that kept his art simple and unpretentious. Through his paintings, he revealed nature’s greatness as well as his nostalgia for his native Norwegian landscapes while he spent most of his career in Germany. Unlike Friedrich, Dahl was not apparently concerned with the transcendental aspects of human-nature relationships, but in a down-to-earth way, Dahl related religious faith to nature, declaring “that the best writings and the most lucid religious ideas and feelings . . . [come] from statesmen, poets, speakers, and philosophers – and from those who study the natural sciences.”2 Dahl believed that art and science, along with religion, aspired people to greater truth by “awakening [their] feeling[s] for nature.”3 He stated:

…when Man transcends the raw state he feels and aspires to something nobler and more beautiful in life – and if he misses this too long, Man degenerates to refined animal gratification (and thus works against the development of the noble). Therefore the arts and sciences are not as unimportant as some people hold, but apart from religion these are of great importance for the human condition in a spiritual as well as economic sense.4

Dahl’s pictorial conventions were very picturesque. His earlier works are often suggestive of Claude Lorrain’s pastoral idealism, the lighting effects of Danish painter Jens Juel, and the mountain and waterfall themes of Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael.5 Dahl developed his own painting style as he matured as an artist but his picturesque conventions remained consistent. Most of his landscapes follow a diagonal composition that was comprised of open vistas framed by mid-ground and foreground elements such as trees and cliffs that counterbalanced each other.6 Although traditional pictorial conventions were important for Romantic artists, for Dahl, these conventions were practical rules for the perfect landscape image.

With the support of many patrons, Dahl was considered a popular artist during his lifetime. By successfully enhancing the image of his native Norwegian landscapes, Dahl is celebrated as a significant cultural figure in his home country.7 However, in the grand narrative of European art, Dahl is often only mentioned in passing as Friedrich’s Norwegian friend and is less studied than other Romantic landscape painters such as Friedrich, Turner, and Constable. Perhaps Dahl’s style is considered less of a “breakthrough” than his contemporaries. Though he does not represent the extremes of Romanticism, Dahl’s paintings demonstrate the Romantic landscape image: the search for truth in nature, and objective methodology in exploring this truth, and ways to express the subjective self.

Early works

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J.C. Dahl, View from Bastei, 1819, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Alpine Landscape, 1821, Germanishes Nationalmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Vesuvius in Eruption, 1821, Bergen Kunstmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Shipwrecks

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J.C. Dahl, Morning after a Stormy Night, 1819, New Pinakothek, Munich. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway, 1832, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Shipwrech, c.1832, Latvian Museum of Foreign Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Tree studies

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J.C. Dahl, Study of a Birch Tree, 1826, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Birch Tree in Storm, 1849, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Winter/seasonal landscapes

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J.C. Dahl, Megalight Grave near Vordingborg in Winter, c.1824, Museum der bildenden Kunste. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Winter at the Sognefjord, 1827, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Prospect of Dresden Seen from Pieschen, March Haze, 1844, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Moon studies and moonlit landscapes

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J.C. Dahl, Study of Clouds at Full Moon, 1822, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Source: The Athenaeum)
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J.C. Dahl, Dresden by Moonlight, 1839, Dresden New Masters Gallery. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Mother and Child by the Sea, 1840. The Barbar Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. (Source: My Daily Art Displays)
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J.C. Dahl, Copenhagen Harbour by Moonlight, 1846, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Later Norwegian landscapes

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J.C. Dahl, Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes, 1839, Private collection. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, View from Stalheim, 1842, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, View of the Feigumfossen in Lyster Fjord, 1848, Private collection. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, View of Oylo Farm, Valdres, 1850. Location unknown. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Reindeer, 1850, Bergen Kunstmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Stugunøset at Filefjell, 1851, National Gallery of Norway. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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J.C. Dahl, Måbødalen, 1854, Bergen Kunstmuseum. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1. Marie Lødrup Bang, Johan Christian Dahl, 1788-1857: Life and Works, Vol. 1, (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1987), 16.
2. Johan Christian Dahl, “Dahl’s statements on Art and Nature,” in Johan Christian Dahl, 1788-1857: Life and Works, trans. by Marie Lødrup Bang, (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1978), 247.
3. Ibid, 246.
4. Ibid.
5. Marie Lødrup Bang, Johan Christian Dahl, 1788-1857: Life and Works, Vol. 1, (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1987), 29 & 34.
6. Ibid, 30.
7. Ibid, 15.

The romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 4

Science in the Romantic era was about the search for truth, the uncovering of the mysteries of life, the questioning of morality, human authority, and faith. Nature was the source for this pursuit. While scientists deliberated over issues of the existence of a soul, nature’s teleology and evolution, the creation of the earth and the universe, artists also turned to these subject matters for inspiration.

Plant Ontology (nature as God’s design)

Romantic theories of archetypes and morphology were strong precursors to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Schelling’s Romantische Naturphilosophie connected mind and nature. In his theory, external nature was a product of the mind, but the mind was also a creation of nature. Therefore internal and external nature originated from an absolute ego that existed prior to consciousness.1 The absolute originated from the essence of an archetype, the dynamic force that organisms evolved from. For Goethe, the archetype was not determinate of an organism’s final stage of succession; new properties could appear suggesting the possibility of new organisms.2 Schelling and Goethe’s theories suggested that organisms could have unique self-motivated essences: in other words, a soul. Botanical artwork portrayed this soul-like quality, sometimes in personified, energy-filled, and surreal ways.

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Philipp Otto Runge, The Evening, c. 1805. Brooklyn Museum (Source: The Morgan Library and Museum). Runge was interested in the mystical ontology of plants and believed that they originated from a divine source. As one of the prints from his series Times of Day, this print uses precise and detailed motifs of flowers, children, and religious symbolism to give insight in his beliefs in nature and faith.
Cactus Grandiflorus, Night-Blowing Cereus, DGC 1998, Temple of Flora
Philip Reinagle and Abraham Pether, The Night-Blowing Cereus, 1800 (Source: Eugene McDermott Library, University of Texas at Dallas). One of the prints from Robert John Thornton’s The Temple of Flora (1798-1807). The moon cactus, a native of Jamaica and Cuba that only grows in greenhouses in England,3 is shown at a river side setting. The bright yellow petals radiate behind an illuminated core, symbolic of the sun’s rays, are contrasted with its night-blooming qualities, the full moon and the midnight Gothic setting.
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Peter Henderson, The Quadrangular Passion Flower, 1802 (Source: AnOther Magazine). Another print from The Temple of Flora. The flowers are rendered as specimens with clear anatomies but they are placed in front of a ribbed column, giving the colourful flower a wall-paper like background and whimsical feel.
Caspar_David_Friedrich_Village_landscape_in_morning_light
Caspar David Friedrich, The Village Landscape in Morning Light (Lone Tree), 1822, National Gallery, Berlin (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The single tree stands in the center of the painting like many of Friedrich’s other paintings with lone figures. Its rootedness is contrasted with its dying crown, showing a melancholic situation.
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Johan Christian Dahl, Birch Tree in Storm, 1849, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The tree withstands the powers of greater nature, a circumstance shared by humans.
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John Constable, Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, c.1821, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons). A detailed and detached rendering, reminiscent of formal portraits.

Geology (alternative narrations of earth’s creation)

Prior to the 18th century, conventional belief had the Earth originating according to the Christian narrative of the Great Flood. With the development of scientific and mining methods for geological studies, debates increased over the Earth’s origins. Nature tourism developed from the Grand Tour through scientific expeditions. Often accompanied by artists, these daring sights were captured in paintings and illustrations. The evolution of how Fingal’s Cave, a geological feature in the Isle of Staffa, had changed in representation from a “natural cathedral” to a cave of material and spatial qualities, show the shift in the perception of the Earth’s geology. Geologists argued over the cave’s origin as neptunist (rocks formed by mineralization in water) or vulcanist (rocks formed by volcanic processes), but nevertheless a creation from God. James Hutton, a supporter of the vulcanist theory, proposed a controversial theory: rather than religious narratives, the striatal layers of the rocks themselves held the answers to the Earth’s formation.4

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Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides; MDCLXXII, 1774 (Source: Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology). Early prints of Joseph Banks expeditions of the cave show it represented as a rigid construction that is both orderly and overwhelming, similar to a cathedral.5
View from the Island of Staffa null by William Daniell 1769-1837
William Daniell, View of the Island of Staffa, date unknown, Tate Britain (Source: Tate Gallery). Later prints show the cave in different perspectives, sometimes in a picturesque manner.
Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_Staffa,_Fingal's_Cave_-_Google_Art_Project
J.M.W. Turner, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, 1832, Yale Center for British Art (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Turner’s painting is the extreme of showing the cave in a subjective manner. The cave is barely visible behind the wind, mists, and waves.
Fingal's Cave, Staffa, engraved by Edward Goodall 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
J.M.W. Turner (engraving by Edward Goodall), Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, 1834, Tate Britain (Source: Tate Gallery). Turner’s engraving from the interior looking out combines the atmosphere of subjectivity and the precision of scientific observation.
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Fingal’s Cave, Island of Staffa, Scotland, c.1890-1905 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Atmosphere (nature’s process as objective analytic phenomena)

The Romantics were also interested in ephemerality. Fog, mist, and changing cloud formations were common subjects in paintings. The transience of the atmosphere combined with the rigour of scientific observation encouraged artists to observe and represent nature more systematically through approaches in naturalism. For British Romantic landscape painter John Constable, clouds and rainbows were important for nature studies. Constable produced numerous cloud studies but he was not interested in the taxonomy of cloud patterns. He was interested in the transience of the sky at specific moments in time, space, and weather conditions.6 Constable also studied the rainbow, a traditional symbol of Christian faith, through studies of prisms and optics. However, although objective in his approach, Constable still considered the concept of nature as a Godly creation; painting nature accurately meant representing God’s creation truthfully.7

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John Constable, Study of Clouds 28 July 1822, 1822, National Gallery of Australia (Source: National Gallery of Australia).
Caspar David Friedrich: Landschaft mit Regenbogen.
Caspar David Friedrich, Mountain Landscape with Rainbow, c. 1810, Museum Folkwang, Essen (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The rainbow here is a symbolic radiant arc across the expansive dark sky, symbolising the Christian promise of eternal afterlife.8
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J.M.W. Turner, Rainbow over Loch Awe, c. 1831, Private Collection (Source: Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Complete Works). The rainbow here is suggestive of a symbolic halo, illuminating off the surface in an unnaturally tight radial arc.
Frederic_Edwin_Church_-_Rainy_Season_in_the_Tropics_-_Google_Art_Project
Frederic Edwin Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Here, the rainbow is precise and calculated, almost too perfect for mortal life on earth.
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John Constable, Landscape with Double Rainbow, 1812, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Source: WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopaedia). The rainbow “as is,” the blending of colours and transient light.
John_Constable_-_Sky_Study_with_Rainbow_-_Google_Art_Project
John Constable, Sky Study with Rainbow, 1827, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Beyond earth (a conquerable cosmos)

A scientific approach to rendering the sky was common for naturalistic painters like Constable, but the night sky added mysteries to the world. The night sky was sentimental to the Romantics. In most cultures, the sky was the heavenly home of celestial figures and held stories of cosmic origins. Alternatives to these narratives increased as new astronomic discoveries surfaced prior to and during the Romantic period. The laws of gravity and motion in the 1st scientific revolution set the foundation for a new scientific narrative, while the development of spectroscopy and astrophotography allowed the mysteries of the sky to be analysed and represented after the 2nd scientific revolution. Representations of the moon range from interpretations of sacred symbolism, romantic and nostalgic ambiance, and domestication through human scientific knowledge.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1821, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The aurora is displayed as a mystical light, fierce and overwhelming above the explorer’s ship.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise over the Sea, c. 1821, National Gallery, Berlin (Source: Wikimedia Commons). According to Spencer-Longhurst, the figures awaiting the rising moon and returning ships is suggestive of “the consolation offered by Christ in the face of death.”9
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J.M.W. Turner, Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835, National Gallery of Art Washington D.C. (Source: Wikimedia Commons). There is perhaps an element of social commentary here, as the moonlight and industrial smoke becomes indistinguishable.10
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Johan Christian Dahl, Mother and Child by the Sea, 1840, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. (Source: My Daily Art Display). The moon here is atmospheric, giving an ambiance of intimate repose.
Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_View_of_Dresden_by_Moonlight_-_Google_Art_Project
Johan Christian Dahl, Dresden by Moonlight, 1839, Dresden New Masters Gallery (Source: Wikimedia Commons). The moonlight sets a contrasting romantic tone to a modern city harbour.
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Johan Christian Dahl, Study of Clouds at Full Moon, 1822. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Source: The Athenaeum). Approximately 300 open-air studies were created by Dahl during his lifetime.11 Many were dedicated to the changes in the moon.
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John Russell, The Face of the Moon, 1793-1797, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (Source: Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries). A realistic study of the moon in its gibbous phase, chosen to capture the most interesting details of the moon’s topography with contrasts of light and shade.12
The Moon
John William Draper, Full Moon, 1840 (Source: Time Magazine). By mid-19th century, daguerreotype and early photography made it easier to capture snapshots of the moon.

1. Robert Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 133, 145.
2. Ibid, 416, 452.
3. Charlotte Klonk, Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 42.
4. Ibid, 76-77.
5. Ibid, 74.
6. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 203.
7. Jonathan Wordsworth, Michael Jaye, and Robert Woof, William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 67-68.
8. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, (London: Reakton Books, 2009), 132.
9. Paul Spencer-Longhurst, Moonrise over Europe: J.C. Dahl and Romantic Landscape, (London: Philip Wilson), 30.
10. Ibid, 50.
11. Ibid, 76.
12. Ibid, 84.

The Romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 3

Romantic science as truth

Part 1 explored Romanticism as the search for divine truth in the form of human creativity. The representation of the sublime in landscape painting, shown in Part 2, was one way of expressing this human creativity. In this post, science is shown as an alternative path to truth during the age of Romanticism.

In contemporary society, we often separate science, religion, and art as uncomplimentary fields of study. Conventional notions of science as objective, clear, and rigid is often seen as incompatible with the subjectivity, vagueness, and fluidity of (idealized, non-commercial and non-politicized) art and faith. Science is rarely considered “romantic.” During the age of Romanticism, science was sentimental and subjective, and was both inseparable and at tension with religious faith. For pantheistic or panentheistic Romantic scientists, science was viewed as a mission for truth – the truth behind God’s design of nature. Despite the pervasive social doctrine of faith in divine nature, individuals increasingly explored the ideas of an atheistic scientific world. This position offended both believers of traditional faith and the growing faith in nature. These scientists became the archetype of the stereotypical scientist who declared mysticism as ignorance and that all knowledge was within the grasp of human discovery. English surgeon William Lawrence, who was seen as a radical at his time, declared that science “must avoid ‘clouds of fears and hopes, desires and aversions.’ It must ‘discern objects clearly’ and shun ‘intellectual mist.’ It must dispel myth and dissipate ‘absurd fables.’”1

Frankenstein: the soul and the morality of science

Lawrence’s opposition to his senior colleague John Abernethy’s life force theory created what was known as the Vitalism Debate, also referred to as Britain’s first scientific controversy.2 The controversial question behind the dispute was one that still exists today: the existence of the soul. Abernethy’s theory suggested the existence of magnetism-like souls in organisms. Interestingly, Lawrence who was against the theory, and was also Percy Shelley’s physician, fits the description of Mary Shelley’s fictional character Victor Frankenstein. However, it was also likely that German physiologist Johann Wilhelm Ritter played a part in the inspiration of the character.3 At the time, Ritter had just invented a dry-cell voltaic battery to experiment on the galvanic properties of animals. Combining the fervor and debate between material science and imperceptible science, and the Romantic concerns for society and morality, Shelley’s famous story presents a critical doubt concerning humanity. Frankenstein questions whether a soul exist, and if there is one, whether it can be created. Essentially, it presents the horror looming behind the physical potentials and moral limitations to human knowledge and scientific manipulation.

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Frontispiece for 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Theodore Von Holst (Source: Wikipedia, from Tate Britain)

Representation of the scientific truth of nature

The predicament between objectivity and faith encircled scientific and artistic representations. For some, however, objectivity and faith were two-sides of the same coin. John Ruskin believed that the Old Masters of classical landscape paintings failed in attaining truth because of their neglect to properly observe and render those truths of nature.4 This failure was equivalent to disrespecting nature and consequently God. Thus, the mechanical vision and impartiality of the scientific process was seen as appropriate in both understanding and representing nature. For Romantic artists, it was a form of respect for the laws of nature. The approach to represent nature truthfully came in the form of naturalism. The style, which was not uniform in presentation, relied on practical views and experimentation on varying techniques of observation and representation. Even artists such as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner, who were not characteristically naturalistic, abided to the imperative for careful observation of material nature. In fact, Friedrich worked as a topographic draftsman,5 and Turner worked as an architectural draftsman6 before establishing their careers in landscape painting.

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John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlass, 1853 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Caspar David Friedrich, Willow Trunk with Young Shoots, c.1800 (Source: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

A range of themes from the natural world was reflected in the paintings of Romantic artists, including the mysteries of plant life, the Earth’s geology, the processes of the Earth’s atmosphere, and nature beyond Earth. New perspectives in science offered alternative narratives of nature’s origins beyond the pantheistic perspective of God’s design. As the ambitions of scientific knowledge increased, the relevance of divine narratives diminished. Scientific approaches could also analyze the intangible and the ephemeral. The limits of size and distance were also not a problem, since the mysteries of nature could be revealed in either a small and familiar leaf or the large and unattainable celestial bodies of moons and planets. While Romantic science was viewed as “a gift of God or Providence to mankind…to reveal the wonders of His design,”7 it also revealed the expanding capacities of human control over nature. The balance between the two were sought after in the Romantic landscape. Examples will be presented in the next post.


1. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 313.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, 328.
4. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, ed. by David Barrie (New York: Knopf, 1987).
5. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 142.
6. “Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851),” The Met’s Heibrunn Timeline of Art History, 2016.
7. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 450.

The Romantic landscape image: science, faith, and the representation of nature – part 2

In part 1, I explored the essence of Romanticism as the search for truth through nature as a divine source in the form of human creativity. According to Hegel1, in Romantic art, the representation of the idea transcends beyond physical form and takes on ideal forms that are fleeting and ungraspable. The notion of the sublime is such a feeling. The sublime can be explained in different ways, typically originating from the theories of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Sublime as fear and repulsion to the powers of nature

Burke’s theories of the beautiful and the sublime were based on the polar emotions of love and hate.2 The beautiful included classical features such as lightness, smoothness, balance, and harmony. The sublime was the opposite: darkness, uncontrollability, and mystery. For the Romantics, both the beautiful and the sublime came from a divine source, or by God’s design. Fear and repulsion, characteristics of Burke’s sublime, were evoked when humanity is matched against divinity, expressed in the form of dominating nature. Landscapes that represent nature’s relentlessness, such as shipwrecks in stormy seas and massive waterfalls portray this version of the sublime.

Sublime as the celebration of human rationality over nature

As a response to Burke’s writings, Kant focused on the ideas of the beautiful and the sublime as processes in the human mind. His versions of the beautiful and the sublime celebrated humanity’s power of rationality over nature.3 The sublime is a complicated dynamic relationship between nature (the external reality and God) and humans, with two possible characteristics:

  1. Mathematical – an element’s immeasurability due to its greatness that overwhelms our imaginations. However, it is our judgement of size that determines what is sublime. We reason over the immeasurable and unimaginable.
  2. Dynamic – one’s realization of the physical limitations of external nature over one’s internal self. We engage in reasoning over the fact that humanity’s inner nature does not need to submit to the powers of external nature.

In both cases, rationality triumphs. The Kantian sublime is a combination of pleasure, when reason surpasses nature, and displeasure, when imagination and physicality in turn becomes defeated by nature.

Caspar David Friedrich and the Northern European Sublime

The sublime in Romantic paintings were more than straightforward instances of Burke or Kant’s philosophies. Rather, they portrayed the abstracted notion of the tension between the powers of nature (and God) and the capacity of humans to comprehend and ponder over these powers. The Romantic artist who was most iconic of this was German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

Friedrich represented the sublime as the unresolved mystery between humanity and divine nature. Romantic Germany was already inclined to mystical approaches of interpretation as 19th century Germany was going through a nationalistic endeavor of medieval revival. German Romantics believed that there was a uniqueness to the German soul that was best expressed in literature and the arts.4 Friedrich’s paintings place human life in contrast to expansive nature, making them “inhospitable, ancient, and timeless, and in them mankind looks almost like an alien creature.”5 There is a tension between mysterious nature and relatable mortality. Friedrich took traditional notions of ritual, pilgrimage, and church, and relocated them to ordinary encounters with nature. He personalized the experience of divinity in a secular world to a greater environment. Koerner’s comparison between Friedrich and Schlegel aptly describes the Romantics’ aspirations: “If Schlegel desired that his writings be Bibles, Friedrich fashions the Romantic painter’s corollary aspiration: that his canvases be altars.”6 However, Friedrich was not considered an influential Romantic artist until the 20th century as he was reclusive and his paintings ignited religious controversy for relocating the divine from the church to landscapes. Perhaps it is because his paintings portray so well humanity’s vulnerability against nature that they relate to the modern soul, bringing about a renewed interest.7

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Caspar David Friedrich, Cross in the Mountains, 1808, Dresden New Masters Gallery. Friedrich’s most controversial painting.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818. Kunsthalle, Hamburg. This painting is often used as the icon of Romanticism and the sublime. Ironically, I think it’s a weak representative of Friedrich’s sense of the sublime.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Woman Before the Setting Sun, c. 1818, Museum Folkwang, Essen. Iconic of the solitary figure standing symmetrically before a vast landscape (she also looks like she’s channeling some mystical powers).
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Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809-1810, National Gallery, Berlin. In my opinion, probably the most sublime of Friedrich’s paintings. The painting inverts illuminated nature with dark mystery as the lone monk stands diminutively in comparison to the expansive sea.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape, 1811, Staatliches Museum Shwerin. This comes after Landscape with Oaks and Hunter (1811). Here, the hunter is struggling and desolate in nature after being in harmony with nature in the summer.8
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Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape with Church, 1811, Dortmund Museum of Arts and Cultural History. The hunter from Winter Landscape (above) is finally at rest in his pilgrimage as he’s found God (obvious symbolism of fir, church, and cross).9
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Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1808-1810. Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.
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Caspar David Friedrich, The Cemetery Entrance, 1825, New Masters Gallery Dresden.
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Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, c. 1818, Museum Oskar Reinhart.
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Caspar David Friedrich, The Chasseur in the Forest, 1814, Private Collection. One of my favourite Friedrich paintings. Kind of spooky and full of vulnerability, reminiscent of a Brothers Grimm folktale.

The other German Romantic painter who captured the mystical sublime of nature was Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810). While Friedrich’s paintings are contemplative and structured, Runge’s paintings feel like an over-sharpening of a moment in time. His painted elements, including plants and children seem to contain a supernatural character. His paintings are evocative, fusing together naturalism and symbolism.10 In comparison, English Romantics were more reserved. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is perhaps the only comparable Romantic landscape painter to Friedrich and Runge. Despite Turner’s love of depicting the Romantic notion of “storm and stress,” his rash blending of strokes and the tendency for softer radiant tones displaced the mysticism of the German sublime with a more Burkean overtone: the mystery of nature is unquestioned and accepted in its overwhelming physical powers.

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Philipp Otto Runge, The Hulsenbeck Children, c. 1806, Kunsthalle Hamburg.
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Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1809, Deutshe Kunsthalie, Hamburg.
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J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842, Tate London.

Hudson River School and Luminism – the North American sublime

Around the same time, North American painters in the Hudson River School were establishing their own definition of the sublime landscape. Nature was both serene and powerful, revealing a midpoint between Burke’s beautiful and sublime. The paintings are also contemplative, relating to Kant’s interpretations. Most importantly, nature for the Hudson River School was a gift and message from God: as nature is a creation of God and humans have the power of self-reasoning, and consequently morality, in the face of nature and God, humans have the moral responsibility for the good. Although the Hudson River School was influenced by European aesthetics, the theological and political context of North America was quite important.11 For the influential Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, nature was a “type” of Godly work. Calvinist Horace Bushnell expanded this idea by claiming that nature was a language of God that was expressed physically but could never be fully comprehended by the human mind. Ruskin’s strong Protestant aesthetics further emphasized this theological approach to nature, and his writings were very influential in later 19th century America.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of the Empire: Destruction, 1836, New York Historical Society. The 4th painting in The Course of the Empire series, showing humanity’s destruction of nature (preceded by The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, followed by Desolation).
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Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
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Frederic Edwin Church, To the Memory of Cole, 1848, Private Collection.
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Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861, Dallas Museum of Art.

The works by the artists in the Hudson Rivers School ranged from religious allegory to evocative landscapes. The common themes among them was the superiority of divine nature and humanity’s moral responsibility. Thomas Cole, representative of the Hudson River School, rejected human-centeredness by direct criticism in his allegorical paintings, while other artists portrayed similar opinions by diminishing human presence against the backdrop of an infinite and haunting nature. Light is symbolic of the sublime: radiant light peeking through distant clouds at dawn or twilight represented the enigmatic yet authoritative future of being saved by God. Wide vistas embodied both divine boundlessness and the celebrated American dream of freedom. The overall message delivered is that faith, worshiped through nature, is the ultimate morality. When the Hudson River School started to decline due to shifting worldviews towards individualism and secularization in the latter half of the 19th century, the representation of light also changed from a distant heavenly source to a unifying glow that emanated from the landscape itself. This shift in style, to Luminism, replaced the panentheistic faith of a more-than-material-God with divinity as pantheistic nature, a sublime that is more immersive and participatory. Nature and divinity, artist and viewer are united through the painted landscape:

The viewer, following the painter, enters the picture and follows its lead toward an illusionary, disembodied, spiritual oneness with divine infinity. Paradoxically, this ultrasubjectivity, this pouring of the subject into the object, is intended to lead to pure objectivity, a pure unity with nature.12

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John Frederick Kensett, Lake George, 1860-1869, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
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Samuel Colman, Storm King on the Hudson, 1866, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

1. G.W.F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, ed. by M. J. Inwood, trans. by Bernard Bosanquet, (London: Penguin Books, 2004).
2. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. by David Womersley, (London: Penguin Books, 1998).
3. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. by James Creed Meredith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).
4. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
5. Ernst W. Veen, “A Dream Comes True,” in Caspar David Friedrich & the German Romantic Landscape, (Aldershot, U.K: Lund Humphries, 2008), 11.
6. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, 2nd ed., (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 34.
7. Henk van Os, “Casper David Friedrich and His Contemporaries,” in Caspar David Friedrich & the German Romantic Landscape, (Aldershot, U.K: Lund Humphries, 2008), 14-39.
8. Joseph Leo Koerner, Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, 2nd ed., (London: Reaktion Books, 2009).
9. Ibid.
10. William Vaughan, Romantic Art, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
11. Gene Edward Veith, Painters of Faith: The Spiritual Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America, (Washington, DC: Regnery Pub, 2001).
12. Petra Halkes, Aspiring to the Landscape: On Painting and the Subject of Nature, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 51.