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

Galerie Neue MeisterStaatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden
Caspar David Friedrich, Cross in the Mountains, 1808, Dresden New Masters Gallery. Friedrich’s most controversial painting.
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.
Caspar David Friedrich
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).
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.
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
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
Caspar David Friedrich, The Abbey in the Oakwood, 1808-1810. Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.
Caspar David Friedrich, The Cemetery Entrance, 1825, New Masters Gallery Dresden.
Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, c. 1818, Museum Oskar Reinhart.
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.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Hulsenbeck Children, c. 1806, Kunsthalle Hamburg.
Philipp Otto Runge, The Morning, 1809, Deutshe Kunsthalie, Hamburg.
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
J.M.W. Turner
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.

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).
Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Frederic Edwin Church, To the Memory of Cole, 1848, Private Collection.
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

John Frederick Kensett, Lake George, 1860-1869, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.
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.


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