The Sublime is originally a philosophical term, that in art history refers to the overwhelming greatness of things and elements that are beyond human control. During the Romanticism – in the 18th and 19th century – it specifically referred to wild and untamed nature. As such it is the opposite of beauty, which was considered harmonious and well proportioned. Admittedly, this concept requires a flexible mindset and it is easily shredded. But don’t forget it originated in an era when people first started travelling, explored nature, and at the same time watched in astonishment how science managed to explain more and more inexplicable phenomenons. Pretty frightening stuff. Through the ages people struggled with the all encompassing force of nature, conjuring up divine personalities in order to make some sense of it. The painters of the Romanticism hurled emotions and knowledge onto their canvases in one thick thundering outpour. Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) explored the great German outdoors, the Black Forest or the North Sea coast, and once back in his studio enhanced what he had seen so that we city dwellers could lose ourselves in raging skies, shipwrecks and Polar ice. In England, JMW Turner (1775-1851) was way ahead of his time in his manner of painting, but his approach and his choice of subjects were highly romantic and sublimely Sublime. John Martin (1789-1854), another Englishman, became quite famous with his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament, his deeply religious beliefs and his penchant for infernos. When his rebellious brother Jonathan torched the cathedral of York, a bystander compared the sea of flames to a John Martin painting . . . Oops. A third Brit who needs a mention here, is Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1794). Another master of light. I’m sure all these guys will reappear here at some stage – today I concentrate on their weird, wild, sublime landscapes.
The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him.
Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich, Ice Sea, 1824.
Caspar David Friedrich, Shipwreck in the moonlight, 1835.
John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841.
John Martin, Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852.
Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius erupting, seen from Portici, 1775.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fort Vimieux, 1831. Turners depiction of an English war ship, enlisted in the early eighteen hundreds to fight against Napoleon. In this image the sea is actually very tranquil, and according to a Sotheby comment it is doubly anchored (I can’t find them) so all should be well, but in Turners vision the scene is wild and threatening.
Andreas Aschenbach (1815-1910). Coast of Sicily, 1847. Another German romanticist. Light-wise, this takes the cake, don’t you think? Still squinting, I hope?