Lecture Notes: The Sublime + The Hudson River School of Painting
What is “the sublime” in religion?
The idea of a Supreme Being/God having the power to create everything, watch over it all, and possibly destroy it (via apocalypse) inspires the same feelings brought up by “the sublime:” awe, reverence, terror, wonder.
According to the Oxford Index, “The religious sublime is a key concept in our understanding of the relationship between humans and God. Historically the sublime had a deep connection with religion but it underwent considerable refinement after Kant and Hegel’s reflections on the sublime.
Some believe the most sublime piece of writing is the Bible.
According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The origin of the term ‘the sublime’ is found in ancient philosophy, where, for example, Longinus linked it with a lofty and elevated use of literary language. In the eighteenth century, the term came into much broader use, when it was applied not only to literature but also to the experience of nature, whereafter it became one of the most hotly debated subjects in the cultural discourse of that age.”
Religion and the Sublime has examples of artwork that express religious sublime.
Iconoclasm and the Sublime: Two Implicit Religious Discourses in Art History examines this topic in greater depth.
What is “the sublime” in art?
In 1757, Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) published “A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” which sought to identify how different types of art affect human emotions, which includes making a distinction between “the beautiful” and “the sublime.” Burke claims that “the beautiful” produces feelings of pleasure, while “the sublime” can inspire upsetting feelings like being overwhelmed, awed, or even terrified.
In 1790, German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) published The Critique of Judgment, which made these distinctions:
the mathematically sublime: the feeling of reason's superiority to imagination:
When we are confronted with something that is so large that it overwhelms imagination's capacity to comprehend it. Subsequently, imagination strives to comprehend the object in accordance with a demand of reason, but fails to do so.
Displeasure “comes from the awareness of the inadequacy of our imagination”
Examples in art: images of mountains, the sea, and other “natural things the concept of which does not involve the idea of a purpose,” (according to European values, not Indigenous values)
the dynamically sublime: the feeling of reason's superiority to nature
When we experience nature as fearful while knowing ourselves to be in a position of safety and hence without in fact being afraid.
When you can judge yourself as independent of and superior over nature because “the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion”
Displeasure “comes from the awareness of our physical powerlessness in the face of nature's might.”
Examples in art: images of overhanging cliffs, thunder clouds, volcanoes and hurricanes.
Kant also describes the feeling of the sublime as a “pleasure which is possible only by means of a displeasure,” as a “negative liking,” and can be identified with the feeling of respect.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Kant’s earlier work in 1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, is considered more of a study in popular anthropology of the time than a full bodied text on the subject of the book’s title.
Kant claimed that Burke did not go far enough in his theory of the sublime and that he would have to elaborate upon it.
Longinus, Burke, and Kant: Origins of the Sublime is an interesting blog post by a professor on how the topic was discussed in class.
In 1818, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer published World as Will and Representation, which made these distinctions between “the beautiful” and “the sublime:”
“The beautiful” is wholly pleasurable, but “the sublime” is mixed with pain.
“The beautiful” is characterized by a loss of self-consciousness (being drawn into the pleasing qualities of “the beautiful”) vs. experiencing two moments of self-consciousness when looking at “the sublime” (1. recognizing that the subject being viewed is not the viewer’s actual, experienced reality and 2. recognizing that the subject can overwhelm one’s will and/or obliterate one’s existence)
Schopenhauer identified different degrees of beauty and the sublime:
The Beautiful: nature, especially flora
Viewers experience a “tranquil, will-less state of aesthetic contemplation.”
The Stimulating/The Charming
positively stimulating: calculatedly-arousing treatment of nudes (inevitably excites lust and thus runs counter to the proper goals of art) or images of food and drink (makes people hungry and thirsty)
negatively stimulating: images that provoke a disgusted response (arouse intense negative feelings or repugnance)
The higher the magnitude of the threat posed, the higher the degree of sublime feeling.
the mathematical sublime (poses a psychological threat): a frozen winter landscape
the dynamical sublime (poses a physical threat): a violent storm at sea
According to the Tate Modern’s Art of the Sublime, “The sublime has long been understood to mean a quality of greatness or grandeur that inspires awe and wonder. From the seventeenth century onwards the concept and the emotions it inspires have been a source of inspiration for artists and writers, particularly in relation to the natural landscape.”
According to the Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World, “certain attributes are consistently associated with the sublime, among them obscurity, power, vastness, and infinitude.”
According to the Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, “ the sublime” in architecture “was associated with great size, overwhelming scale, the primitive (especially the unadorned Doric Order), and stereometrical purity.”
What is “the sublime” in art history? Why does this concept continue to be relevant today?
According to the Tate Modern’s project on the The Art of the Sublime, artists and writers on art have explored the problem of the sublime for over 400 years. Their research covers how “the sublime” was expressed in Baroque, Romantic, Victorian, Modern, and Contemporary periods in the United Kingdom.
Each era developed their own answers to the question about “what is sublime?” And has been expressed in numerous types of art and genres: literature, rhetoric (public speaking), music, architecture, visual art (portraiture, history painting, landscapes, new media art, video games).
Meditations on capitalism, modern science, industry, technology have been the topic of contemporary art about “the sublime.”
Some believe that the concept of “the sublime” has evolved from being an attribute of nature to being a mode of consciousness.
According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy Edited by Donald M. Borchert. Vol. 9. 2nd ed., “the sublime refers to no thing; it is instead an effect produced by the limits of our capacities for perception and representation. As such the sublime has played a vital role in the history of aesthetic theory as well as in postmodernist debates about representation and the limits of knowledge.”
According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “In the 1980s and 1990s Kant’s and (to a much lesser extent) Burke’s theories of the sublime became the objects of a massive revival of interest, in the immediate context of a more general discussion of postmodern society. Kant’s theory, for example, has been used by J.-F. Lyotard and others to explain the sensibility – orientated towards the enjoyment of complexity, rapid change and a breakdown of categories – that seems to characterize that society.”
Resources: “The Sublime” in Art History
The Art of the Sublime: In 2008 the Tate Modern, Britain's national gallery of international modern art, initiated an interdisciplinary research project to explore the history and current relevance of the sublime, particularly as reflected in Tate’s collection of historic and modern works of art. There’s a wealth of essays here.
The Sublime and the Spiritual: Online class on Abstract Expressionist painting @Museum of Modern Art: “Some critics, such as Robert Rosenblum, considered Abstract Expressionism’s interest in the sublime to be a continuation of the ideals of the Romantics. Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement from the late 17th century and early 18th century that placed emphasis on the aesthetic experience and the emotions it evoked. In 1948, Barnett Newman wrote an essay titled “The Sublime is Now,” in which he asserts that America is where artists are finally achieving the sublime: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”
Bill Viola's work with Nine Inch Nails, The Great Below + La Mer
What is the Hudson River School of Painting?
Was not a school or form of academic painting but a group of New York City-based landscape painters that emerged about 1850 under the influence of the English émigré Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and flourished until about the time of the Centennial. The name was originally intended to mock its members.
Most belonged to the National Academy, were members of the same clubs, especially the Century, and, by 1858, many of them even worked at the same address, the Studio Building on West Tenth Street, the first purpose-built artist workspace in the city. Eventually, several of the artists built homes on the Hudson River.
After Cole’s death in 1848, his older contemporary Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) became the acknowledged leader of the New York landscape painters; in 1845, he rose to the presidency of the National Academy of Design, the reigning art institution of the period, and, in 1855–56, published a series of “Letters on Landscape Painting” which codified the standard of idealized naturalism that marked the school’s production.
After the Civil War, the aesthetic orientation of the United States shifted from Great Britain, the mother culture, to the Continent, especially France.
What influenced the Hudson River School of Painting?
The aesthetic concept of “the sublime,” particularly ideas about human's relative insignificance in the face of Nature (people appear tiny in relation to the landscape), appreciation of the grandeur of natural phenomena (images of mountains, valleys, rivers from wide angle perspectives), and examples of the violence of natural phenomena (images of shipwrecks).
The University of Arizona Museum of Art provides a comparison of 19TH CENTURY LANDSCAPE – THE PASTORAL, THE PICTURESQUE AND THE SUBLIME
Pastoral landscapes celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature: scenes are peaceful, often depicting ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured lawns with broad vistas, and fattened livestock
The Picturesque refers to the charm of discovering the landscape in its natural state, especially through travel: sunsets behind majestic mountains, an egret taking off from a quiet marsh, a deer bathed in a shaft of light in the woods.
Sublime images show Nature at its most fearsome: Humanity is small and impotent in front of raging rivers, dizzying cliffs and canyons, ferocious animals, and violent storms.
Discussed Shipwreck (1829) by Thomas Birch (1779-1851) from the Brooklyn Museum collection as an example of the an extreme expression of “the sublime” during this era and that intention behind these kinds of distressing images was to get viewers to contemplate the unpredictability of life and develop faith that things would work out well in the end.
New Dictionary of the History of Ideas Edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Vol. 3, provides an overview of Landscape in the Arts.
Representations of the wilderness in American literature, especially in the “Leatherstocking” novels of James Fenimore Cooper, which were set in the upstate New York locales that became Cole’s earliest subjects, including several pictures illustrating scenes from the novels.
in 1824, a tourist hotel was opened in the Catskill Mountains one hundred miles upriver from New York. When Cole visited, he made sketches there and elsewhere along the banks of the Hudson. More tourist resorts (both inland and on the coast) opened during the Civil War period because the vacation experience was increasingly pursued to relieve the pressures of urban workaday life.
Resources: Plein air painting classes in NYC
Art Classes @Wave Hill in the Bronx
Art Classes @New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx