Hudson River School | The Sublime

The Sublime

The Sublime was a key theme in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aesthetic theory. The concept of the Sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature that was distinct from, but linked, to considerations of beauty was first explored by British writers in the eighteenth century who expressed a simultaneous appreciation for, and overawing fear of, the irregularity and vastness of natural forms.

Modern theories of the Sublime first gained traction with the 1674 French translation of the Greek treatise On the Sublime, attributed to the ancient writer Longinus (1st century CE). The concept was further developed in the eighteenth century via the publication of descriptions of experiences traveling across perilous landscapes. British authors such as John Dennis (1658–1734), Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671–1713), and Joseph Addison (1672–1719) commented upon their simultaneous feelings of pleasure and repulsion while journeying across the Alps. As the Grand Tour became an established cultural practice, European travelers increasingly noted, and even sought out, experiences of the remotest, grandest, and most dangerous locations on the road to Grand Tour destinations in Italy, notably the treacherous and breathtaking vistas along the Saint Bernard Pass through the Alps.

Aesthetic considerations of the overwhelming vastness and sheer power of nature were expanded upon by the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke (1729–1797), who was the first to establish the theory of the dual forces of the Sublime and the Beautiful. In his influential essay, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” published in 1756, Burke argued that art should have a direct and powerful emotive impact on the viewer. Burke’s treatise is notable for focusing in detail on the physiological effects of the Sublime, in particular the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction noted by earlier writers. Burke’s Sublime included elements that would later be identified with Romanticism, including feelings of fear, uncertainty, and horror brought on by conditions such as danger, darkness, vastness, solitude, pain, and infinity.

While Burke argued that the Sublime was an external force inherent in Nature, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his influential Critique of Judgment (1790), described the Sublime as an internal force focused upon the individual’s response, arguing that it came from within the human psyche.

Several eighteenth-century artists expressed Sublime natural phenomena in landscape painting. In Great Britain, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) produced numerous scenes of Vesuvius in eruption. Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1714–1812) painted scenes of natural disaster, sea battles, and the industrial sublime, in works such as Coalbrookdale by Night (1801). He is also credited as the inventor of the Eidophusikon (meaning “image of nature”), a forerunner of the modern motion picture, which consisted of a mechanical theatre showcasing panoramic paintings enlivened with light and sound effects illustrating the sublimity of nature. Romantic landscape painter, watercolorist, and printmaker Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) introduced a radical form of painting that explored both lyrical and awesomely violent visions of nature, with particular attention to the optical effects of rain, fog, steam, water, snow, sunshine, and fire. On the Continent, the Sublime is associated with the French painters Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Théodore Géricault (1791–1824) and the German painter Caspar David Friedrich.

In the United States, several Hudson River School artists expressed the overwhelming magnificence of American scenery using the Sublime mode. The application of the Sublime in the arts grew in tandem with an appreciation of the unique native scenery of the Americas, noted and celebrated for its wildness in comparison to the more settled Old World landscape.

Thomas Moran (1837–1926) Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, 1859
Oil on canvas, 29¼ x 44⅛ inches
Signed and dated lower right: T. Moran. / 1859.
Image courtesy of Questroyal Fine Art, LLC


Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
The Catskill Mountain House: The Four Elements, 1843–44
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches; Private collection


Thomas Cole (1801–1848) Imaginary Landscape with Towering Outcrop
Oil on canvas, 18 ½ x 14 7/8 inches
Image courtesy of Questroyal Fine Art, LLC