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Romantic Landscapes: Exploring the Picturesque

Updated on August 17, 2017
Claude Lorrain, "Shepherd" oil on canvas 1655-60 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Claude Lorrain, "Shepherd" oil on canvas 1655-60 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. | Source

For the eighteenth century tourist, a pleasure trip was a chance to seek out, admire and record painterly landscapes. Views that offered elements of the beautiful and the sublime were called "picturesque" by Romantic writers who defined the aesthetic principles of the era. Guide books promoted the study of landscape as the highest form of tourism and established itineraries for travelers whose goal was to be uplifted and even morally improved by the experience. The Romantic traveler was encouraged to find the picturesque, respond to it emotionally and make a sketch of the landscape that would serve as a lasting souvenir.

Claude Lorrain," Landscape with Goatherd," oil on canvas, 1636
Claude Lorrain," Landscape with Goatherd," oil on canvas, 1636 | Source

The influence of Claude Lorrain (1600 - 1682)

The landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain included broad, sweeping vistas, with man, nature and architecture enveloped in a subdued light. His tonal range was carefully modulated to suggest layers of space. The dark foreground, lighter middle ground and pale background were orchestrated to guide the eye through the entire composition, gradually moving from a spot-lit focal point into the hazy distance. The landscape was depicted as varied, with rough and gentle elements combined in a harmonious, pastoral setting. Lorrain's figures seem so comfortably at ease in their surroundings that they appear to be embedded in the landscape, playing minor roles on a lush, outdoor stage.

Lorrain often based his studio canvases on sketches completed outdoors, in the countryside around Rome. These "plein air" pen and ink drawings appealed to the Romantic imagination more than a hundred years later, and prompted writers like Rev.William Gilpin to promote the practice of sketching as a pastime for travelers. Gilpin, an Anglican cleric and schoolteacher, was a key figure in the aesthetic debate of the late 1700s, and helped to popularize the meaning of picturesque. In his essay, "On Picturesque Beauty," written in 1794, Gilpin explained the use of a travel drawing as a memento.

"A few scratches, like a short-hand scrawl of our own, legible at least to ourselves, will serve to raise in our minds the remembrance of the beauties they humbly represent; and recall to our memory even the splendid colouring, and force of light, which existed in the real scene."

Claude Lorrain, "View of the Campagna," ink on paper, 1669, British Museum
Claude Lorrain, "View of the Campagna," ink on paper, 1669, British Museum | Source
J.M.W. Turner, "The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey," pencil and watercolour on paper, 1794, Tate Gallery, London
J.M.W. Turner, "The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey," pencil and watercolour on paper, 1794, Tate Gallery, London | Source
Claude Glass, England, 18th c.
Claude Glass, England, 18th c. | Source

Capturing the Picturesque

The Romantic traveller in search of the picturesque was equipped with a guide book, artist's materials and a Claude glass. William Gilpin wrote "Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales" as a guide for journeying from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow and back. He described specific locations en route where picturesque views could be sketched by the traveller, places like Tintern Abbey, Severn Bridge, Clearwell Castle and The Kymin. These spots were rich with picturesque properties: architectural ruins, overgrown vegetation, rugged cliffs, winding paths, waterways, stone walls and undulating hills.

The tourist was advised to carry a Claude glass, a small, dark-tinted, convex mirror designed to reflect the tonal values of scenery, making the landscape easier to draw. It was named after artist Claude Lorrain whose atmospheric paintings were highly esteemed by the Romantics. The mirror was suspended from a tree branch or held in one hand while the viewer turned his back on the landscape. This clever device reduced detail, but accentuated the gradation of tones from dark to light. The slight curve of the convex shape reflected a compact version of the scene, in the same way that a car's rear view mirror does.

The idea of requiring a man-made visual aid to frame and compose a view of the landscape is similar to the use of digital cameras in art-making today. The Claude glass isolated, contained and captured (though not permanently) a select fragment of the larger vista, making the complexity of nature more defined and manageable. The initial reduction of the landscape to a 2-dimensional image assisted the Romantic traveler with the process of composing a drawing, just as the photograph provides a starting point and useful reference for many contemporary artists.

Caspar David Friedrich, "The Wanderer above the sea of fog", oil on canvas, 1818, Hamburger Kunsthalle
Caspar David Friedrich, "The Wanderer above the sea of fog", oil on canvas, 1818, Hamburger Kunsthalle | Source

The Picturesque as Pure Bliss

The British poet, novelist and translator Helen Maria Williams wrote a description of her reaction while looking at the Alps in "A tour in Switzerland" published in 1798.

"Never, never can I forget the sensations of that moment! When with a sort of annihilation of self, with every past impression erased from my memory, I felt as if my heart were bursting with emotions too strong to be sustained."

This is the type of ecstatic response that prompted the Romantic traveler to take excursions into unfamiliar terrain. Marvelling at nature and responding emotionally to aesthetic experiences were part of an exercise that was thought to be edifying. The Romantic writers looked at nature as an expression of the divine, a virtuous form of beauty that elevated thought and served as a reminder of spiritual values. Pondering the picturesque was a form of self-improvement.

William Wordsworth's poem, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour" from July 13, 1798 clearly expresses this feeling.

—And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Romanticism as Reaction

The Romantic view of the landscape was a reaction against an increasingly industrialized society in Britain. Cities were expanding at the end of the eighteenth century and the move towards urban living and employment in industry created a disconnection with agricultural roots. The contemplation of nature offered a welcome escape from an industrial age that was keen on science and technology and advocated rational, empirical thinking. As factory smokestacks began to dominate the horizon in urban areas, Romantics turned their attention to glorifying the passion and sense of wonder that unspoiled, picturesque views provoked.

The German poet Novalis (1772-1801) wrote this passage explaining the value and importance of Romanticism.

"The world must be romanticized. In this way its original meaning will be rediscovered. To romanticize is nothing but a qualitative heightening. In this process the lower self becomes identified with a better self. Insofar as I present the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar and the finite with the semblance of the infinite, I romanticize it."

In the 21st century, when the environment is seriously threatened by the fallout of extensive industrialization and technology dominates our daily social interaction, perhaps a Neo-romantic movement is required to direct our focus back to nature, aesthetics and heightened awareness.

Video of Tintern Abbey, Jan. 10, 2007


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      You are very welcome for my words. It was all the truth. I love your work and urge you to continue the fine hubs and success will only intensify for you.

      Please stay in touch.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 2 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      kenneth avery: Thanks for your comments regarding this hub. I am not familiar with the Rockwell barn painting you have mentioned, but will certainly look it up.

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, Vanderleelie,

      I love this hub. And here are the reasons why:

      1. This is an excellent piece of writing. Honestly, it is amazing.

      2, I loved every word.

      3. Graphics, superb.

      4. This hub was helpful, informative and very interesting.

      5. Voted Up and all of the choices.

      6. I loved your topic of this hub.

      I ran across a painting some time ago in a magazine, and a writer had written a great feature story on an American classic, not American Gothic, but a Norman Rockwellish looking painting of a barn on a farm and a bucket of red paint. The barn was half finished either in red or yellow and it was either sunrise or sunset--and the artist had planned it this way to confuse the viewer. I loved it.

      You are certainly a gifted writer. Keep the great hubs coming.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      tonymead60: Thanks for your comment about this hub. Your appreciation of landscape painting includes a range of wonderful examples. The Romantic painters did record nature in a realistic style, but as you point out, added that extra atmospheric element to heighten the emotional impact. It was a way to elevate the ordinary and uplift the viewer.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 4 years ago from Yorkshire


      a very interesting and well thought out hub. I have been a professional artist for many years and I love to look at some of the early masters particularly of landscapes. Turner, Whistler, and so many others who produced wonderful oil and watercolour masterpieces. They laid the path for such as Monet and the imprssionist to follow.

      I like the romantic aspect of this work, it should be lifelike and yet still be part of a fantasy that takes us away from the humdrum of everyday life.

      with respect


    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Thank you for your comment, Dolores. The idea of Romanticism as a reaction against industrialization is one that I see as relevant to art-making today. As nature is increasingly threatened, it appeals to painters and photographers who are sensitive to beauty and wish to preserve it.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Loved this hub on the Romantic painters - in a time when heavy industry was wreaking havoc on the country side, highlighting the beauty of nature was an important statement. Some folks think these landscapes are sentimental, but the glory of nature is still under threat. Voted up!

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      JSParker: Thank you for your comments regarding this hub. I was not familiar with the Claude glass either, but came across the work of Canadian artist Alex McKay who did the installation of mirrors and webcams along the Wye River route, an intriguing project. One point of reference often leads to a wealth of information and new insight.

    • JSParker profile image

      JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Very nice hub, indeed! In fact, it could serve as a model for writing hubs: well-written, somewhat narrowed subject, and specific content. You make the topic manageable within the limited size of a hub by focusing on the purpose of studying landscape, the work of three painters, and details about the materials used by the artist.

      I did not know what a Clause glass was--how interesting. And how apt your comparison of it to a photograph for use by an artist.

      Voted Up, Beautiful, and Interesting!

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Thank you, Lesley for your comment. I think your photos of the Wye Valley add to this topic. It is interesting to see that some contemporary artists are re-visiting the area with installations and photo-based work that relates to the Romantic idea of the picturesque.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Vanderleelie, I agree with searchinsany, this hub is indeed a masterpiece!

      What a wonderful, interesting read and I enjoyed your choice of pictures and the video was awesome!

      Thank you for including my link, I will also add your link to my hub.

      Voting up and best wishes Lesley

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Well done hub, Vandeerleelie...voted up, beautiful, and interesting. Got here using the Hopper.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      Thank you for your comment, searchinsany.

    • searchinsany profile image

      Alexander Gibb 5 years ago from UK

      This Hub is a masterpiece!