Romantic Landscapes: Exploring the Picturesque
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.
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."
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.
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
Links to the Picturesque
- Claude Lorrain Mirror
- Enchanting Ruin: Tintern Abbey and Romantic Tourism in Wales - Alex McKay’s Wye Tour
An exhibit by Special Collections and SPO
- Welcome to Repicturing the Picturesque
- Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. Ju
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters! and again I hear / These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs / With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
- The Beautiful Wye Valley - An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
The beautiful Wye Valley is an area of outstanding natural beauty with a dramatic and scenic landscape.