Lecture #7: Mountain Gloom, Mountain Glory: Sublime and Picturesque

Suggested Readings:

Jonathan Wordsworth et al., William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism (1987)

Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-75 (1980)

Bryan Wolf, Romantic Re-Vision (1982) (especially chapter on Thomas Cole)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School (1987)

John Wilmerding, ed., American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875 (1980)

Elizabeth McKinsey, Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (1985)

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination, 1995; The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005)

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (1995)

John Conron, American Picturesque (2000)

Also helpful are these websites on the Hudson River School:


I. Introduction: The Romantic Legacy

Romanticism was arguably the single most important influence on American notions of landscape that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We remain heirs to the romantic tradition, which is strongly present in environmentalist thought right down to the present.

Key generalization: romanticism was an example of, and also a reaction against, the secularization of western European culture and religiosity that typified the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and after.

Against the threat of scientific empiricism, romantics rediscovered god/spirituality in nature.

Take Thomas Cole's "View from Mt. Holyoke...After a Thunderstorm" (1836) as our leitmotif for this lecture: oxbow as image of eternal return, wilderness into pastoral, rise and fall of civilization: behind seemingly realistic image of nature, apocalypse & vision of sublime. You can study the painting yourself on the Metropolitan Museum website: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/08.228/
The Wikipedia entry on this painting may also be helpful: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oxbow

II. European Prologue: Revolution and Reaction

Remember the importance of the French Revolution for English romantics, especially Wordsworth: after an initial attraction to revolutionary ideals, a subsequent negative reaction to the excesses of the Terror and Napoleon, eventually leading to a retreat into individualistic encounters with Nature.

John Martin's "The Bard," (1817) poet as lone prophet in sublime landscape of wilderness can stand as a symbol of this romantic role: http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/art-in-focus-wales/185/the-bard

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was a crucial figure, with his moment crossing the Simplon Pass in the Alps in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude serving as a paradigmatic encounter with Sublime: vast force of Nature as deity:

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent, at every turn,
Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

Romantics sought out the sublime in particular places: mountaintop, chasm, cataract, thunderstorm, rainbow.

Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757): the sublime was dark, large, awesome, terrifying, painful, whereas the beautiful, in contrast, was orderly, smooth, polished, pleasurable. The Sublime was a surrogate for God in Nature.

William Blake's attacked Newton's physics as a mechanistic empiricism that obscured the energy/spirit behind "reason."

Romanticism was also a reaction against emerging industrialism and cities; Constable, Turner landscapes

III. Self, Spirit, and Transcendence

Americans viewed their own revolution as successful, so were often more optimistic about combining romantic and progressive ideals than their European romantic counterparts. The question they pondered was the proper relation of their new republic to Nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) probably the single most important figure in American romanticism, enormously influential to his contemporaries even though he's not much read today. His book Nature (1836) was manifesto of Transcendentalism, a leading American version of romanticism. Its injunction to readers was to experience universe directly, as living prophets, with a kind of mystical optimism suffusing the text. Nature is readily available online if you want to try reading more of it, though you are not required to read more than the excerpt we've given you in this week's readings: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29433

Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) was a disciple of Emerson's who famously retreated to Walden Pond from 1845-7 to act out the romantic dream of a direct encounter with Nature, with an imagination unencumbered by society. Thoreau as a much more direct observer than Emerson, but both saw Nature as infused with Spirit.

IV. Thomas Cole: Landscape and Romantic History

Thomas Cole, (1810-48) helped create a whole new genre of wilderness landscape painting, with a darker and more complicated relationship to romantic conceptions of American nature.

French artist Claude Lorraine's pastoral paintings of the 17th century were a key source of compositional conventions artists used in depicting romantic landscapes; his motifs include vegetative framing, idling foreground figures, rustic bldgs, stream or road holds foreground and middle ground together, grazing animals, etc., all of which are employed by romantic painters. I used Claude's painting "Pastoral Landscape" (1648) to illustrate these ideas in the lecture. You can view it on the Yale Art Gallery website here: http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/9747

American painters faced the problem of painting historical epics in a landscape that was seemingly without history. So instead they sought to infuse the infuse land with a moral vision, embracing wilderness landscapes as the ultimate terrain for encountering the sublime.

American artists sometimes felt apologetic for the lack of historical depth to their national landscape, which had none of the classical ruins or monuments of Greco-Roman antiquity that were so abundant in Europe. So they turned to wilderness and monumental natural wonders as a romantic alternative.

The presence of the Sublime inevitably shapes even "non-human" landscapes. Romantic artists depicted America as primordial wilderness, Garden of Eden, original paradise, paradise regained.

Cole's landscapes express drama of God, humanity, Nature, and declension. His remarkable series of five canvases for the narrative sequence called The Course of Empire (1833-6) depicted the rise of fall of European civilization from Savagery to Pastoral to Empire to Destruction to Desolation. You can view this sequence on the excellent Wikipedia entry for this great work: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire_(paintings)

All past empires had risen from pastoral innocence into imperial glory only to fall back into decadence and savagery, and Cole's landscapes recapitulated this cycle. The distant mountain stands as witness to the human drama in the foreground, symbol of the divine presence which remains constant throughout, even if different stages of civilization are very different in the honor they do or do not offer their god.

The pastoral state seemed to be the ideal condition for Cole, akin both to republican Athens and to the (also republican) American frontier: but like many others, he worried whether this republican virtue could survive.

Cole's view from Mt. Holyoke thus becomes anxiety-laden, sinister. The fertile lowlands become signs of what? Pastoral republican landscape or early signs of imperial decadence? The curve of the river (echoed by the birds circling overhead) becomes a symbol of cycling time, and hence, possibly, of the rise and fall of empire. And the strange clearings on the far hillside seem to form Hebrew letters that may be read either as Noah or Shaddai (the Almighty).

V. The Picturesque as Symbol and Commodity

As more and more of the American landscape transformed away from the romantic wild, leisure-class tourists made increasing efforts to visit wild nature for themselves.

Resort hotels like Catskill Mountain House (1823) becomes romantic escapes from city: it become among the most popular of artistic subjects, itself absorbed into an icon of the sublime. Some of the classic views of this famous resort hotel are conveniently gathered on its Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catskill_Mountain_House

Romantic landscape paintings helped shape the tourist travel experience (and vice versa) through the conventions of picturesque representation.

Landscapes were composed, framed, and thematized as paintings according to principles set forth by William Gilpin in his 1792 Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, Picturesque Travel, and on Sketching Landscape. The picturesque tradition formalized and standardized Claudian and other romantic principles of landscape representation.

In the Lower Hudson Valley, the New Jersey Palisades and the Hudson Highlands around West Point served as a popular location for picturesque steamboat excursions: guidebooks indicated favorite views, standardizing travelers' experience to match what they had already seen in the paintings they viewed in New York galleries. Farther upstream were the Catskills (site of the famous Mountain House) and, farther still, the Adirondacks, which we'll explore later in the course.

But the real monument to romantic American exceptionalism was Niagara Falls: a natural wonder grander than anything Europe could offer, serving as a surrogate for the historical depth of European landscape that otherwise seemed missing in America.

There is an excellent overview of Niagara's history, with many good illustrations, on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niagara_Falls

It was probably the single most frequently painted and photographed icon in the entire North American landscape, capable of being assimilated to sublime, picturesque, republican nationalism, popular spectacle, an endless variety of symbols.

Niagara also became key destination for tourism, with the resulting crowding producing the sense of an increasingly commodified landscape that became a symbol of lost sublimity.

Niagara began to be used advertisements as early as 1830s: hair restorers, Nabisco Shredded Wheat, Hollywood's Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe.

Circle back one more time to Cole's View from Mt. Holyoke: the 19th century was a turning point for American relations with landscape: America as wilderness, garden, Nature's Nation, empire, commodity.