The Aesthetic of the Sublime in Romantic Paintings

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  • 00:00 Sublime
  • 2:31 Sublime Landscape
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the development of the sublime in art and discover how painters used this to evoke a wide range of human emotions. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


'Sublime, darling, sublime.'

In the 19th century, this is apparently how people talked all the time. Everything was simply 'sublime'. Or, maybe that's just how people talked in old Hollywood movies.

In reality, the sublime is 'an aesthetic of greatness beyond measurement' that appears throughout art. When something is sublime, it is undeniably awesome, and not just in that it's cool, but in a way that is tremendously powerful or important. For the artists of the late 18th-century movement known as Romanticism, the sublime captured both the inspiration and terror of true power. Romantic artists were all about exploring the idea of the imagination, and the same imagination that produces dreams of flying over clouds can also produce nightmares.

The Sublime Imagination

The 18th-century British philosopher Edmund Burke described the sublime as 'feelings of awe mixed with terror'. Burke observed that pain and fear, while intense, could also be thrilling. Romantic artists quickly latched onto that idea: artists like Henry Fuseli.

Sublime art explored the strange
Painting: The Nightmare

In 1781, Fuseli painted The Nightmare, which launched an entire generation of artists who explored the dark side of imagination. Just look at this. A sleeping woman is being used as a perch by a demon, while a wild-eyed horse pops his head in from behind the curtain. Beyond just an exploration of the strange, this is also a pun. The word 'nightmare' originally comes from the Mara, a spirit in medieval European superstition that haunted people while they slept. So between the spirit and the horse, we have the night-mara and the night-mare. Oh, Fuseli, you're so clever!

But this actually reveals a lot about this painting. Romantic artists rejected the logic and reason of other styles and embraced images of odd, sometimes bizarre things. This all contributes to this idea of the sublime. This painting is simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. I mean, there's a demon sitting on a sleeping woman! The combination of dark shadows and dramatic lighting emphasize the power of the subconscious. It is inspiring and yet terrifying. It is 'sublime.'

Here are a few other images of the sublime in Romantic art. Pay attention to the dark colors, the unsettling themes, and their ability to create something that, while disturbing, is deeply exciting.

Painting from sublime movement

Painting from sublime movement

Painting from sublime movement

The Sublime Landscape

In their constant search for new sublime subjects, English, German, and American Romantic painters in the early 19th century found themselves looking not into the subconscious, but out into the world. Landscape painting became a major focus of the Romantic painters and actually, they were the first artists to really appreciate a landscape as a subject by itself and not just a background.

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