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Sublime Art and the Romantic Aesthetic

Sasha Blakeley, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

What is the sublime romantic aesthetic? Learn the sublime art definition. Identify the sublime landscape painting aesthetic within 19th-century romanticism art. Updated: 08/04/2021

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What Is the Sublime Painting Aesthetic?

What is the sublime as it is used in art? The concept of the sublime is essential to understand when studying 19th century art and literature. Essentially, the concept of the sublime blends beauty with terror. Something sublime is so great and awe-inspiring that it is frightening and wonderful at once. Sublime aesthetics, especially sublime painting, seek to capture this feeling and express it visually, just as Romantic poets sought to express the sublime in words. The sublime is inextricably connected with Romanticism as an artistic movement. Romanticism, both in art and literature, was concerned with expressing powerful emotions, exploring the imagination, and dismantling the standard conventions of art.

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Theorizing Sublime Art and the Advancement of the Romantic Aesthetic

Sublime Romanticism and a commonly understood sublime art definition were developed over time by several different theorists who were analyzing the artwork that was being created. Ultimately, Romanticism and the exploration of the sublime was a reaction against Enlightenment-era rationalism that prioritized logic over emotion. It was an attempt to recapture the sacred in modern life, much of which seemed to have been lost as a result of rationalism and empiricism that was permeating philosophy and art.

Boileau-Despréaux Translates Longinus

In the 1st century CE, a writer now known as Cassius Longinus wrote a treatise called On the Sublime. In this text, he provided what was probably the first effective definition and analysis of the sublime. The text was finally translated into French by a man named Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711), more commonly known simply as Boileau. This translation was the first to bring the concept of the sublime into European thought and discussion, essentially paving the way for the development of sublime art and literature. Boileau's translation, and indeed Longinus' original text, goes into immense detail about what exactly the sublime is, how it contributes to art, how it is reflective of intense emotions and passions, and how it is connected to the imagination. This translation proved immensely influential, particularly in the following century when Romanticism really took off.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was an Irish philosopher who in 1757 wrote a treatise called A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He explained the difference between beauty and the sublime, emphasizing that beauty lacks the element of terror and awe that the sublime possesses. He realized that although pain and fear are unpleasant emotions, they can also be exciting and even intoxicating, particularly in art, which is what makes them so essential to the creation of the sublime. Burke was very interested in investigating sensory experiences and exploring how they connected with Romanticism and art.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a German philosopher who wrote on a wide array of subjects, from aesthetics to metaphysics. Building on Burke's work, Kant published Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. In this work, he identified three sublime modes, all of which could be implemented in art. The first mode was the noble sublime, which engendered a feeling of wonder in the viewer and was essentially a quiet and awed admiration. The second mode was the splendid or magnificent sublime, which was the most closely connected with beauty and a feeling of rightness. The final mode of the sublime was the terrifying, which was mixed with fear and dread. One example that Kant gave of the sublime, particularly the terrifying sublime, is the powerless feeling that a person might feel when faced with the natural world, including great mountains, heights, or depths.

Jean-François Lyotard

Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) was a French philosopher whose primary focus was on postmodernism. He also wrote extensively on the sublime as a Romantic aesthetic practice. He considered sublime Romanticism to be a sign of the triumph of modernity in art. Of course, it is very difficult to define modernity, but in Lyotard's view specifically, the sublime represents the end of traditional aesthetics and the birth of something new: a singular moment of intensity that carried over into modern art and beyond, long after Romanticism as a movement was over. Lyotard had the advantage of writing about Romanticism and the sublime in hindsight, which allowed him to explore how Romanticism as a movement was built on the specific cultural milieu of the 1700s and 1800s. He argued that social alienation, increasing urbanization, the rapid development of new technology, and the general sense of unease that came from rapid changes to everyday life were all contributing factors in the attachment that people felt to the sublime at the time. Romanticism as a movement developed in the 1700s, but it was most prominent in the first half of the 1800s.

19th-century Romanticism Art

Romanticism was an art movement, a poetic style, and a painting aesthetic. It was an exploration of strong emotions and a rejection of societal norms. The movement began in Europe and later spread to America, though American Romanticism and European Romanticism are somewhat different. It is important to note that while explorations of romantic love were a part of Romanticism, especially in poetry, the name of the movement is not inherently connected to contemporary ideas of romance. Operatic emotions and extraordinary experiences were at the core of Romanticism in all its forms.

What is the Sublime Imagination?

Imagination was a major part of Romanticism and the sublime. An exploration of the limits of the human imagination was something that many artists explored. This was a way of combining intense and terrifying themes with aesthetically beautiful compositions and details. Many paintings that explored the sublime imagination used a technique called chiaroscuro, which uses a high contrast between dark and light. This technique was not specific to Romanticism alone, but it was a great way for Romantic artists to explore emotional intensity in a visual way.

Eugène Delacroix

Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix is a sublime painting

An example of sublime art and Romanticism

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are examples of romanticism?

Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement in Europe and America. Paintings by Henry Fuseli, poems by William Blake, and books like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley are all examples of Romanticism.

What are the 5 elements of romanticism?

There are not necessarily 5 all-encompassing elements of Romanticism. However, 5 major traits of the movement include:

  • Dismantling the conventions of art and literature
  • Emphasizing strong emotions
  • Exploring the sublime
  • Emphasizing the imagination
  • Celebrating individual experiences of the world

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