What it Means to be Sublime, Beautiful, and Picturesque

In this week’s lecture, our class and discussion seminar have been more focused on analyzing images and paintings. Today, we learned about three categories that paintings may be characterized in given the circumstances: sublime, beautiful, and picturesque. As the lecture went on, we went more in depth with what it meant for a picture or painting or piece of art to be considered one of these three subjects. Since I feel like I do not totally have the full grasp of what these topics encompass, I thought it would be a great idea to put all my thoughts out on my blog and hopefully get a better idea of what each one means.

When I first heard the word sublime, I thought of something having to do with greatness, uplifting, elevating, or refining. However, our lecture went on to tell us that while these may be our present day perceptions of what it means to be sublime, the 18th century had a different definition of the term. The official definition that was used was “from under the threshold” or something that is seen, but should not necessarily be seen. Other synonyms for this included obscurity and vastness with associations to chaos and destruction. To elaborate, my original thought on what it means to be sublime is apparently not correct in the 18th century. Referring to these definitions, I think that an accurate image of what sublime looks like would be a picture of disorder with solemn and dark colors.

The Savage State by Thomas Cole (example of a sublime painting)

The image that immediately pops into my mind when I think of the word beautiful would probably be the beach at sunset because it is always calm with the sound of the waves in the background. However, this was not the in depth descriptions that were brought up in our lecture. Instead, we looked at this from a painting perspective which could be described by the words symmetry, regularity, smoothness, and delicacy. Associations going along with this word are peace, harmony, and tranquility because everything depicted is in order and under control. I feel like this subject is a little harder to define than sublime because it is obvious when something is chaotic, however, beauty can be portrayed in many different ways.

The Consummation of Empire by Thomas Cole (example of a beautiful painting)

When the word picturesque came up, I honestly did not know what to think other than a picture-perfect world. On the contrary, the professor described picturesque paintings in quite a different and more complex way than I would have originally. In lecture, a picturesque painting was described as rough with sudden variation and irregularity; it may also be described as “a transition from beautiful to sublime”. In my discussion class, we went more in depth with the term by associating it with melancholy, engaged pensiveness, broken symmetry, and ambiguity. This definition was probably the most difficult for me to grasp since it was kind of like a medium between the two other subjects.

Desolation by Thomas Cole (example of a picturesque painting)

By the time I finalize the image I want to use for my second essay, I should have a better grasp of what these terms mean. Thanks for reading!

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