The “Sublime” is a term used to describe art that invokes a particular feeling that became a dominant form of expression during 18th Century Romanticism (Tate, 1). The sublime is evocative of nature, but more than that deals in the mixing of human constructed society and its experience with nature.
Though used before it, the theme was first thoroughly explored in Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry. Published in 1757m, the work “connected the sublime with experiences of awe, terror and danger.” Though Burke saw instances of the sublime outside of nature, he though nature was the most sublime subjects “generating the strongest sensations in its beholders” (Tate, 1).
A sublime rendering is pretty, but the beauty of it goes beyond that and dives into the realm of human fears and anxieties. It brings with it pleasure, but also pain. So renderings of beautiful nature in paintings might be accompanied by humans threatened by the beauty of a storm, or some other natural phenomenon. As this was a time of human exploration, by sea and land, it makes sense that the sublime exists in the societal ecology of the time. Sometimes the danger is looming large, other times it exists as a subtle threat of what could come. The sublime “is beauty mixed or edged with danger, terror, threat--all on a grand or elevated scale” (White, 1).
The sublime can be better understood by exploring specific examples of it. In the work of painters John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, romantic artists, the sublime is present.
J. M. W Turner was a watercolor painter who painted romantic paintings with abstract impressionist influence. Much of his work contains images of the sea, shipwrecks, or vessels sailing in peril of the a looming storm.
Currently on display today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is his 1805 oil painting The Shipwreck which features three live boats being tossed on treacherous waves. There is an element of majesty, as the grey shaded sea is contrasted with a dark, cloud filled sky. The sea is a site to behold, and much less conspicuous in the painting are small people in a boat who are so secondary to the painting that it is difficult to make out an individual, but easier to take in the group of people as a whole. The painting makes a strong statement about the both the majesty of the sea, and the life ending perils that one can face there.
John Constable was a contemporary of J. M. W. Turner. While the sea is a less common subject for him than it is for Turner, he is known for his rendering of natural scenes, which often does include the sea. His painting Hove beach, with fishing boats, while not as dramatic a scene as rendered in The Shipwreck, shows the majesty of the sea with its threat of danger present much more subtler. But still that element of danger is there. In the background clouds gather and begin to gray. The boats in the harbor appear to be smaller and subject to the whims of the painted waves. A pair has come to the shore to wait for the boats to come in, and in their waiting is their defenselessness in the face of the sea.
"CONSTABLE : impressions of land, sea and sky | John CONSTABLE | Hove beach, with fishing boats." CONSTABLE : impressions of land, sea and sky | John CONSTABLE | Hove beach, with fishing boats. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2014. <http://nga.gov.au/exhibition/constable/Detail.cfm?IRN=145053&ViewID=2>.
Tate. "The Art of the Sublime." The Romantic sublime (). N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2014. <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/the-romantic-sublime-r1109221>.
"The eccentric genius of J.M.W. Turner." NJ.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2014. <http://www.nj.com/entertainment/arts/index.ssf/2008/06/the_eccentric_genius_of_jmw_tu.html>.
"terms & themes." terms & themes. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 May 2014. <http://coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/terms/S/sublime.htm>.