Happy Halloween! If you want to see something truly frightening on All Hallows’ Eve, check out this amazing painting of Mount Vesuvius erupting. By Norwegian artist Johan Christian Dahl, it’s a relatively recent addition to the Met’s collection.
Dahl’s painting is a perfect example of the Sublime, a branch of Romanticism that was all about evoking awe, fright, and horror in its viewers. It’s a perfect style to enjoy on Halloween. Sublime paintings can appear in many genres, including paintings of wild animals attacking horses, shipwrecks, massacres, etc. Henri Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich are its most famous practitioners. It is extremely prominent in 19th-century landscape painting, and I’ve included a few favorites here, since everybody knows that’s my jam. In Sublime landscape painting, the idea is to overwhelm the viewer with the vast and unimaginable qualities of the natural world in order to reinforce the relative powerlessness of humanity by contrast. It’s not a specifically religious idea, one can easily interpret it in a religious context.
Sublime Landscape Paintings
As you can see from my examples, the Sublime works in landscapes by depicting scenes that convey the power and grandeur of nature, such as towering mountains, vast ice sheets, and brilliant sunsets.* Many imply grave danger through violent weather, natural disasters, inhospitable environments, jagged cliffs, and more. If we were actually in these situations, we would fear for our safety, but we can enjoy them at a safe distance through artworks. This is the Sublime in a nutshell – being able to enjoy fictional proxies of terrifying and horrible things because we are removed from them. If you like horror movies or thriller novels, you’ll already be familiar with this concept.
You may be wondering if this means that all paintings of tall mountains are Sublime. Not really, but it’s highly subjective. There are no objective criteria for determining what makes an artwork worthy of Sublime status. Personally, I wouldn’t consider landscapes like Church’s Heart of the Andes or Albert Bierstadt’s Merced River, Yosemite Valley to be Sublime, for example, even though they depict some pretty awe-inspiring nature. The Bierstadt has similar subject matter to Ward’s obviously-Sublime Gordale Scar, but the former feels light and hopeful, while the latter reeks of shadowy danger. I might consider putting Thomas Moran’s Chasm of the Colorado in the Sublime category because of its greater drama, although it’s nowhere near as sinister as the Ward. But others may disagree with me.
Some landscape painters heighten the uneasy feeling through compositional or narrative techniques. In two of the examples shown here, artists throw viewers into the action by bringing swirling vortexes of water and storm all the way to the extreme foreground of their paintings. Unlike in the Dahl painting, Thomas Cole and J. M. W. Turner provide no separation between the viewer and the action – not even a little painted ledge upon which the viewer can imagine standing safely to observe. In order to actually experience the views these artists provide to us, we would have to be in the middle of the danger. (Turner claimed to have done exactly that, lashing himself to a ship’s mast Odysseus-style in order to paint Snow Storm.) Yikes! Frederic Church gives us a little distance from his icebergs. By adding a little broken ship’s mast in the foreground, however, he freaks us out in a different way by signaling that this eerily, desolate, forbidding landscape has already claimed human lives.
Origins of the Sublime
The Sublime is a philosophical idea with origins in the classical antiquity. However, it’s better known through the writings of 18th-century European philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, who developed and popularized it. It became a key component a 19th-century Romanticism, which can be understood as an emotional, even superstitious reaction against both Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism. The paintings in this post are close cousins to literary works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which were products of similar impulses. Those people interested in learning more about the Sublime movement should explore The Art of the Sublime, a 2008 research project by the Tate. All of the associated essays are available to read for free on the Tate’s website.
There has been some discussion in recent years about how the Sublime works in the 20th and 21st centuries. After all, what artwork could truly inspire horror and awe in an era familiar with nuclear warfare and space travel? Perhaps this is why the term has taken on an expanded and diluted meaning in more recent times. It can now refer to almost anything capable of producing a transcendent experience of any kind.
Art critic Robert Rosenblum proposed one possibility in his 1961 article “The Abstract Sublime”, published in ArtNews. He suggested that postwar abstract painters Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Clifford Still should be considered the modern heirs of the Sublime tradition. After all, an artwork doesn’t necessarily have to depict a Sublime phenomenon in order to evoke the associated feelings. Sometimes, the work can do the trick all on its own merits. I must say that I agree. There’s something about looking at Rothko‘s monumental canvases of powerful colors harmonies that I find a little unnerving in a Sublime sort of way.
If you want something more traditional for Halloween, try my Office of the Dead post from several years ago.
P.S. I painted some pumpkins today. Let’s just say there’s a reason I stick to commenting on art rather than making it.