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Visual Arts and the Romantics

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now we will move on to the visual arts of the period, the aesthetics of which intersects with that of the poets. This session is devoted to the visual arts and the English Romantics. We have already seen the influence of the visual arts on English Romanticism. We have seen theories via Burke and others, translations of Longinus, theories that discuss the aesthetics of the picturesque, the beautiful and the sublime. Just a quick recap: the picturesque is organised land. It is a landscape that is quiet, systematic, it might include some ruins, some melancholy, some poverty but it is a harmonious variety. The beautiful is quieter and more passive. The sublime, on the other hand, is terror-inducing. It is large, vast and incomprehensible. These aesthetics influenced both poetry and the visual arts. These theories of the aesthetic primarily originated from philosophical texts and influenced image-making, poetry, literary criticism and literary theories, such as they were during the time. Earlier painters and artists such as Claude Lorrain, the French painter (1600 to 1682) and William Blake were also key figures in English Romantic poetry and painting. Claude Lorrain, Seaport at Sunset, 1639 Image source: Wikipedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Sea-Port-at-Sunset-1639-xx-ClaudeLorrain.JPG It could be argued that the most influential genre in paintings was the landscape form. Some of the important painters were John Constable, Richard Wilson, JMW Turner and Thomas Gainsborough. We have already looked at some of their paintings in our previous sessions as supplements to the poetic texts. We will begin here with Claude Lorrain’s Seaport at Sunset, 1639. Please note specifically the use of light and shade in Claude Lorrain’s work. He became a specialist in this kind of depiction. We see here the sun setting into the sea. Note the sun’s distance and the sea’s distance as well as the more or less symmetrical arrangement with the boats and waters in the middle of the frame. Claude Lorrain, Sunrise, 1646-47 Image source: The Met Museum, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435907 Claude Lorrain, Landscape with a Piping Shepherd, 1629-32 Image Source: Norton Simon museum, https://www.nortonsimon.org/art/detail/M.2007.3.P/ The next painting we look at reverses the time of the day: Claude Lorrain’s Sunrise. Notice the clarity of the blue in the sky. Note the quiet landscape and the relaxing people. Next is Claude Lorraine’s famous Landscape with the Piping Shepherd which presents again a quiet, idyllic setting: there is light and the trees frame the human beings in the centre. If you look closely at the three paintings by Claude Lorrain – Seaport at Sunset, Sunrise and Landscape with a Piping Shepherd – you will see that Lorrain’s use of light in painting the landscape is particularly significant. Lorrain’s work contributed immensely to the theory of the picturesque. William Gilpin calls Lorrain ‘The Master’ in one of his texts. If you pay attention to the use of light, you will notice that it is luminous but it is also backlit. Somewhat like our electronic gadgets, the light is in the background. If you look at the three paintings here, all three, Sunset, Sunrise and Piping Shepherd have darker foregrounds and the brightness is in the back of the paintings. Luminous, backlit, shaded landscapes are characteristic of Claude Lorrain’s style. His paintings highlighted mostly quiet rural lands. They were poetic compositions for many Romantics who were very influenced by Lorrain. We must note that Lorrain’s painting inspired not just painting and poetry but also landscape design, mostly gardens. The other important painter is John Constable, 1776 to 1837. He was very influential because of the theories of painting that he articulated. Much of what John Constable said about paintings circulated among other artists and poets and caused much debate and discussion. There was also the constant debate between Constable and others as to whether we should focus on the details of a work or whether we should have a focus which is much larger. Constable, like Lorrain, focussed on light and atmospheric effects in his paintings. His work focussed on rural England. Within his frames, we often see clouds, sunlight, shadows, trees and also, the poor. He painted mills, rural labour, markets and roads as well. John Constable, Dedham Vale, 1828 Image Source: Wikipedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dedham_Vale#/media/File:John_Constable_012.jpg We will look at a couple of images from John Constable, beginning with one of his famous ones: Dedham Vale, dated 1828. The landscape in the painting is clearly rural. There is a little bit of uncultivated land here and what we would think of unruly landscape. Mostly Constable paints landscapes of amenity, traditionally called the locus amoenus, amoenus being the root of the word amenity. Locus amoenus is a landscape which provides basic requirements for human sustenance. They are serene landscapes. They suggest contemplative states of mind. You may recall what we said about Mont Blanc: the mind looking at the vast mountains is inspired because the mind is also taking on the characteristics of the sublime. In Constable, a similar effect is engendered by the serene landscape. A reflective or the contemplative state of mind is engendered. The next two paintings we will look at are two of Constable’s most famous. John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, 1816 Image source: Wikipedia commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/John_Constable_- _Wivenhoe_Park%2C_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg The first is Wivenhoe Park. Here we can very clearly see a picturesque. There is water, land and some cattle. In the distance, there is a horizon with some trees and a fence. What do you notice when you look at Wivenhoe Park? You will notice that it is a serene landscape. There is a reflection in the water. It is not a symmetrically organised painting. It is uneven. What we have is harmony across various elements. This is a landscape that brings various elements together and that harmony of the variety is central to how we imagine a landscape, so here Constable is emphasizing a landscape which reflects the human mind. What should the human mind do? It should harmonise variety. John Constable’s The Cornfield, 1826 Image source: The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johnconstable-the-cornfield John Constable’s The Hay Wain Image source: The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johnconstable-the-hay-wain In John Constable’s The Cornfield we have, yet again, animals, fields, skies. Also, note the distribution of light. Critics have argued that Constable symbolises time via landscape in The Cornfield. For example, commentators note that the reaper looking backward at the boy drinking from the stream is in fact looking at a former stage in his own life. Gillian D’Arcy Wood who has made this argument calls it a Wordsworthian moment. The man is looking backward is not really looking at the boy, but at how he was as a boy. Thus, it is actually the man turning to look at his childhood. The boy represents his earlier stage. Perhaps John Constable’s most visible, most anthologised, most exhibited painting is The Hay Wain. It represents rural England. We see a cart in a quiet landscape. Note again the colour of the sky and the clouds. Clearly Constable’s landscapes are instances of the picturesque. JMW Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, 1844 Image Source: The National Gallery, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/96/Turner_- _Rain%2C_Steam_and_Speed_-_National_Gallery_file.jpg I now move onto John Mallord William Turner popularly known as JMW Turner (1775 to 1851). Turner painted watercolours as well as oil paintings. Some of his most famous works which are now legendary are Snow Storm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. We will first look at Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway. Notice here the background out of which the train seems to be coming towards us. If you look carefully at it, you do not see the remaining section of the train. The portion of the canvas that should hold the rest of the train is smudged and blurred, and the train seems to burst out of it. We can see a little bridge on the left and a hound but what is important here is the suddenness with which the train bursts out of the canvas. It has its own illumination and it seems to sit oddly with the setting. The engine and the train are the only identifiable element in the composition. Everything else is blurred. We see a hare in the picture as well so nature and culture are in the same frame. The point I am making here is Turner seems to merge bits of the picturesque and bits of the sublime here. The turbulence of the engine bursting forth as well as the bridge represents industrialisation, modernity and basically, human culture. And then there is the hare. So we have the hare, the bridge and technology all on the same plane, roughly speaking. It is the suddenness of it that should allow us to see the merger of the picturesque and the sublime. JMW Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps, 1812 Image source: The Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-hannibaland-his-army-crossing-the-alps-n00490 Turner’s Snow Storm: Hannibal Crossing the Alps is a classic sublime painting. You can see the legendary story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with his animals and his troops. How they actually cross over from the top of the mountain down to invade the countries below is a source of considerable historical interest and curiosity but what Turner is showing us here is that while humanity is tiny, nature is huge. Nature is simply overwhelming here but the fact that Hannibal moved through the Alps is crucial. If you know the history of Hannibal, then we can see that the painting is doing something else. Nature is indeed overwhelming and sublime but man triumphs over it. You will recall what we said early in another session that the sublime is a primarily masculine aesthetics. It is a patriarchal, gender-driven aesthetic because it is meant to show the heroic nature of man, not a generic human being, but one gendered male. The sublime nature is conquered. And conquest is a masculine ethos. JMW Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842 Image source: The Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-steam-boatoff-a-harbours-mouth-n00530 Now we look at Turner’s Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842. The image here is of something being tossed and turned over. Human culture embodied in the ship is tossed this way and that in the ocean and nature’s sublimity overwhelms everything else. Turner’s images of the storm at sea, the parliament buildings on fire and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps are examples of the Romantic sublime: the sense of nature as vast and incomprehensible. Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and the Chancel, Looking towards the East Window, 1794 Image source: The Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/D/D00/D00374_10.jpg I want to take a look now at one picturesque instance from Turner’s work. This is Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and the Chancel, Looking towards the East Window dated 1794. We might find it beneficial and profitable not to say interesting to situate Wordsworth’s writing on Tintern Abbey alongside Turner’s depiction of it. As you can see, the Abbey is more or less in ruins. And as we have discussed, we know that the picturesque did ask for some ruins to be installed to complete the landscape. We have also discussed how these paintings invariably capture poverty, ruins, hovels and cottages. Here, we can see the visitors passing through Tintern Abbey. It is ivy-covered. It is effectively a ruin but it is quiet and serene. There is nothing disturbing about it except the melancholy around the ruin. Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781 Image source: The Detroit Institute of Art, https://www.dia.org/sites/default/files/tmscollections-objects/55.5.A-d1-2019-04-15_o2.jpg I want to conclude with a specific image: Henri Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781). There is a gargoyle-like figure sitting on top of a woman who is asleep or drunk or stoned – we cannot be sure – and there is a hideous horse head in a corner. There is a table with some things on it… perhaps, substances she took. Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, not strictly speaking within the ambit of what we have been discussing so far by way of aesthetics, is the source of much Gothic traditions. The Nightmare represents the other side of Romanticis. The painting captures not simply the darkness and the anxiety underlying Romanticism but also symbolises the nightmares people have. So, the gargoyle is not sitting out there. The horse is not out there. The gargoyle sitting on top of the women’s stomach might actually be something she is imagining in her nightmare. The Gothic as we know explored the darker side of the human mind. Thomas De Quincey’s The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater with its nightmare sequences as well as several of the Gothic novels, The Castle of Otranto, the writings of Clara Reeve, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis’s The Monk – these are all texts that spoke about nightmares, disease, decay, madness. So Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare and several other paintings of his some of which I have included here show us the contrast between the sublime of nature, the picturesque in cultivated landscapes and the Gothic. The Gothic is the counterpart to the aesthetics of beauty. It is the counterpart to the picturesque.