The Bengal Annual: A Digital Exploration of Non-Canonical British Romantic Literature


“Disputes about beauty might perhaps be involved in less confusion, if a distinction were established, which certainly exists, between such objects as are beautiful, and such as are picturesque—between those, which please the eye in their natural state; and those, which please from some quality, capable of being illustrated by painting.”

—William Gilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 1794

Joseph Mallord William Turner's Tintern Abbey. Ruin Lust. Tate Along with Beauty and Sublime, the Picturesque is an aesthetic notion at the forefront of the creativity and philosophy of Romanticism. The Picturesque creates an profoundly powerful experience where natural beauty is not touched by human taste. The pleasure from this scene comes from the absence of human intervention where only nature exists. In Gilpin's essay, he articulates the Picturesque as pleasing the eye with the charm of discovering the landscape in its natural state. This Romantic mindset stems from the appreciation or awe of nature, not being a form of inspiration but an object of aspiration.

The term originally meant to indicate a landscape scene that looked as if it came out of a painting. The Picturesque was conceptualized as an aesthetic category for landscape painting and garden design, but later would be associated as an aesthetic quality that situated between the serene of Beauty and the awe of Sublime in an image.

The picturesque needs to be understood in relation to the other aesthetics of Beauty and Sublime for as it serves as a mediator between these two states of aesthetic experience that oppose each other. Appeal from the beauty and the sublime both come from irrational states of the mind with beauty appealing to sexual desires of what we conceive as beautiful while the sublime comes from our instinctual fears and desire for self-preservation. The Picturesque captures these two experiences inside a scene where these aesthetics clash together to create the experience that is considered as Romantic. Besides capturing both Beauty and Sublime in the image of a picture, the Picturesque captures a variety of elements and details allowing room for vagueness while not being indefinite in eliciting an specific aesthetic response from its audience. Where we try to find where Beauty and Sublime exist in a scene, the Picturesque is what fills the rest of the space.

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