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The Sublime in Art

Started: 1800

The Sublime in Art Timeline

"The Sublime is not strictly speaking something which is proven or demonstrated, but a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one, and makes one feel."

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

Summary of The Sublime in Art

Feelings of terror, awe, infinity, and minuteness swirl and course through an experience of the sublime in nature, and for centuries, artists from Donatello to Bill Viola have attempted to recreate that experience in their paintings, sculptures, and video projections. Theorized as early as the 1st century, the sublime has captivated writers, philosophers, and artists alike. Through its various definitions and interpretations, at its base, the sublime is a feeling rooted in humans' relationships to the world, to nature, and what lies beyond that help us to formulate an understanding of ourselves.

Because the experience of the sublime is relational - we feel ourselves in relation to something larger than ourselves - artists interested in the sublime use myriad methods and mediums - from color and perspective to immersive installations and sound - to create an experience that engages the viewer's senses and brings him or her into the work. Artists employ the sublime to comment not only on our relationship with nature, but the fast-changing pace of technology as well as troubling contemporary events of war and violence.

Key Ideas

Modern evocations of the sublime took root in the philosophical writings of the 17th and 18th centuries. In order to understand human feeling and passions, writers attempted to systematically interrogate the sources of said feelings. Most influentially, Emmanuel Kant located the sublime in humans' incapacity to understand terrifying vastness and because of this we recognize our own smallness and limitations.
So often the sublime evokes a sense of what is beyond us that we cannot comprehend, and for this reason it has long been associated with religion, spirituality, and transcendence. Even in secular contexts, the sublime conjures something awe-inspiring and reminds us that humans are not necessarily at the center of the world.
In the 20th century, artists interested in the sublime often turned to machines, technology, and factories to find the extraordinary and overwhelming. Human technology now captures the imagination and controls much of our life, and what began as an enthusiastic embrace of how technology can enrich our world has in many cases turned into a fear of the technological sublime.
The politicization and commodification of sublime spectacle has led recent scholarship to look more closely at the sublime and its relation to capitalism and how experiences of nature and technology are sold to consumers. Whether with eco-tourism or an exhibition spectacle at a museum, people increasingly pay for a sublime experience, and some would argue that the contamination of the experience by capital subverts the original ideas of the sublime.

The Sublime in Art Image

When Théodore Géricault began his preparatory studies for his masterwork The Raft of The Medusa he went to some extreme and shocking lengths. To fully present the horrendous realities of the stricken survivors on his shipwrecked raft, he brought decomposing body parts into his atelier - reportedly storing them under his bed. He visited morgues so he could see up close the effect of death on the human body. This was his version of the sublime; an aesthetic designed to shock, upset and terrify.

The Most Important Art in The Sublime in Art Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important in The Sublime in Art - that both overview the major ideas of The Sublime in Art, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Théodore Géricault: The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19)
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The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19)

Artist: Théodore Géricault

Artwork description & Analysis: Many consider this gory and chilling work to be Géricault's magnum opus, and it changed the direction of modern art. The enormous canvas, almost 23 by 16 feet, depicts the survivors and less fortunate occupants of a life raft that had been cut adrift from a stricken French navy frigate, sunk by an incompetent captain. Dead or dying, the figures cut a horrifying scene as they are thrown about on the turbulent West African sea. When the raft was eventually rescued after 13 days, only fifteen men remained alive. Another five died during the voyage, and the event caused a contemporary scandal surrounding France's colonial aspirations.

As history painters had never before depicted a contemporaneous event, the work shocked the public, and its gruesome rendering further outraged them. Géricault went to great lengths to portray realistically the horror of the event, visiting morgues to study the skin color of the dead, even taking body parts home to work from as models. The pyramidal structure, comprising the raft's corners and the rickety mast, add to the drama of the gruesome scene. He also uses chiaroscuro to add drama to a terrifying sky and to highlight the deathly pallor of the parched bodies. By allowing the edges of the raft to move beyond the bottom of the frame, the artist invites the spectator onto its perilous floor, and by turning the stricken subjects' heads and arms towards the horizon, the viewer is drawn more deeply into the terrible scene as they hopelessly seek rescue.

The notion of horror and death is a key motif in the exploration of the sublime. Edmund Burke wrote, "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say whatever is in any sort terrible...is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling." Géricault's fascination with the macabre can also be seen in Francisco Goya's powerful plates, The Disasters of War produced ten years previously. And artist have sought to replicate a morbid fascination up until today as artists including Joseph Beuys, Anselm Keifer, Doris Salcedo, and Damien Hirst explore the sublime in reaction to traumatic events and death.

Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris

John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831)
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Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831)

Artist: John Constable

Artwork description & Analysis: In Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows the sublime becomes apparent in the work's moody skies and teeming symbolism. An influential figure in the Romantic movement, Constable became known for his unique treatment of light and use of vibrant, naturalistic colors, but this large canvas has a dark and ominous feel and raises questions about the future of the Anglican Church. In the center of the scene, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral pierces the lightening-cleaved clouds, but the contrasting lights in the scene solicit a symbolic reading of the church. Divided diagonally across the center, the left bottom triangle shows in muted browns and oranges a pastoral scene, and a man on horse and cart wade through a stream. A large tree on the left casts a deep shadow over the scene. Despite the presence of a rainbow cutting through the upper triangle of the composition, the sky is dark and brooding. Shafts of light battle with squalls of rain, and the reds of the gray sky are used to threatening effect. Many have also tied the contrasting moods to Constable's own psychological state after the death of his wife.

Art historian Anne Lyles says the work represents the "transcendental sublime," explaining, "When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, the critics acknowledged the extent to which it differed from the artist's previous work, but struggled to define the ways in which this was so. Their descriptions ranged from 'exaggerated,' 'theatrical,' and 'unnatural.'" But Charles Robert Leslie, Constable's biographer, wrote that the artist believed the work conveyed "the full impression of the compass of his art" and that one day it would probably "be considered his greatest" picture.

Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London

J.M.W. Turner: Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)
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Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840)

Artist: J.M.W. Turner

Artwork description & Analysis: J.M.W Turner explored notions of impermanence, death, and violence in his seascapes and nature paintings. In this dynamic and expressive work, Turner uses a palette of fiery reds and yellows to depict a treacherous ocean. The bottom half of the canvas depicts a tumultuous sea, in which animals and slaves are engulfed. Flame-like waves lick at the fiery sky as a spindly, vulnerable ship sails away, abandoning the overthrown. The horizon seems to pivot, emphasizing the fear and chaos experienced by the drowning. Here, a number of sublime concepts are at play: the sun, godlike but uncaring, in the center of the canvas evokes the spiritual, the menace of drowning and death loom, and nature is presented as all-powerful and terrifying.

The work was based on a poem about the true story of slave ship whose captain had thrown sick and dying slaves overboard so he could claim insurance on lives lost at sea. Turner was fascinated by the human and elemental violence, and the sea provided a powerful place for an exploration of the sublime. Writer Alison Smith said, "Turner's works have been seen to both elevate and inspire perception in the beholder." Turner used skilled brushwork and color effect to unsettle the viewer. The critic John Ruskin wrote, "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this."

Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts Boston, USA

More The Sublime in Art Artwork and Analysis:

Thomas Moran: The Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74) Kazimir Malevich: Black Square (1913) Barnett Newman: Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51) Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) Bill Viola: Nantes Triptych (1992) Anish Kapoor: Descension (2014)
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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 28 Jan 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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