In this lesson, you will explore the development of the sublime in art and discover how painters used this to evoke a wide range of human emotions. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Sublime

‘Sublime, darling, sublime.’

In the 19th century, this is apparently how people talked all the time. Everything was simply ‘sublime’. Or, maybe that’s just how people talked in old Hollywood movies.

In reality, the sublime is ‘an aesthetic of greatness beyond measurement’ that appears throughout art. When something is sublime, it is undeniably awesome, and not just in that it’s cool, but in a way that is tremendously powerful or important. For the artists of the late 18th-century movement known as Romanticism, the sublime captured both the inspiration and terror of true power. Romantic artists were all about exploring the idea of the imagination, and the same imagination that produces dreams of flying over clouds can also produce nightmares.

The Sublime Imagination

The 18th-century British philosopher Edmund Burke described the sublime as ‘feelings of awe mixed with terror’. Burke observed that pain and fear, while intense, could also be thrilling. Romantic artists quickly latched onto that idea: artists like Henry Fuseli.

Sublime art explored the strange
Painting: The Nightmare

In 1781, Fuseli painted The Nightmare, which launched an entire generation of artists who explored the dark side of imagination. Just look at this. A sleeping woman is being used as a perch by a demon, while a wild-eyed horse pops his head in from behind the curtain. Beyond just an exploration of the strange, this is also a pun. The word ‘nightmare’ originally comes from the Mara, a spirit in medieval European superstition that haunted people while they slept. So between the spirit and the horse, we have the night-mara and the night-mare. Oh, Fuseli, you’re so clever!

But this actually reveals a lot about this painting. Romantic artists rejected the logic and reason of other styles and embraced images of odd, sometimes bizarre things. This all contributes to this idea of the sublime. This painting is simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. I mean, there’s a demon sitting on a sleeping woman! The combination of dark shadows and dramatic lighting emphasize the power of the subconscious. It is inspiring and yet terrifying. It is ‘sublime.’

Here are a few other images of the sublime in Romantic art. Pay attention to the dark colors, the unsettling themes, and their ability to create something that, while disturbing, is deeply exciting.

Painting from sublime movement
Painting from sublime movement
Painting from sublime movement

The Sublime Landscape

In their constant search for new sublime subjects, English, German, and American Romantic painters in the early 19th century found themselves looking not into the subconscious, but out into the world. Landscape painting became a major focus of the Romantic painters and actually, they were the first artists to really appreciate a landscape as a subject by itself and not just a background.

One of those artists was Caspar David Friedrich, a German Romantic painter. Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog perfectly captures the sublime in landscape art. In this image, a man stands on a cliff, looking out over a landscape of fog. Although he is in the center of the painting, he hardly feels like the subject. He has not dominated the landscape, he does not control it, he is simply observing this beautiful, but slightly ominous scene. Again, the shadows add a sense of drama, and the fog blurs the lines in the horizon, giving the impression that the landscape simply continues forever. So, who has the power here? The man? Absolutely not – it’s the landscape. Nature is inspiring, but unforgiving: exciting but dangerous.

Wanderr Above the Sea of Fog paiting

American painters, particularly those of the Hudson Valley School, embraced the sublime landscape in a different way. European artists tended to show the sublime by including solitary figures that stood in awe of the power and beauty of nature. Americans usually cut out those solitary wanderers and just focused on the landscape.

And this was the result. Whoa. I’ll give you a second just to take that in. This is Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, painted in 1868 by American Albert Bierstadt. Talk about inspiring but, at the same time, foreboding. The high, sharp peaks, the dark shadows, the clouds all work together to create a sense of excitement, awe, and just a hint of danger.

Painting: Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

Lesson Summary

In the late 18th and early 19th century, an artist movement called Romanticism became obsessed with the imagination and inspiration. But, above all, the sublime.

In art, sublime refers to ‘the aesthetic of immeasurable greatness.’ The sublime is awe-inspiring and beautiful, but also terrifying in its power or potential darkness. Romantic artists explored the sublime through paintings of the imagination, which could often turn into nightmares, and natural landscapes, which were mighty and beautiful but always dangerous. The sublime appeared in art through subjects that ranged from illogical to immense, as well as strong contrasts between light and shadow that created a sense of drama and excitement.

Romantic art was creative and inventive, inspirational and unsettling. But above all, it was sublime. Simply, sublime.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • List some of the characteristics of the sublime in Romantic art
  • Recall how artists attempted to portray the sublime in their art