One of the most persistent traits in mankind is a curious fascination in, and enjoyment of, the horrifying and scary. When most paintings were religious in theme, these were satisfied perhaps by depictions of the glorious torments endured by saints and martyrs, such as the gory disembowelling of Saint Erasmus of Formiae (Saint Elmo), of the punishments suffered by sinners, and of various apocalytic visions.
As landscape started to become established as a genre in its own right, artists who painted landscapes found motifs and subjects which were as awe-inspiring and horrifying as those before. This was expressed in the formal aesthetics expounded by Edmund Burke in 1757, in his concept of the sublime, as opposed to the beautiful. In contrast to beauty’s proportion, fitness and perfection, he proposed that the formal cause of this sublime was fear, particularly of death, thus horror.
Interpretations of the sublime have, I think, become too broad. I therefore distinguish the awe-inspiring and horrifying, which I consider here, from the breath-taking vista, and the more visionary use of mountains and lonely landscapes, which I will deal with in later articles in this series.
As one of the great pioneers of landscape painting, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) started to explore what awe he could portray. Several of his paintings show severe storms, floods, and other horrors of the weather, and I have chosen two to illustrate this.
The first is Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651), in which the ill-fated lovers have arrived at the place of their secret meeting, under a sacred mulberry tree near Ninus’ tomb. Thisbe arrived first, and saw a lioness, her mouth still bloodied from a recent kill. Thisbe panicked and fled, leaving her veil behind. When Pyramus arrived, he found the veil covered with blood, assumed that Thisbe had been killed by the lioness, so he fell on his sword to kill himself. The scene painted by Poussin shows Thisbe discovering the dead body of her lover, before she kills herself with Pyramus’ sword.
Poussin here puts Thisbe in the foreground clad in blue and yellow, discovering the dead body of Pyramus, her veil just behind her. In the middle distance, the lioness is now attacking a pair of horse-riders, whilst sundry other figures drive sheep and head away from the scene. Behind a more pastoral passage, the wind has suddenly got up, and two bolts of lightning are seen descending from the black clouds of a thunderstorm.
The tragic deaths of the lovers, and the savagery of the lioness, is matched by the violence of the approaching thunderstorm, but opposed by the intermediate pastoral landscape.
Although painted at about the same time and similar in featuring a storm, Landscape with a Storm (c 1651) does not appear to have the same narrative content, but shows an ox-cart halted by the tempest beside a rough track. The driver, oxen, and occupants of the cart are attempting to take shelter, as are two other travellers. Sadly this painting has had a hard life, and much of its detail has faded or been lost, but it still retains a strong atmosphere of the horror of a tempest.
The English word bandit came from the Italian term for outlaws during the sixteenth century, but it became popularised by, and almost synonymous with, the paintings of Salvator Rosa (1615-73). Early in his career he started to paint the ‘romantic’ landscapes for which he remains best known, although his later work was in fact much more varied. They feature rugged, often precipitous, rocks and cliffs, populated by brigands and warriors, some of whom attacked travellers and held them hostage.
Rosa played successfully on the popular, and probably justified, contemporary fear of travel in wild regions, particularly mountainous areas. But over the following century, public tastes changed, and the more adventurous saw merit in exploring Burke’s sublime for themselves.
One of the first artists to show mountainous landscapes more faithfully to nature, Richard Wilson (1714-82) still set them apart in the realms of the sublime. This, his most famous mountain painting, has abandoned the wilder fantasies of predecessors such as Salvator Rosa, for a more balanced and realistic combination of rough vegetation and steeper rock. Instead of the viewer being placed low down, to emphasise the height and threat of cliff and peak, Wilson painted this work from a more elevated spot to the east of Cader Idris. He has also kept the whole work much lighter in tone, akin perhaps to a watercolour, and avoided the dramatic chiaroscuro favoured by Rosa and others.
Wilson’s human staffage is not as threatening as Rosa’s bandits and warriors either, but probably represents the early explorers of Europe’s upland regions, in search of their experience of the Burkean sublime. It is still a far cry from lowland pastorals, though, and sufficient to deliver a frisson of excitement, with its dark and limpid lake, and the steep crags facing the viewer.
Postle M and Simon R eds (2014) Richard Wilson and the Transformation of European Landscape Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20385 1.
Others painted carefully selected locations to even greater dramatic effect. Thomas Cole’s (1801-48) depiction of the cliffs and crags of The Fountain of Vaucluse (1841) is unashamedly awesome, from the cloud-capped 240 metre high vertical wall in the distance, through the dizzying towers and walls of the ruined castle of the Bishop of Cavaillon perched above the river, to the river rushing past haggard trees in the foreground. In contrast to Wilson, he follows the pattern of placing the viewer relatively low, so as to heighten the effect of towering relief.
Best-known as the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, and famed for his views of the mountains and waterfalls in the Catskills, Cole completed a Grand Tour of Europe in order to study the Masters and to paint the dramatic scenery. As with many other painters of the nineteenth century, this included depictions of Mediterranean volcanoes; he painted no less than six different views of Mount Etna alone.
JMW Turner (1775-1851) attained commercial success with his extensive topographic views, first of locations around the coast, towns, and more rugged scenery of the British Isles, then of his travels around Europe from 1802 onwards. Many of those views were turned into prints, which were extremely popular and generated substantial returns.
Just as many of his maritime paintings explore the Burkean sublime, so he showed human vulnerability amid the savage grandeur of Alpine passes, including his famous atmospheric historic painting of Hannibal’s attempt to cross the Alps with elephants. This example of his work, showing the access to the (Saint) Gotthard Pass, is more in keeping with nineteenth century topographic style, but uses it to sublime effect.
The Teufelsbrücke remains a dramatic feature in any crossing of the pass, but Turner exercised his imagination to accent the dramatic, whilst making the view still appear real. Vertical scale is exaggerated, and clouds of mist make the chasm appear bottomless, although in fact the river was not far below.
The narrow path clings to the sheer walls, with a couple of strategically-placed packhorses to give scale. Beyond and far above tower icy peaks which are shrouded in cloud. You almost get the same adrenaline rush that a traveller might when negotiating those precipices, only the painting is clear, explicit, and ready to be turned into a blockbuster print to thrill the masses.
Turner was not the only painter making a successful living from bringing the sublime to the safety of gallery and drawing room. Philip de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) and others were busy capturing scenes of even greater destruction and disaster, such as his An Avalanche in the Alps (1803). As that shows an avalanche in progress, it could only have been imagined after the event, perhaps reconstructed from the debris that he had encountered on his travels.
De Loutherbourg’s career had started with maritime paintings, generally showing either naval battles or storms, and he was deeply interested in the occult. He was also involved in the theatre, and invented a mechanical theatre he named the Eidophusikon to create ‘moving picture’ spectacles imitating the more exciting effects of nature.
A huge torrent of ice and rock boulders is still passing diagonally across the painting at the instant shown. This has swept away a wooden bridge, fragments of which are seen engulfed in ice. Three people are seen on the undamaged section of road; each is posed to add to the dramatic effect, one clearly praying to the heavens; animals are also trying to flee to safety.
Fire and brimstone
Fire, almost invariably seen at night for best contrast and effect, has been another repeated theme in these paintings of the sublime and awe-inspiring. An obvious example from the previous century is Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Girandola (1779), which shows a firework display taking place on the same castle later painted so wonderfully by Corot.
Wright excelled in chiaroscuro, which he used on other occasions to heighten the drama originating in fire. He had painted the eruption of Vesuvius in 1776, and other works showed fire in the industrial revolution, such as The Iron Forge (1772).
It was, though, Philip de Loutherbourg who painted the most sublime image of the industrial revolution, in his Coalbrookdale by Night (1801).
Here is the round-the-clock labour of the furnaces sweating out iron for industry and construction. Its clouds are lit by the furnaces, with white-hot spoil and smut rising into the night. A team of horses draws finished castings away from the site, towards the viewer, as boys watch from amid the debris. Here is a new sub-genre, the industrial landscape, and a glimpse into the fires not of some spiritual hell, but the hell of humans, toiling on earth, in a small, previously rural and wooded, valley in Shropshire, England.
The apocalypse itself
One of the most explicitly articulated visions of the apoclypse was that of John Martin (1789-1854), in his vast The Great Day of his Wrath (1851-3), the final canvas of a triptych entitled The Last Judgement.
Its sources remain a matter of dispute, but his son claimed that Martin’s inspiration came from the heavily industrialised area near Birmingham, England, known as the Black Country. This would suggest that scenes such as de Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale were in Martin’s mind. Others have claimed that Martin envisaged the landscape representing the collapse of Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat and Castle Rock, just outside Edinburgh. Some inspiration may have come from the limestone gorge at Gordale Scar, Malham, North Yorkshire, England, which had attracted Turner’s interest in 1808, and had been painted on a vast scale by James Ward in 1812.
If this seems excessively visionary and insufficiently landscape, I finish with one of Albert Bierstadt’s (1830-1902) huge paintings of the apocalyptic on earth, in A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866). Having already established a preference for painting grand views of mountains, he first travelled west towards the Rocky Mountains in 1859. He established a pattern of sketching and photographing spectacular scenery, then returning to his studio in New York and turning that material into a series of paintings of the Burkean sublime.
In this painting, he used his full array of skills and sketches from his second expedition to the West in 1863, to express the sublime, and fill the viewer with awe and trembling. The foreground shows a pastoral valley floor with a native American camp, in mottled light. Some people and their animals are seen making haste to return from the pastures to the shelter of the camp. A small rocky outcrop has trees straggling over it, which are silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight on the lake behind, in the middle distance.
Behind the lake the land rises sharply, with rock crags also bright in the sunshine. In the background the land is blanketed by indigo and black stormclouds. Those clouds are piled high, obscuring much of Mount Rosalie (named by Bierstadt after his wife), but its ice-clad peaks show proud, high up above the storm, with patches of blue sky above and beyond them. A single large bird, an eagle perhaps, is seen in silhouette, high above the lake.
Its meticulously detailed realism make it a definitive statement of the sublime on earth.
From the early years of landscape painting as a genre in its own right, artists have used it to depict the awe-inspiring but fascinating horrors of the sublime. Those landscapes show natural phenomena such as storms, mountainous terrain, and human activities, which were chosen, exaggerated, or imagined to result in the excitement of horror in the viewer. Typically the viewpoint was made low in order to exaggerate the savagery of cliffs and peaks. There was often exaggeration in vertical scale, and clouds and other props were arranged so as to heighten the sense of danger. Staffage, such as people, were often shown in a state of panic, and were used to emphasise the scale of nature, and to diminish the power of man.