Origins of the Picturesque and aesthetic consumerism

In the second half of the eighteenth century, definitions of types of landscape or view, seen from an aesthetic or artistic point of view distinguished between:

  • the sublime (awesome sights such as great mountains)
  • the beautiful, the most peaceful, even pretty sights.

See discussion in Part 1 Beauty and the Sublime

In between came the picturesque, views seen as being artistic but containing ‘pleasing’ elements of wildness or irregularity. Together with Gothic and Celticism it became part of the romantic aesthetic of the growing numbers of leisured middle classes.  Improved road communications and travel restrictions on continental Europe saw an explosion of British domestic tourism in the 1780s and 1790s. Many of these picturesque tourists who flooded areas like the Lake District sketched or painted using Claude Glasses  or used the camera lucida.

The word picturesque, meaning literally “in the manner of a picture; fit to be made into a picture”, was a word used as early as 1703 (Oxford English Dictionary), and derived from an Italian term pittoresco, “in the manner of a painter”. Prime examples are French landscape painters like Claude Lorrain. Gilpin’s Essay on Prints (1768) defined picturesque as “a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture” (p. xii) and proposed a number of “principles of picturesque beauty”. Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price (1794  An Essay on the Picturesque as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful) and Thomas Johnes, developed Gilpin’s ideas into more comprehensive theories of the picturesque and apply these more generally to landscape design and architecture advocating more organic shapes to views and structures such as follies and grottos.

After 1815 when Europeans were able to travel again after the wars, Italy became a favourite destination for picturesque-hunters and artists. This reinforced ideas of the ‘picturesque’ in the sense of a view that has been ‘perfectly’ composed according to compositional and perspective theories (eg leading lines, golden mean) that were key developments in art in Renaissance Italy). Grand theories of wild natural beauty gave way to the tamer and more commercialised picturesque of the mid 19th century using these broad principles. These ideas also underlie standard compositional prescriptions in many books and magazine articles on techniques of landscape photography today.

See Posts:

Gilpin’s theory of the picturesque

Francis Frith’s poscards.

and weblinks:

Susan Sontag describes this commercialisation of the picturesque as ‘aesthetic consumerism’ (Sontag, 1977, p.24). As Malcolm Andrews (1999) remarks, there is “something of the big-game hunter in these tourists, boasting of their encounters with savage landscapes, ‘capturing’ wild scenes, and ‘fixing’ them as pictorial trophies in order to sell them or hang them up in frames on their drawing room walls”. They ignore the complex social, political and economic interests and conflicts between classes, conservation and industrialisation, commercial interests and local people, those living and working in the countryside and those who simply enjoy it for leisure or regard it as part of their heritage.

Fay Godwin suggests that ignoring the different interests and conflicts exacerbates polarisation of interests between users of the countryside: “I am wary of picturesque pictures. I get satiated with looking at postcards in local newsagents and at the picture books that are on sale, many of which don’t bear any relation to my own experience of the place… The problem for me about these picturesque pictures, which proliferate all over the place, is that they are a very soft warm blanket of sentiment, which covers everybody’s idea about the countryside… It idealises the country in a very unreal way.”
(Fay Godwin 1986 South Bank Show Produced and directed by Hilary Chadwick, London Weekend Television quoted Alexander 2013 p84.)

 3.1: Reflecting on the picturesque

Going beyond the picturesque requires thinking very carefully about what one is trying to say about ‘landscape’ and why. It also raises aesthetic challenges about how to communicate this in terms of following or subverting conventional theories of composition and the likely interpretation by different viewers.