Gilpin, Constable, and the Picturesque

The Romantic painters and artists of the 18th and 19th centuries explored the appearances and effects of beauty through their work. The great poets—Shelley, Byron, Keats and others—relinquished mundane reality in order to give themselves up to poetic madness in their search for what they called the Sublime. Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop’s Grounds, the 1826 painting by John Constable, is not Sublime—it is not violent, not great or imposing or emotional. However, it is a shining example of a different kind of Romantic experience. It is a painting of the Picturesque, as it is explained by William Gilpin in his 1794 essay “On Picturesque Travel.”

According the Romantic school of thought, we can divide experiences three ways: into the Beautiful, the Picturesque, and the Sublime. The most simple of the three is the beautiful. Something is Beautiful in a Romantic sense when it is an example of natural perfection, a thing or scene that reaches its full potential. The Sublime can be thought of as a dangerous, uncontrollable thing, a mad, creative force, or an emotion that affects one so greatly that the power of it tears them apart from inside. The Sublime is never completely definable. It is William Blake’s elusive “poetic Genius” and it is Frank Kermode’s “Image.” In art, particularly the paintings of Turner and Friedrich, it is the violent, terrible churning of the sea, and the vastness of the endless horizon, both of which reduce us to insignificance and open us to all that can be felt in life, when we but look on them. Finally, the Sublime is about always reaching, stretching toward an understanding greater than our individual beings. It is about reaching, and trying to control, but never possessing, never controlling.

The Picturesque is the gentler sister of the Sublime, the middle ground between the composed Beautiful and the furious Sublime. In his essay “On Picturesque Travel,” William Gilpin speaks of it as something that can be pursued and obtained by examining nature. Gilpin’s essay is a sort of a generic travel guide. With his collection of essays on Picturesque beauty, he seems to be providing a map to the modern European in search of a significant experience with nature and through nature, one’s inner self—a how-to for the soul.

In his essay, Gilpin asks the reader to consider the object and the effects of traveling for the purpose of experiencing the Picturesque. He begins by introducing various things which fall under the heading of “Picturesque,” including “all the ingredients of landscape—trees—rocks….woods—rivers—lakes…--and distances.” Initially, and at other points in the essay, Gilpin sounds slightly more clinical than spiritual in his search for beauty, inquiring as he does after “beautiful parts” or “the exhibition of a whole.” This somewhat detached gaze seems to be what differentiates the Picturesque traveler from the seeker of the Sublime; Gilpin addresses here not the rogue wanderer in search of enlightenment or understanding through torment, but the instead the fashionable Englishman on the Grand Tour.

John Constable’s Picturesque Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop’s Grounds is located in the European paintings wing of the New York Metropolitan Museum, displayed near the work of another Romantic painter, The Grand Canal, Venice by Joseph Turner. The information provided by the museum notifies us that the artist’s “normal practice was to make full-scale oil sketches for his finished paintings. The present picture was done as a study for the painting of 1826 in the Frick Collection, New York. The figures on the left are the bishop of Salisbury and his wife, Mrs. Fisher.” The “sketch” is the same size as the finished piece, and it holds its own as a work of art. Still, the version housed at the Frick does have more of a finished, precise look, with a bit more detail and brightness of color. The cathedral looks more solid, and the clouds more airy.

The painting is colored in naturalistic tones of brown and green. A wide meadow and a pond are depicted, and the scene is dominated by two large trees. The trees curve in and upward, framing a view of the cathedral in the distance. It rises from the background, pale pinks, tans and whites, like a candy sculpture or a mist palace, its tower jutting like a needle, heavenward. The cathedral is impressive in its whiteness, its aura of perfect detail and lace-like grace. As in many European Romantic paintings, there is a sense of mist and distance in the sky above, where rounded clouds form and hover. Animals drink at the pond and graze over the grass, indistinctly delineated by loose shapes in paint. The scene is bathed with sunlight and the trees cast shadows. There is a sparkling quality to the foliage, achieved through Constable’s characteristic small dabs of white, indicating dappled sunlight. There is a path on the left that winds around a tree and toward the cathedral, leading the eye into the painting.

On the lower left corner there is a fashionably-dressed couple, who we take to be the bishop of Salisbury and his wife. They have paused in their walk along the path to admire the vista. The bishop points upward with his walking stick and Mrs. Fisher follows it with her gaze. They stand erect and composed, engaged in an unemotional observation and enjoyment of their surroundings. These are William Gilpin’s Picturesque travelers.

After identifying the object of travel—being the attainment of the Picturesque—Gilpin identifies the sources of travel’s amusement. These he breaks into the pursuit, attainment, and then the recreation of the object or experience, through art and in the mind. The joy that the Picturesque brings the traveler, he says, comes first from the pursuit of his object; that is, “the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view. We suppose the country to have been unexplored.” Constable’s painting gives us by its composition this feeling of discovery, yet never compromises our sense of security. The trees, their limbs reaching up in echoes of the cathedral spires, frame the scene as though the land were opening up and presenting it to us. The foliage forms a window, through which we may look. The cathedral is a medieval relic, and though its very presence indicates previous human discovery and interaction with this particular place, it is made all the more Picturesque by virtue of its age. The Romantics were great lovers of castles, temples, ruins, and all things medieval, and Gilpin explains it thus: “the elegant relics of ancient architecture…{are} the richest legacies of art. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself.”

The pleasure of the attainment of the object of the Picturesque comes from simply studying it, examining the whole and then the parts, just as we may assume the bishop and his wife are doing in Constable’s painting. At this point in the journey, Gilpin suggests that his travelers examine the beauty around them, paying careful attention to the “parts of scenes” as well as the “comprehensive view,” and think about how those parts might be amended to produce a more beautiful whole. Here, however, Gilpin protests against the dispassionate tone of his own essay, insisting the “it is not from this scientifical employment, that we derive out chief pleasure. …The general idea of the scene makes an impression, before any appeal is made to the judgment. We rather feel, than survey it.”

In this location, might there have been less sparkle to the foliage, less perfection in the spatial arrangement of the grazing animals at the pond? Constable has taken the third step in Gilpin’s prescribed sequence—that of re-creation. Upon viewing a display of the Picturesque, one must first ruminate, then translate those ruminations into an expression of the Picturesque, and expression of beauty, through the use of the imagination. In so doing, we ought to end up with a painting that is like a breath of fresh air. In the case of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral, we do.

Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop’s Grounds is a wholly Picturesque painting. It is the sum of its disparate elements: trees, clouds, rocks, a meadow, a cathedral. These elements have been arranged for us by nature, by God, by John Constable, to form an aesthetically pleasing scene. The vista waits, the path beckons visitors, and the aura is one of welcoming peace and reflection. It is a safe place; unlike the ocean or a crushing waterfall, this cathedral and these trees are easily enjoyable and comprehensible. The scene is impressive, yet it is tame, and allows us to understand and possess it with our scrutiny.



all quotes taken from Gilpin's essay "On Picturesque Travel," part two of "Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty," 2nd ed.

no. it isn't a cut and paste writeup. i wrote it. myself. thank you.

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