sublime

Category: Arts | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Chapter 2

A quasi-technical term that belongs with "beautiful" and "picturesque" (Search) to form a triptych at the heart of 18th- and 19th-century aesthetic theory. Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, and a great many other distinguished theorists wrote on the subject of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 

The sublime in nature engenders awe and possibly terror in the spectator owing to the disparity between the power he or she beholds in a land- or seascape, in a volcano, a storm, etc. and the spectator's comparative insignificance and frailty. Mary Shelley sets a major portion of the novel in the Alps, the very seat of sublimity to an Englishman.

The beautiful by contrast induces calm, sometimes to the point of a beckoning mystery. An example is Thomas Girtin's magnificent watercolor The White House at Chelsea (1800). These and similar landscapes evidence the picturesque, which is a scene whose harmonies of shape and color derives from the manner a skilled painter would so rearrange them to give them the ideal forms and balances required in a painting. 

Turner's Snow Storm: Hannibal's Army Crossing the Alps (1812; see below) is an instance of the double sublime. There are the Alps and the tempestuous sky, the stupendous feat of Hannibal's Carthaginian army, with its elephants, on its way to attack Rome. But the army is barely visible despite its being in the foreground. The Alps dwarf the visible portion of the army, and the tempestuous atmosphere engulfs everything human. Another example of the natural sublime is John Martin's 1834 depiction of a scene from Byron's verse drama Manfred (below).

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