The idea behind the philosophical concept of the sublime is that some events are so large, or so fascinating and fear inspiring, that they cause us to feel extreme feelings beyond our normal everyday feelings. It is a greatness that cannot be calculated by our humble little minds or hearts. A vastness we can never conquer. We are awed by what we see and feel insignificant in the face of it.
Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime attracted attention from several notable philosophers including Immanuel Kant. Burke’s version of the sublime seemed to connect it to beauty and pleasure even when there were aspects of fear or pain which works really well for the concept of the sublime in art. Despite what might be pictured we aren’t personally experiencing it.
Many Romantic artists seized upon the concept of the sublime for paintings including Joseph Mallord William Turner (both Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing The Alps and The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons show sublime scenes and as does his painting Fishermen at Sea which heads this blog albeit in an altered form) and Thomas Cole (an English immigrant to the U.S.) who painted majestic mountains and placid lakes such as A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House or The Oxbow which features a meandering river. Other examples include the landscapes of legendary nature photographer Ansel Adams although a little truer to Burke’s concept might be the photographs of the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami where automobiles were tossed around like a child’s Matchbox cars.