Monday, November 14, 2005

19th Century Landscape - The Eye in the Landscape


Blake, Newton, 1795. Blake represented Newton in a negative way, someone oblivious of and blind to the beauty of the world and nature.

Wright of Derby, Sir Brooke Boothby, 1781, Tate Britain. Contemplative, holding a book by Rousseau (which he translated).


A landscape represents the relationship between the subject and the natural world.


Alan Ramsey - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Kant and Rousseau introduced the idea that everyone sees the world in a different way although Newton had done experiments involving poking pins in his eye for the same reason - to investigate the visual effects that are based on our mechanism of vision.

The idea developed in the early 19th century that there is an emotional, subjective component to viewing. The idea that observation leads to truthful inferences and an understanding of the natural world and thus knowledge breaks down. Previously seeing was a metaphor for knowledge and the camera obscura a metaphor for knowledge.

Claire-voie or clear view is the derivation of the term "ha-ha" which is a concealed ditch in the ground.

The importance of seeing things developed. Thomas Girtin exhibited Eidometropolis in 1800, a monumental panorama of London that dazzled his contemporaries. Sadly, it did not survive.

Alexander Cozens painted scenes based on blots.

Cozens's famous 'blot' technique was fully evolved by the 1750s. However he did not explain it in detail until the publication of 'A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape'(1786). The idea seems to have originally been developed by him as a teaching aid, to liberate the imagination of the student who, he felt, spent too much time in copying the works of others. He wrote that the blot was a 'production of chance, with a small degree of design'. The true blot was 'an assemblage of accidental shapes', 'forms without lines from which ideas are presented to the mind'. Blotting was done deliberately, the 'rude forms' which result having been made 'at will'.

(Like the Rorschach ink blot test - pronounced ''raw-shock''). His son was Robert Cozens who painted Rocky Bat Scene.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) talked about the idea of vision without sight.


Turner, Sun Rising Through Vapour: Fishermen cleaning and selling Fish 1807


Constable, Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow, 1836. ("Painting is just another word for feeling.")

The Sublime

The emotional content of seeing includes the sublime (see Wikipedia Sublime). It is more powerful than beauty. See Roy Porter's book on Enlightenment that makes the connection with Romanticism.

A related concept is that of the picturesque with its certain raggedness, figures that see into areas we cannot enter, caves, volcanoes and mouldering ruins.

Ward's Gordale Scar, 1811-13 (tate). A perfect image summarising these ideas. Where is the horizon? A Romantic vision - knowledge explored. It breaks every rule in the book. The background punches you, the centre is all blackness. It is closer to the sublime and a long way from the rational.

Emotional content in landscape, the Hay Wain is in some sense Romantic as Constable explores his memories while working in his London studio.


Constable, Hadleigh Castle, 1828. Painted after his wife died, not just according to convention. A romantic approach to the subject matter, a cracked open tower (no comment).

Associationism is the name of the theory of mind in which ideas are built up from associations ultimately derived from sense data. It was also associated in the early nineteenth century with the utopian theories of Robert Owen and others. The ideas of the picturesque involved concepts that were derived from natural phenomena with beautiful and sublime associations.


Turner, Ulysses deriding Polyphemus, Homer's Odyssey, 1829. Low horizon, hierarchy of spaces, a painting about vision, sight and blindness (Homer has just blinded the giant Ployphemus who can be seen above the mountains in the background). We are almost blinded by the sun. He also used the idea in the Garden of Hesperides, and amazingly original idea. A watercolour about colour, light and freedom.


John Sell Cotman, Greta Bridge, 1806-7. In an article by Hemingway he argues that Cotman's Greta drawings (1803-5) were inspired by the new Romantic ideas partly as a result of living with the Cholmeley family who owned the estate. In Cotman's earlier paintings of 1800 he painted in a picturesque style.

The son Francis Cholmeley was "so immersed in associationism" that he was teased by Palmerston (letter 1805). This theory of taste stressed a landscapes appeal depended on associated ideas in the min of the viewer rather than any intrinsic quality in the landscape.

Scott in his novel Rokeby (1812) picked up the same Romantic landscape features not because he had seen the paintings but because both depended on the same selection process derived from the same pre-established and much discussed aesthetics. This differs from Gilpin's eighteenth century formulation that was derived from seventeenth century pictorial prototypes, such as Poussin and Claude. Cotman's colours are too fresh and vivid to be comprehended by Gilpin. Uvedale PRice reconceptualisation of the picturesque in 1794 and 1798 is relevant - it was conceived in relation to the landed estate as were Cotman's intimate pictures within the Cholmeley estate. The category of topographical publications known as the history of rivers demonstrates the same aesthetics.

Cotman's frontal composition of balanced masses is associated with the classical landscape tradition of Poussin and Dughet.


Girtin, The White House, 1800.

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