The farthest back I can knowledgeably talk about is the “picturesque” aesthetic that was all the rage in the 18th century. Most famously promoted by William Gilpin in the last quarter, the movement became a major driver in the growing role of visual aesthetics in poetry, literature and every other popular art of the time. Gilpin published handbooks aimed at training the average educated reader in his or her enjoyment of a bucolic landscape. And it was not just a case of enjoying the view. The picturesque way of seeing was an important means to making the walk productive and transformative.
Typical were publications like “Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1776 on Several Parts of Great Britain and Particularly the
Highlands of Scotland.” (1786). Here, Gilpin acknowledges his debt to Dutch landscape and genre painters. The solitary walker needs to consciously adopt a “saccadic” gaze that sweeps across land, air, and sea. Further, the viewer needs to carefully frame the landscape and compositional techniques of the Dutch masters. It’s a practice that requires hard work and talent to do well.
Unexpectedly in this age of the noble savagery, Gilpin consistently maintains that the picturesque way of seeing can only be practiced by a walker who follows a disciplined methodology of seeing. Natural talents and affinities are required, as is the education that enables the viewer to attend the exceptional scenes of nature while referencing artistic history and convention. A less sensitive practitioner miss the crucial visual detail overlooked by the masses. Artificial attempts to please will be ignored because the viewer will naturally fix on “..some accidental, rough, object, which the common eye would pass unnoticed.”
Yet talent is not enough. The method is rigorous, demanding physical strength and moral determination.
1. First, the walker must seek elevated ground to execute a “noble sweep” of a panoramic landscape. From a suitable vantage point the subject will find the harmony, propriety, and distinction necessary to compose the scene. The selection and framing of the landscape is crucial to the success or failure of the experience. The natural landscape gets the same close analysis as painting on a wall.
Gilpin: Under every circumstance, a country retiring into remote distance is among
the most beautiful parts of the landscape, and is a very pleasing study to the
lover of nature…He will discover more and more, her magical secrets in the
illuminations of distant objects. He will see with what vivid touches of light
he often marks each prominent part-nearly as vivid as those upon the
foregrounds-at the same time, the shadows being suppressed, and every little
detail, the object takes its proper place in the distance, notwithstanding its
This distanced appreciation of natural phenomena becomes a more or less formal “study” of the landscape. The “foreground”, ” shadows” and the “placement of illuminations” are all noted to reveal the “mode of creation” born of the imaginative spirit of an active yet impersonal natural force.
2. Once accomplished, the analytical concentration of nature stimulates the imagination of the observer, who is then moved to immortalize the scene. The painting, poem, or musical composition will overcome the limitations of natural, untutored perception. The picturesque enables the spectator to :
The forms of things scarce seen,
turn them to shape, and give to airy
a local habitation.”
Walking, seeing, and selecting a transformative landscape becomes the most effective tool to creating Romantic art. In the later pages of this volume, he places a sketch book in the hands of the walker, and counsels him on the principles of composition and the techniques of drawing the “sketch”. Moreover, according to Gilpin, the written text is an equally feasible product of these moments of experience. In his introduction to this work, he asserts that this method of observation engenders a “novel mode of writing” characterized by luxuriant language and a penchant for “deviation into poetical phrase.”