The Historical Sublime

The Great Day of his Wrath - John Martin 1851 -3

The Great Day of his Wrath – John Martin 1851 -3

Philip Shaw, who has written extensively on the subject of the Sublime, describes it as “a term that has been debated for centuries amongst writers, artists, philosophers and theorists” but is still often labelled “indescribable” (1) ; a less than encouraging start to an investigation into the concept.


The word “sublime”, which is used as a noun, verb and adjective, has been part of the English language since late medieval times and the OED assigns the adjective no less than ten meanings and the noun four that collectively varying in their first known usage from 1460 until 1800 (4: p.2169 /7 ). By the seventeenth century it was in use as both an adjective and a noun and generally associated with the idea of an elevated status, whether to vaporise a substance or, more philosophically, to raise something to that state.  Today, it has settled down to having two primary usages: one vernacular as a description of an experience or an object “a sublime sauce” or “sublime poetry” for example;  and the other as a noun used in aesthetic discourse – “the Sublime”.


My brief and incomplete history of the Sublime begins in the first century in an essay entitled Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime); although Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn cast some doubt on its authorship (2) it is usually credited to, Longinius, a Greek rhetorician.  This essay, which quite remarkably references not only pagan Greek literature but the Jewish Old Testament, is a treatise on oratory that coaches its readers to rise above merely persuading their audience of the value of their ideas and to take them “out of themselves” (3), to be amazed. He calls for the orator to unleash a “maverick and unruly force” (3) as ” amazement is the result of an irresistible force beyond the control of any audience”. Longinius’ impact on art from the seventeenth century onwards was initially due to a Neoclassical critic and poet, Nicolas Boileau-Desoréaux, who translated the essay into French in 1674.

Adam Philips explains that by the early eighteenth century the Sublime was a fashionable subject for intellectuals to explore and that Longinius’ essay had achieved “cult status among the literary” (5: p.ix) and as a result the Sublime had been the subject of a number of published articles. Its first recorded use as a “quality in nature or art which inspires awe, reverence or other high emotion” (7) is in Alexander Pope’s 1727 essay (ii) The Art of Sinking where he uses the phrase “The Sublime of nature is the Sky, the Sun, Moon, Stars” (7), in this same essay Pope introduces the term “bathos” to mean a failed attempt at sublimity in literature.

In 1757  a young Dubliner, keen to make his mark on London society announced himself with a book that was to influence artists of different disciplines for the next three hundred years. Edmund Burke, at the age of just twenty three, drafted  A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful; in essense Burke  believed that “our aesthetic responses are experienced as pure emotional arousal, unencumbered by intellectual considerations” (6) The Enquiry is a broad investigation into taste, aesthetics and how we respond to beauty and the Sublime; it is a too lengthy and complex a work to successfully analyse here and in many ways is best understood in summary. Burke argues that the “passion” evoked, or our emotional response to the Sublime in nature is “astonishment” which he says has the subsidiary effects of “admiration, reverence and respect ” (6: p.47).

Burke breaks down the Sublime into ten main states (I’m struggling for a better collective term given the different aspects of the seven concepts he describes) which are:

Horse Devoured by a Lion - George Stubbs exhibited 1763

Horse Devoured by a Lion – George Stubbs exhibited 1763

Terror: which he argues is the “ruling principle of the Sublime” (6: p.48) and encompasses our reaction to anything from dangerous animals to the scale of the ocean.

Rain, Steam and Speed - J.M.W.Turner 1844

Rain, Steam and Speed – J.M.W.Turner 1844

Obscurity: which he believes is a necessary source of terror. He argues that when we know the full extent of a danger we can begin to deal with it in a rational way; it is the unknown that unnerves us.

Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton's 'Paradise Lost') - William Hogarth 1735 - 40

Satan, Sin and Death (A Scene from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’) – William Hogarth 1735 – 40

Power: which he describes in the context of our fear of pain and ultimately death; something is Sublime when we believe it has the power to inflict pain or death.

The Deluge - Jacob More 1787

The Deluge – Jacob More 1787

Privation: which encompasses darkness, vacuity (i), solitude and silence and which he relates very directly to Virgil’s description of the entrance to the limitless expanse of the afterworld (6: p.58) where we will be deprived of light, social interaction, sound and thoughtfulness.

Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris - Richard Wilson exhibited 1774

Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris – Richard Wilson exhibited 1774

Vastness: or what he calls a “greatness of dimension” is used to describe both linear and spacial measurement, so height and depth are discussed along with horizontal space. Vastness needs to considered as Sublime in the context of comparative scale, a towering mountain is Sublime because we, in comparison are so small.


Infinity: the ultimate vastness is a category in its own right and closely linked to obscurity; he acknowledges that few objects are infinite but that we fear things that are larger than we can immediately understand just as if they are infinite.

Cenotaph to Isaac Newton - Bouilée ca. 1785

Cenotaph to Isaac Newton – Bouilée ca. 1785

Succession and Uniformity: begin to move us into more philosophical territory, Burke believes that that something that continues in what seems an endless manner, succession, or something that keeps repeating itself, uniformity, is a kind of artificial infinity. His example is a rotund, which in this context is a building shaped like a caldron or a round perimeter (as opposed to being chubby). The alchemists had a concept of a snake that perpetually eats itself, the ouroboros, which they saw as a symbol of infinity.

An Avalanche in the Alps - Philip James De Loutherbourg 1803

An Avalanche in the Alps – Philip James De Loutherbourg 1803

Magnificence: an important category in the context of art as it encompasses all those things of which we are in awe such as “the starry Heaven ” ((6: p.63), the power of nature or, of course, a deity.

Loudness and Suddenness: which is potentially important in that it is the first aspect that is sensed by an organ other than our eyes. He believes that the sudden commencement of sound, the volume of sound and the sudden cessation of sound are all capable of creating an emotional response of fear.

The key point that is at the heart of Burke’s treatise is that, as pain is ultimately more powerful than pleasure, we want to experience the fear of the Sublime from a safe distance. It is therefore paradoxically the opposite of pleasure and potentially pleasurable. To watch a storm at sea from dry land or a furious gale from inside a strongly built house are strangely satisfying experiences and Burke argues if art harnesses the Sublime it has the same effect.

Burke’s Enquiry discusses the Sublime in the context of  poetry and rhetoric more than painting and when talking of the passions roused by a “fanatic preacher” he comments  “I do no know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect” (5: p.56) arguing that poetry holds “more powerful dominion over the passions than the other art.” (5: p.56), his inference is that poetry can convey an obscure idea whereas painting makes it too clear, a thought that plays to his concept that obscurity is a cause of the Sublime.

Immanuel Kant progressed Burke’s ideas in his 1763 Critique of Judgement establishing a notion that was later to be called aesthetic magnitude saying that “all sublimity involves vast magnitude; and nature ….. the most sublime in its chaos, in its wildest and most ruleless disarray and devastation” (8), like Burke he sees the Sublime as a feeling of pleasure and as an aesthetic judgement.

Eighteen century painters saw Burke’s ideas as a challenge and began to explore ways of representing the Sublime, to “paint the unpaintable” (2) however it should not be seen as an isolated aesthetic but rather as one element of a triad comprised of the Sublime, the Beautiful and the Picturesque; the third concept having been introduced by William Gilpin in his Essay on Prints in 1768. By the end of the eighteen century and in the context of landscape painting this triad of aesthetics had quite established definitions:

Beautiful: Serene, calm landscapes with formally composed and idealised natural forms.

Picturesque: Literally like a picture with “rough, craggy trees and foliage, sharp contrasts of light and shadow and rustic anecdotes” (2)

Sublime: Astonishment and awe created as a aesthetic response to the power of untamed nature. “Tremendous mountains, deep valleys and cataclysmic storms.” (2)

As previously discussed (here and here) the pursuit of these aesthetic styles stimulated British landscape painting which in turn fuelled a domestic tourist industry as people sought out picturesque views and most importantly fed the creation of the English landscape garden which Nikolaus Pevsner (iii) referred to as “Britain’s greatest contribution to the visual arts” (9); Tim Richardson bases his history of this art form, The Arcadian Friends, firmly on this idea:

“The basic and aesthetic premiss of this book is that the English Landscape is the greatest artform ever to have been devised in the British Isles. What is more, it is an artform that has gone on to influence the rest of the world like no other in our history.” (9: loc. 254)

In this sense Burke opened a discourse on aesthetics that spawned British landscape painting, a genre that Michael Prodger calls “distinctively British” (10) giving us Constable and Turner and led to the creation of the English country house landscape.

Notes on Text

(i) Vacuity is empty headedness or a lack of thought and intelligence which in this context appears to suggest the void or nothingness of hell.

(ii) Although Riding and Llewellyn quote from a 1715 essay by Jonathan Richardson where he suggests that “the Sublime is not only desirable but is indeed the highest level of artistic attainment”. (2)

(iii) Nikolaus Prevsner was the editor in chief of Buildings of Britain and, according to Tim Richardson, “a man of impeccable modernist credentials” (9: loc. 270)



(1) Shaw, Philip (2006) The Sublime. Abingdon: Routledge

(4) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Volume 11 (1980) Oxford: Oxford University Press

(5) Burke, Edmund (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Kindle edition 1998 with an introduction by Adam Philips) New York: Oxford World’s Classics

(6) Burke, Edmund (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (with an introduction by Paul Guyer). Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics

(9) Richardson, Tim (2008) The Arcadian Friends (Kindle edition) London: Penguin Random House

(11) Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place. London: Bloomsbury


(2) Riding, Christine & Llewellyn, Nigel (2012) British Art and the Sublime  (accessed at the Tate 7.2.17) –

(7) Oxford English Dictionary (ND) Sublime (accessed at the OED 7.2.17) –

(8) Kant Immanuel (1763) Critique of Judgement (accessed at Monoskop 10.2.17) –

(10) Prodger, Michael (2012) Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the making of Landscape (accessed at the Guardian 7.10.16) –

White, Luke (ND) A Brief History of the Notion of the Sublime (accessed at Luke White 6.2.17) –

Morley, Simon (2010) Starting into the Contemporary Abyss: The Contemporary Sublime (accessed at the Tate 6.2.17) –

Smith, Laura (2003) Beautiful, Sublime (accessed at the University of Chicago 9.2.17) –

Bell, Julian (2012) Contemporary Art and the Sublime (accessed at the Tate 7.2.17) –

This entry was posted in Part 1 - Beauty and the Sublime, Research and Reflection. Bookmark the permalink.

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