Artistic concept and style of the late 18th and early 19th century characterized by a preoccupation with architecture and landscape in pictorial combination with each other. In Britain, the picturesque was defined as an aesthetic quality marked by pleasing variety, irregularity, asymmetry, and interesting textures; medieval ruins in a natural landscape were thought to be picturesque. John Nash produced some of the most exemplary works embodying the concept. Seealso folly.
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As the title of Gilpin's work suggests, picturesque needs to be explained in terms of its relationship to two other aesthetic ideals: those of the beautiful and the sublime. By the last third of the 18th century, Enlightenment rationalist ideas about aestheticism were being challenged by looking at the experiences of beauty and sublimity as being non-rational (instinctual). Aesthetic experience was not just a rational decision - one did not look at a pleasing curved form and decide it was beautiful - rather it was a matter of basic human instinct and came naturally. Edmund Burke in his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful said the soft gentle curves appealed, he thought, to the male sexual desire, while the sublime horrors appealed to our desires for self-preservation. Picturesque arose as a mediator between the opposed ideals of beauty and the sublime, showing the possibilities that existed in between these two rationally idealized states. As Thomas Gray wrote in 1765 of the Scottish Highlands "The mountains are ecstatic.. None but.. God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror." . See also Gilpin and the picturesque.
During the mid 18th century the idea of purely scenic pleasure touring began to take hold among the English leisured class. Gilpin's work was a direct challenge to the ideology of the well established Grand Tour, showing how an exploration of rural Britain could compete with classically oriented tours of the Continent. The irregular, anti-classical, ruins and even ruined people - the ragged poor (viewed from a safe distance of course) - became sought after themes. Can-tinted portable mirrors to frame and darken the scenes they visited, it was named after 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain whose work Gilpin saw as synonymous with the picturesque and who Gilpin encouraged emulation. As Malcolm Andrews remarks, there is "something of the big-game hunter in these tourists, boasting of their encounters with savage landscapes, "capturing" wild scenes, and "fixing" them as pictorial trophies in order to sell them or hang them up in frames on their drawing room walls". Gilpin himself asked, "shall we suppose it a greater pleasure to the sportsman to pursue a trivial animal, than it is to the man of taste to pursue the beauties of nature?" After 1815 when Europe was available to travel again after the wars, new fields for picturesque-hunters opened up in Italy. Anna James wrote in 1820 "Had I never visited Italy, I think I should never have understood the word picturesque". Henry James exclaimed in Albano in the 1870s "I have talked of the picturesque all my life; now at last.. I see it"..
Picturesque tourists were also encouraged to reshape the landscapes as settings for English country houses, exemplified by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Following Gilpin's advice, many landowners began designing gardens with irregular sight lines and prefabricated ruins of 'classical' structures.
Picturesque meaning literally "in the manner of a picture; fit to be made into a picture" was a word used as early as 1703 (Oxford English Dictionary), and derived from an Italian term pittoresco, meaning, "in the manner of a painter," William Gilpin's Essay on Prints (1768) defined picturesque as " ... a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture" (xii).
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