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Picturesque is an aesthetic ideal introduced into the English cultural debate by William Gilpin in 1782 . With his book Observations on the River Wye , and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770 , he led the fine society to "examine the face of the landscape according to the rules of picturesque beauty" on their pleasure trips . Picturesque, along with the aesthetic and cultural aspects of the Gothic Revival and Irish Renaissance, formed a defining strand of the emerging romantic sensibility of 18th century England.

As the title of Gilpin's book suggests, the term Picturesque has to be explained in connection with two other aesthetic ideals: the beauty and the sublime . In the last third of the 18th century, the ideas of enlightened rationalism were called into question by the fact that the experience of beauty and sublimity was viewed as irrational (instinctively). Aesthetic feeling was not just a rational decision - you no longer looked at a pleasantly curved shape and decided that it was beautiful - it was more a question of basic human instincts and became a matter of course. Edmund Burke writes in Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful that, in his opinion, soft, gentle curves stimulate the male sex drive, while the sublime stimulates the instinct for self-preservation. Picturesque became a mediator between the opposing ideals of beauty and sublimity and shows that there is something between these rational ideal states. Thomas Gray wrote about the Scottish Highlands in 1765: "The mountains are delightful, only God knows how one can combine so much beauty with so much horror."


The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey , Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner , 1794

In the middle of the 18th century, there was a trend among fine society to travel the country, solely for the purpose of enjoying the beauty of the landscape. Gilpin's work immediately challenged the worldview of the established Grand Tour by showing that exploring rural Britain rivaled classically oriented journeys through mainland Europe. The irregular ruins, not obeying any classical ideal of beauty, became a popular motif, as did ragged people. Metal-tinted, portable mirrors were carried in order to both frame and darken the locations visited, named after the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain , whose work Gilpin compared with the Picturesque and which he recommended for imitation. Malcolm Andrews noticed that there was something of big game hunters in these travelers who boasted of encounters with the wild landscapes. They captured the wild landscapes and captured them as pictorial trophies that they sold or hung in their salon. 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?" When after the wars from 1815 travel to Europe became possible again, New fields opened up for the Picturesque hunters in Italy. Anna James wrote in 1820: “If I had never visited Italy, I would probably never have understood the word Picturesque .” Henry James explained in Albano in the 1870s: “I've spoken of Picturesque my whole life, now I've finally seen it. ".

Picturesque travelers have been asked to redesign the landscapes as the backdrop for English country houses, an example of which is Capability Brown . Following Gilpin's advice, many landowners began redesigning their gardens with uneven lines and prefabricated rubble from "classic" structures.

Picturesque, literally, “In the manner of a picture; suitable to be inserted into a picture ”was a term that was used at the earliest in 1703 ( Oxford English Dictionary ) and derives from the Italian term pittoresco (In the manner of a painter). Picturesque defines Gilpin's work “Essay on Prints” as “a term that expresses a strange form of beauty that blends comfortably into a picture”.

Prestigious work

  • Gilpin's Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: to which is Added a Poem, On Landscape Painting published in London, 1792.
  • Richard Payne Knight , An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, followed shortly afterwards, and has been reissued several times, revised and expanded by the author.
  • A third major essay on the Picturesque was Uvedale Price : An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape , revised edition London, 1796.
  • Dorothy Wordsworth wrote Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, AD 1803 (1874), a classic of Picturesque's travelogues .
  • William Combe and Thomas Rowlandson published a poem with pictures in 1809 entitled The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque , a satire about the ideals of the stuffy Picturesque hunters known to be the stuff of picturesque hunters.
  • Humphry Repton applied the theory of Picturesque to the practice of landscaping. In connection with the work of Price and Knight, this led to the 'Picturesque Theory', according to which landscapes must be constructed like landscape pictures: with foreground, center and background. Repton believed that the foreground should be the realm of art, with formal geometry and decorative planting. The center should have a Brown-style park character and the background should have a wild, natural character.
  • John Ruskin described the "Picturesque" in The Seven Lamps of Architecture as a truly modern aesthetic category.
  • In 1927, the essay The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View by the English architectural historian Christopher Hussey focused modern thinking on the development of this concept. The idea of ​​the Picturesque still has an influence on garden design and the design of plantings.

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d James Buzard (2001). "The Grand Tour and after (1660-1840)". In The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing .
  2. ^ A b c Glenn Hooper: The Isles / Ireland . In: The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (2001).


  • Kerstin Walter: The picturesque. The theory of the English landscape garden as a building block for understanding contemporary art (= Benrather Schriften. Vol. 2). Werner, Worms 2006, ISBN 3-88462-236-6 (also: Bochum, University, dissertation, 2004).
  • Andrea Siegmund: The landscape garden as a counterworld. A contribution to the theory of the landscape in the field of tension between Enlightenment, sensitivity, romanticism and counter-Enlightenment. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-8260-4612-4 , pp. 276–287 (also: Munich, Technical University, dissertation, 2010).

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