Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

The Tradition of the Sublime Landscape

Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mont Blanc, 1817

As long as the tradition of landscape in the visual arts, so is that of its expression of the sublime. The artists of the Romantic era were perhaps its greatest and most apparent exponents, but scores of artists have transcended medium, stylistic, and historical boundaries in their mutual engagement(s) of the idea. Numerous aspects and interpretations of the sublime landscape have been presented, and the constant evolution of our conception of the sublime has helped to make it a relevant dialogue in the contemporary landscape.

Echoes of the Wilderness

Landscape, considered art historically, is not the oldest of subject matters. While it is has served as a structural framework and played a supporting role in a large part of art’s history, it’s development into an artistic genre of its own is relatively recent. There are several factors that account for this. For one, landscape had always enjoyed a secondary status as the backdrop for human activity. Historical, biblical, and allegorical themes in the arts were often enacted in this setting. The presence of the landscape was essential to the image, but less to the narrative, and on the whole commanded little attention outside of this token status. While there were early ruminations of the landscape’s emergence as a genre proper to be felt in the Renaissance, it was the Baroque period that first explored landscape on its own terms. While it had previously been rare to see nature without human presence, it increasingly became depopulated and devoid of humanity. The Dutch especially engaged this subject matter with a sensitivity and proclivity for interpreting it eloquently, and the breakdown of the traditional painted hierarchy of subject matter led not only to the development of vanitas still life but also to that of the landscape as appropriate artistic fodder. This period signals the advent of the subject on par with its historical and portrait counterparts.

(Albrecht Durer, View Of The Arco Valley, 1495)

Durer was among the most prominent Renaissance artists to embrace the symbolic potential of landscape, most often in his engravings and wash drawings. In this mixed media work we can see how the artist has re-interpreted the topography and inserted human features into the cliff face.

In a broader respect however, it appears that the most important causes of landscape’s singularity were technological. The fresco and oil paintings that dominated the artistic practice up to and including the Renaissance were ill suited for use beyond the studio. Careful and meticulous attention to detail as well as the necessity to mix one’s own colors both precluded serious investigation of the world beyond urbanity. One medium that allowed artists to elude this restriction was that of the etching. The relative informality and manner of transcription permitted for work to be done in the field. Because little was required outside of some simple tools and the etching plate, the studio could be transported wherever one wished. Early industrialization also allowed for the pre-mixture of colors. So whereas one was once required to exact an often complicated process of fabricating paints, you could now utilize it straight from the tube. Such is the origin of plein-air.
(Rembrandt van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643)

After this initial phase of entrance into the contemporary currents of art, landscape soon began to expand its emotional and symbolic character. I have mentioned that the Dutch are among the most responsible for this, and their unique history and geography greatly imbues it in such a tradition. The shipping industries that dominated the Dutch economy and the low-lying landscape of the countryside afforded settings for the initial explorations of the sublime. The maritime atmosphere that surrounded almost all of life in the Netherlands provided a strong regard and reverence for the sea. The sea became an increasingly apt subject for the early conceptions of the sublime in that it not only was accountable for countless disasters and shipwrecks offshore but also the below sea-level topography of Holland allowed for massive flooding and farming losses whenever nature refused to cooperate. The later Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich was known to have studied several of these Dutch seascapes in the forms of engravings. Such was the power of the landscape, that from its beginnings as a genre it immediately commenced investigation of the awe-inspiring power of the natural world.

(Jacob van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, 1655)

Some early expressions of the sublime were evident in the landscapes of van Ruisdael, who often evoked senses of human mortality and transience with foreboding paintings such as this one. The advancing storm and reference to death both contribute to an atmosphere of nature’s elevation beyond humanity.

The Enlightenment era was ripe with talk of the sublime. Rationalism, with its effort to make intelligible the passions, viewed the concept of the sublime as profoundly linked to human associations. Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers tackled the subject, but it was the young Edmund Burke who best provided an accurate conception of the sublime and its effects on us. Burke distinguished between beauty and the sublime, unlike Kant, and posited that the sublime awakens terror, not aesthetic appreciation within us. To account for our sensational and profound experiences of the natural world, a notion of the sublime such as Burke’s seems most appropriate. Just as the poet Shelley stands before the glacier Blanc and is enthralled by both its grandeur and awesome power, the Romantics who would follow in Burke’s wake seem to make a similar equation. It is because of nature’s often violent character and ultimate
refusal to yield before us that affords it the respect it commands in our presence.
(Caspar David Friedrich, Abbey In The Oakwood, 1810)

The Romantic artists and their enterprise burgeoned at the inception of the full-scale industrial revolution. The vast urbanization and mechanization of life evidenced in even this early phase motivated the Romantics to return to nature as inspiration. Scenes of ruins in the wilderness coupled with solitary figures in the landscape both communicated the sense of isolation and minuteness that are the hallmarks of Romantic naturalism. Other images completely negated human presence or always presented them in a diminished capacity. The landscape is always triumphant in the vernacular of the movement. Nature has attained the status of deity, as for some such as the atheist Shelley, and achieved the most remarkable expression of the divine.
The later paintings of the British Romantic artist Turner contain abstract and violent gestural qualities that foreshadow the non-objectivity of the twentieth century. Turner’s depiction of a snowstorm at sea not only conveys the torrentiality of the storm but also the inadequacy of the ships that have fallen victim to its phenomenal power.
(J.M.W. Turner, Snowstorm, 1842)
(Thomas Cole, The Oxbow, 1836)
In the early nineteenth century a group of American artists known as the Hudson River School expanded the exploration of the sublime landscape from Europe to the United States. Here Thomas Cole has depicted the meeting of two worlds- wilderness and civilization. The natural and unencumbered landscape yields and is encroached upon by the man made acclimation of it. The confrontation is a violent one and conveys the unsettling atmosphere that must have been present in Cole himself. 1

Since its invention in the first half of the nineteenth century, the photograph has possessed the ability to artistically engage the world in a way which is unique in its immediacy and power. Because photography is always at least partially rooted in mimesis, it can relay some aspects of reality with a more profound effect than other mediums. The photographic image almost always asserts that this has happened 2 or does so with a greater certainty than its visual art counterparts.

That said, the photographic engagement of the tradition of the sublime is an apt one as much of what informed and inspired early photography was the existing Romantic sentiment that had preceded it. What the photographic image offered was a factual account of the landscape it presented to us. Granted that throughout the entire history of the medium there have been those who have composited images, altered prints, and distorted the reality it claims to authenticate, but the notion still remains that what the camera provides us with is a representation of the true world around us.

(Francis Frith, The Pyramids Of Sakkarah, 1857)

Two decades after the photograph’s advent, Francis Frith documented various historical sites in Egypt and on the Sinai Peninsula. The result is a series of albumen prints that illustrate the natural attrition of some of humanity’s greatest achievements. The temples of Egypt have eroded and become buried by the wind-swept sands of the desert. Even the great built wonders of the world become dust at the hands of nature and time.
While the relationship between the sublime and the landscape had been thoroughly developed on the European continent, its extension into photography appropriately finds its roots in America. Vast expanses of previously undeveloped landscape dominated what was to become the United States. Manifest Destiny and an innate pioneer mentality lead to the great western exploration and expansion. At the same time photographers themselves participated in this migration, and provided us posthumously with an image of both the wide-open space that was the west and what has since become the contemporary American landscape. William Henry Jackson’s images of the western wilderness not only gave people back east a vision of what lay in their backyard but also the majesty of the nation’s natural resources. Other photographer’s braved similar journeys and contributed to a greater consciousness of the sublime in this new and seemingly endless terrain.

(Timothy O’Sullivan, Black Canyon, Colorado River, 1871)

(Carleton E. Watkins, Solar Eclipse From Mount Santa Lucia, California, 1889)

Watkins photographed many of the natural wonders of the western American landscape, particularly in California. In this image of a solar eclipse we can see how the Romantic sensibility has informed photography. While this could easily be the subject of a painting, there is perhaps a more profound emotional resonance due to the photograph’s authentication of the event. The scene exhibits a supernatural aura partially due to this certification of rare but naturally occurring phenomena.

(Minor White, Barns & Clouds, In The Vicinity Of Naples And Dansville, NY, 1955)
Minor White’s image of a solitary barn placed in surreal surroundings evidences how landscape could summon such metaphorical connotations of the natural sublime even in the mid-twentieth century.

Reinterpreting The Paradigm

At some point it was only natural that many artists, having grown up in cities and not the country, would begin to approach landscape from a different perspective. A shift occurred from that of the natural world to that of the man-made and built one. The great skyscrapers and metropolis’ inspired such phrases as “the urban jungle.” While a humorous and facetious term, it still exploits the relationship between the individual and the vastly expanding urban environment. The cities built upward towards the sky, as opposed to the vast expanses of the traditional landscape that lie below it.

What most sparked a kinship between the established notions of the sublime landscape and the newly developed urban environment was the scale of humanity’s relation to it. Just as Shelley is paled by Mont Blanc, so is any one walking through Paul Strand’s image of Wall Street (1915). A fifty story building looming above you can be just as awe-inspiring as a mountain, especially if it is surrounded by structures of equal measure. The city offered a new arena for this ongoing discussion. Modernism may have superseded its Romantic predecessor but not without subsuming it.

(Alfred Stieglitz, From The Back Window, 291, 1915)
(Michael Wolf, Architecture Of Density, 1995-2006)

Using the backdrop of Hong Kong, the world’s most densely populated city, the German artist Michael Wolf has afforded us a picture of humanity at its most structured level. Images of the complex and compacted network of sky rises and apartment buildings that make up the urban center abstract the architectural forms as well as metaphorically represent their inhabitants. We are left with an image of a society where the mechanical has triumphed over the individual and utilitarianized its existence.

Ironically, the industrial environment evinces some of the same sentiments as our classical conceptions of the sublime. The aggressive and monumental forms of the built landscape provide an equivalent to the untamed and expansive wilderness of the Romantics. A contemporary of Charles Sheeler once commented that “for Sheeler the industrial sublime was both heroic and disquieting.” 3 This coupling of the power and beauty of the industrial environment and the imposing and mechanistic implications it could have on society forge the industrial sublime. Sheeler, a Precisionist, elevated these structures to the realm of high art, but not without misgivings as to their potential negative implications upon humanity.

(Charles Sheeler, Blast Furnace, 1927)
(Edward Burtynsky, Rock Of Ages, No. 7, 1991)

Photographer Edward Burtynsky often utilizes the degraded and modified natural environment as the subject of his imagery. In this photograph of an industrial quarry, it is clear how man has severely altered the landscape. The confrontation of nature and humanity’s effect upon it presents us with a harrowing vision of how man transforms the world.

The Sublime In The Expanded Field

There has been a progression of the concept of the sublime landscape since its historical inception some four hundred years ago. It has evolved to not only include additional contributions to its classical infusion in the representation of the natural landscape but also its extension to the man made and built one. Several artists working in a variety of art forms have embraced some model of this idea and presented it in their own unique way.

As Modernism progressed, several individuals sought to expand their area(s) of artistic enterprise beyond the gallery and museum’s walls. The Earth Artists in particular sought a direct collaboration between nature and the process of artistic creation. By not only making the landscape their subject, but also their medium, this group of artists sought a deeper connection to the natural world than just the metaphorical one that had traditionally been explored. They sought to make this realization entirely physical, in that they directly worked the land around us and focused our attention on the landscape as the artwork itself. By doing so they raised not only pertinent questions regarding artistic context, but also the character of our involvement with the contemporary landscape. Their legacy is in part a further expansion of the notion of the sublime and its relevance to our current period.
(Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970)

It was perhaps the young Robert Smithson who best understood the potential of the physical landscape’s ability to be conceived of as art in itself. Smithson’s most famous work altered the landscape of the Great Salt Lake using natural materials that surrounded the site. This work evokes elements of the sublime for several reasons. Besides that it directly uses nature itself as the medium and subject matter, it also displays a direct collaboration between the artist and the world around him. Furthermore, the Spiral Jetty is now usually covered with water and in the process nature has reclaimed this man-made modification. The road to the site is quite desolate; the few signs of human activity upon the approach include a bird sanctuary and ironically a military testing ground. Artist Buzz Spector has remarked that in essence the journey to Spiral Jetty is as important as the work itself. 4 The confrontation of man’s imposed devastation and nature’s untamed ruggedness is perfectly apt for the tone of the piece. Upon Spector’s trip the jetty was indeed covered by the water but the greater meaning of Smithson’s masterpiece was communicated all the same.

(Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977)

When one comes upon The Lightning Field, it is a strange encounter. Isolated in the high desert of the New Mexico wilderness, Walter De Maria’s installation of 400 steel poles in a rectangular arrangement seems an odd place for a work of conceptual art. What the artist has done with this expanse however is truly magical. The steel poles harness the power of nature directly and produce a spontaneous and kinetic experience. Because nature itself generates the incredible vision of the lightning’s meeting with the poles, in this manner the sublime is translated independent of any human presence in the landscape. For time infinite this dramatic play of electricity and its conduit will continue without the further necessity of our involvement. The work functions entirely by its own means and through this simplest method of interaction, produces the most startling of experiences.


It is clear that while the tradition of the sublime is certainly rooted in the idea of the grandeur and power of the natural world, it has not been confined to this conception alone. The expansion of the sublime’s ever evolving dialogue into the realms of the modern urban experience and that of conceptual art attest to the idea’s continued relevance. It is certain that as further developments take place within art and society, the sublime landscape will progress along side them and remain a viable tradition that lends itself to the practice of future artists.

Jim Sienkiewicz



2. Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes.
3. Charles Sheeler: Paintings And Drawings, Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler.

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