Romantic Aesthetics: The Beautiful, the Picturesque and the Sublime
18th- and 19th-century England witnessed the unprecedented popularity of the aesthetics of the sublime (in its two primary incarnations: the Longinian and the Burkean sublime), as well as the emergence of the counter-aesthetics of the picturesque, which introduced the following important changes in sensibility and cultural practices: 1) an investment in the contemplation of landscape as a regular activity, requiring expertise in Italian, Dutch and British landscape painting; 2) a preference for nature in its rough, varied and intricate forms that led to a change in British garden design, from the formal garden to extensive gardens that imitated the look of a wild, uncultivated stretch of land; 3) the preference for Gothic over Greco-Roman architecture and for landscape painting over the traditional genres of historical and portrait painting; and 4) the obsession with ruins and dispossessed people, such as gypsies, beggars and rural workers, who are represented as figures of narcissistic self-sufficiency. In this course we will be especially interested in studying the interaction between the aesthetics of the sublime (with its focus on transcendence, the monumental, the terrifying and the heroic) and the aesthetics of the picturesque (with its preference for aged over young people, and destitutes over heroes). These features of the picturesque are expressive of the fear of monumentality and violence in this period of vast political and social upheaval (The French Revolution) and economic change (the agrarian revolution which changed the face of the English countryside). We will also explore the political implications of various aesthetic theories, wondering for example, why Richard Payne Knight ends a work which promotes the new ethos of the picturesque in landscape gardening with a defense against the charge that his “system of rural embellishment resembles the democratic tyranny of France.”
Readings for the course include selections from treatises on the picturesque (by William Gilpin, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight) and on the sublime (Longinus, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, and Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), as well as representative works by British Romantic writers (Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and William Wordsworth). The course will also focus on the study of Dutch, Italian, German and English landscape painters of the 17th- through the 19th-century, as well as the post-modern sublime, as defined by Slavoj Zizek, Philippe Lacou-Labarthe, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Theodor Adorno.