Romantic Dilemma: Beautiful and Sublime in Art (Immanuel Kant)

9 Oct

In his book ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime‘, Immanuel Kant described two kinds of finer feelings; the feeling of the sublime and the feeling of beautiful. Intrigued by this ‘romantic dilemma’, I instantly thought of artworks that embody these finer feelings.

1774. The Bard - Thomas JonesThe Bard, Thomas Jones, 1774, National Museum of Wales in Cardiff

According to the dictionary, sublime is something ‘of very high quality and causing great admiration’. Something that’s beautiful is ‘pleasing to the senses or to the mind‘. Tall oaks, thunderstorms, mountain heights, shadows, the movement of storm clouds and old ruins are sublime. On the other hand, Greek vases, Venus in art, flowery alleys and trimmed hedges are beautiful. In correlation to this, then, English style gardens are sublime and French gardens are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful. Sublime has to be something big and simple, while the beautiful can be small but flamboyant and decorated. Feeling of sublime touches the man, while the feeling of beautiful enchants him. In literature, we could compare Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with the feeling of sublime, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with beautiful.

Furthermore, Kant explains how men have mostly feelings for the sublime, while women lean towards that which is beautiful. Friendship has mainly the character of the sublime, but love between the sexes, that of the beautiful.‘ Even with physical appearance, Kant noticed the types; people with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair are closer to beautiful, while darker skin and dark eyes evoke a feeling of sublime.

1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard - Philip James De LoutherbourgVisitor to a Moonlit Churchyard, 1790, Philip James De Loutherbourg

Moreover, in the last chapter of the book, Kant describes how different nationalities have different finer feelings. The Italians and the French are distinguished by the feeling of beautiful, while the Germans, the English and the Spaniards posses a feeling for sublime. Dutch people have no finer feeling, and put value only on that which is useful in some way. Kant explains it further, stating that the feeling of beautiful can either be: enchanting and touching – that suits the Italians, or cheerful and spicy, which suits the French.

When it comes to the feeling of sublime, Kant says that it leans towards dreadful or noble. He attributed dreadful sublime to the Spaniards, and noble sublime to the English, whose actions are guided by principles rather than impulses. He described Germans as possessing a fine blend of both sublime and beautiful, a mix which is more appropriate then the raw power of each separate feeling. Kant only cursorily touched the subject of arts. However, he did explain that the Italian geniuses specially distinguished themselves in music, painting, architecture and statuary. Pleasantry, comedy, satire saturated with laughter, flirtation of lovers, light and naturally fluid style is typical for France. On the other hand, profound thoughts, tragedy, epic poems, all found their place in English literature. I think there is some truth in this, if you only compare Molliere with Shakespeare, or gardens in France and England.

1852. Faust’s Dream by Carl Gustav Carus Faust’s Dream by Carl Gustav Carus, 1852

Kant’s theory proves the most accurate if one compares two completely opposite art movements; Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Neoclassicism, and its predecessor Rococo, was chiefly dominant in France with artists such as Ingres, Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Jacques-Louis David, and the Italian Antonio Canova, fellow lover of beautiful, all setting this style characterised by pure beauty, simplicity and symmetry of compositions. Portraits of royalty or king’s mistresses such as the portrait of Madame de Pompadour, are good examples of beauty in art. These painting evoke grandeur, richness, coquetry. Still, after a while these painting are sore to the eyes: how many cupids, elegant ladies with rosy cheeks, garden statues in knock-off Greek-Roman style and fine dresses, can a human mind put up with?

In contrast, Romanticism first appeared in Germany in works of Goethe and Schiller, and in England in works of Lake Poets, William Blake and Ann Radcliffe, exactly in those nations that valued the feeling of sublime. The difference with the French tastes is easy to see, just compare the works I’ve mentioned above with the sublime and wistful landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich or Carl Gustav Carus or William Blake’s fanciful illustrations. Beautiful could exceed into kitschy, and sublime could lead to Gothic and grotesque.

Examples of ‘Beautiful‘ in art:

1759. madame de pompadour -BoucherMadame de Pompadour, Boucher, 1759

The Progress of Love, The Confession by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), 1771-73

Vestal Virgins, by Jean Raoux (French, 1677–1734), 1727

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One Response to “Romantic Dilemma: Beautiful and Sublime in Art (Immanuel Kant)”

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  1. Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions | Byron's muse - 29th October 2016

    […] As I’ve already mentioned, old ruins were an interesting subject for painters to incorporate in their sublime landscapes, and for poets they served as starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that this ‘old ruin’, a symbol of some other times, was a muse for early Romanticists. You can easily picture a young man resting in the shadow of the Abbey, thinking of his lovely maiden, treasuring a lock of her hair, and thinking of the day they will finally be together. You can also imagine the Abbey in the stillness of the night, above it the shining full moon and stars. Ruins were popular because they were perceived as ‘pictures of despair and destruction’, further developing the sensibility of sublime. […]

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