Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

A Transatlantic History of the Picturesque: An Introductory Essay

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

A Transatlantic History of the Picturesque: An Introductory Essay

Article excerpt

This Introduction to the Nineteenth-Century Prose Special Issue on the Picturesque traces the history of and the critical debates about this concept flora its eighteenth-century genesis in Britain to its migration to Continental Europe and the United States. The nineteenth century marks a transformation in the usage of the picturesque in two respects. First, the concept migrated not only internationally beyond the landscapes of Britain, but also spatially--from the countryside to the city. Second, as a result of this urban milieu, picturesque travelers were forced to confront the moral implications of aestheticizing poverty, particularly in the work of Dickens, Ruskin, and Howells, which brought about an ethical crisis of the picturesque. The Introduction concludes with an overview of the critical debates in the field and how the essays in this special issue contribute to me ongoing debates about ethics and representation, and the related question of whether the picturesque is about controlling landscapes or relishing their disorderliness.

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When I first told a colleague, a Romanticist, that I was editing a special issue on the picturesque, her reaction was simply: "hasn't there been enough written on that topic?" No response, I thought, could have been more indicative of the problematic of the picturesque, given that this aesthetic, which was coined in the latter half of the eighteenth century, was soon considered a cliche. The problematic that I refer to is based on a fundamental paradox, namely that the picturesque highlights the distinct and unique qualities of people and places in what was considered highly predictable and standardized language. The picturesque, which relies on novelty, variety, and irregularity, quickly evolved into a habitual mode of seeing--a convention of apprehending landscapes and eventually cityscapes--that became a victim of its own success. By the 1790s, hundreds of guidebooks and sketchbooks appeared, promising to teach their readers how to find the curious, the distinct, and the different in the midst of the ordinary. Excess and overexposure soon characterized this aesthetic, so that attempts to revise and analyze this tradition still risk becoming as redundant as the picturesque itself.

Scholarship on the picturesque has tended to focus on its eighteenth century genesis, as the third term that complicates and expands the Burkean binary of the sublime and the beautiful. The first comprehensive study of the concept, Christopher Hussey's The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View (1927), locates the "picturesque phase" from 1730 to 1830, a period that designates a "transitional stage between intellectual, classic art that, generally speaking, stimulates the mind, and the imaginative art of the nineteenth century that interested itself rather with emotion and sentiment" (245). For Hussey, the picturesque provided "one of the earliest means for perceiving visual qualities in nature," of applying elements of pictorial composition to aspects of life that were deemed beyond the purview of art. He focuses on the work of the three major formulators of the term: William Gilpin, and later at the turn into the nineteenth century, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. They defined the picturesque in terms of imperfection, irregularities, variation, and roughness; it was a conservationist aesthetic, or in the words of Knight, "a preservative against flatness and monotony" (qtd. Robinson 27). It sought to preserve distinctiveness and uniqueness at the local and national levels in the wake of the homogenizing pressures of modernity. The picturesque resisted conformity by highlighting idiosyncratic and eccentric moments that would soon pass. It favored glimpses and sketches to sublime panoramas, accidental scenes to highly wrought ones, and abrupt variations and irregularities to the predictable smoothness and symmetry of the beautiful.

Despite some critiques of Hussey's use of the picturesque as a transition or "interregnum" between classicism and romanticism, scholarship on the picturesque--ranging from Walter John Hipple's The Beautiful, The Sublime, and the Picturesque (1957) to Martin Price's seminal essay "The Picturesque Moment" (1965)--has stayed remarkably loyal to Hussey's historical framework--from the eighteenth century to the Regency period--and to his focus on Gilpin, Price, and Knight. …

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