Austen and The Picturesque

June 28, 2007 § Leave a comment

The fundamentally Georgian notion of the Picturesque is alluded to by Austen in five of her novels: Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma and most often, in Sense and Sensibility, which is no coincidence, given that the Picturesque was, like the Gothic Revival, a movement rather of sensibilities, an offshoot of feelings in the reason-driven culture of the Enlightenment. The first use of the term “picturesque” in relation to descriptions of nature is generally taken to be Pope’s reference, in a letter written in 1712, to lines of poetry being “what the French call very picturesque (Brownell, Alexander Pope and the Arts of Georgian England [1978], 104). From the mid 18th century, through the Romantic Period, and until it had thinned out into hackneyed faddishness by the Regency, the Picturesque moved mountains.

An aesthetic appreciation of landscape was a practice that was realized during the Georgian era. This appreciation was inconceivable before the 18th century. A new way of seeing things requires learning, and a new way of seeing landscape requires travel and art, three experiences unavailable, especially combined, to practically none but the wealthy aristocracy at the beginning of the Georgian period. Like so many ideals, the Picturesque began with art, specifically the ‘discovery’ of the 17th century continental landscape paintings of Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorraine and Gaspard Dughet (also known as Gaspard Poussin).

In England, landscape painting was a wholly foreign concept at this time. Landscape was merely a curtain dressing for the more interesting human drama and the land was something associated with peasants and labor, not subjects the monied classes thought of as artistically inspiring, and the very few who traveled in Europe, and wrote about it, before the Utrecht Treaty of 1713 wrote only of scenes such as the Alps, those darlings of the Picturesque, as inconvenient, uncomfortable and dangerous. Europe however, opened up to privileged English travelers after 1713 and The Grand Tour was born. Wealthy aristocrats on their tour favoured Italy in particular and started to take notice of these exotic landscape paintings, most commonly seen in Rome, and as a consequence, rapidly began to look upon the grand, rugged, alpine terrain, lurking banditti, swarthy peasants, and crumbling ruins not as tiresome, untidy inconveniences fraught with continental danger, but as the romantic subjects of Art. An early associational link was made by Horace Walpole in a letter during his tour with Thomas Gray in 1739:

‘Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa!’

Austen and the Picturesque Part II



Landscape with a Hermit
circa 1662
Salvator Rose
Walker Art Gallery Liverpool, Britain

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