George Catlin painting a Chief

The Sublime and the Picturesque
Part I of III

A Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Exhibition. Organized by William S. Reese and George Miles
Last Revised September 4, 1996

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North America was replete with landscapes which struck awe and wonder in the beholder. Practically every artist-traveler of the 19th century would have been well-versed in the principles of picturesque beauty and landscape laid down by the Rev. William Gilpin in his various books about traveling in England, published from the 1780's on. If the travelers were not directly aware of the writings of Edmund Burke on the sublime, they would certainly have had some familiarity with the vast body of English topographical works depicting landscape which drew on Burke and Gilpin for inspiration. Most of the works depicting American landscapes were closely attached to these traditions, the influence of which continued into the age of photography.

Unless otherwise noted the author of the work is also the artist of the illustrated plate.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L'Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Mt. Chimborazo

"Le Chimborazo vu depuis le Plateau de Tapia." (Colored aquatint)

Humboldt's five year expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804 and his massive publishing program based on the material he gathered set a standard for description and illustration which every serious scientific traveler of the 19th century strove to emulate. Even the most rational observer could be awed by the majesty of newly depicted landscapes, however, and this view of the South American volcano Chimborazo combines accurate depiction with a sublime vision of one of the world's tallest peaks. Humboldt was closely involved in the publication of this volume, the first major atlas depicting his findings. No man, or series of publications, had a greater impact on scientific travelers in the 19th century.

Louis L. Noble. After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and around Newfoundland. New York, 1862.

An Iceberg

"Iceberg in the Strait of Belle Isle." (Tinted lithograph)

Rev. Noble enjoyed the company of Hudson Valley School painters. He wrote a life of Thomas Cole as well as this volume, which describes his experiences accompanying the painter Frederic Church to the Arctic while the latter painted icebergs. Church was clearly drawn to the expedition by the picturesque effects of light and shade he could explore in the high Arctic light and the interaction of ice and ocean. The illustrations in Noble's book are after Church. The lithographer Sarony made a bold attempt to create mood by using a single pale green tint to offset the white of the bergs.

William Oakes. Scenery of the White Mountains: With Sixteen Plates, from the Drawings of Isaac Sprague. Boston, 1848.

Old Man of the Mountain

Isaac Sprague, "Profile Mountain at Franconia, New Hampshire." (Lithograph)

In the 1840's the White Mountains of New Hampshire came to compete with the "Fashionable Tour" through upstate New York to Niagara as an opportunity to seek sublime and picturesque landscapes in the United States without straying too far from civilization. Here early Victorian travelers could indulge in the anthropomorphizing of the landscape, naming every rock and hiking to the right angle to see the "Old Man of the Mountain". Oakes' view book, with plates after Isaac Sprague, allowed them to relive the experience at home. Although this book is often said to have been issued only in tinted format, the present author has seen at least three copies with identical color suggesting that a colored version was available from the publisher.

John Maude. Visit to the Falls of Niagara, in 1800. London, 1826.

Niagara Falls

"The Falls of Niagara, with Goat Island." (Engraving)

Niagara Falls inspired traveling illustrators from Father Hennepin in the 1680's onward. In the early 19th century it became a standard place of pilgrimage for those who wished to be awed by the sublime power of nature. Maude has the distinction, amid the vast bibliography of Niagara depiction, of being the first to make a trip expressly to see the falls and illustrate it himself. Maude was of the opinion that "If the United States side presents you a more beautiful arrangement of the scenery, it is only from the Canadian side that you can behold it in its sublimity."

Edward Beyer. Album of Virginia. Richmond, 1858.

Weyer's Cave

"The Drums. The Tapestry Room. Weyer's Cave." (Lithograph)

As the age of tourism dawned, the tourist hoped to encounter sublime scenes that would thrill and move them without much inconvenience or danger. Caves offered an otherworldly experience, and, in southwestern Virginia, they were conveniently located next to fashionable hot spring resorts. Edward Beyer's magnificent viewbook of Virginia focused on these tourist haunts and the activities available near them. His lithographer created a wonderful effect of light and shade in depicting the illuminations and shadows from the torches of the guides in Weyer's Cave. Beyer's book was produced in Berlin, either because it was cheaper to get the work done there or because he did not trust American lithographers to execute his work properly.

The Sublime and the Picturesque, Part II

The Spirit of Place
Encountering Native Americans
Customs of the Country
Valor and Endurance
An Analytic Eye

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Send comments to George Miles, William Roberston Coe Curator of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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