Defining the Picturesque

What does it mean for something to be picturesque? How can we answer something so vague, so based on personal opinion? The picturesque cannot have an over-arching definition, but must have an individualistic definition for each person because of differences in perspectives of all people. By exploring the concept of the picturesque through photography, one can visualize their own definition of the word.

Picturesque is defined as “resembling a picture; charming or quaint in appearance; evoking mental images: vivid” (Picturesque). I agree with this definition, but I believe that every person will have a different perspective on what they consider to be picturesque based on what is pleasing to them and their personality and spirit. Upbringing, education, relationships, career, lifestyle, gender, culture, and religion all play a part in how we perceive our world and its picturesque qualities. No one person has experienced everything that another has. Just by looking through someone’s camera and scanning through the photos they took, you can catch a glimpse of that individual’s perspective on the picturesque. There is a reason they took those pictures; those pictures are interesting and meaningful to them. Anyone else might think that my idea of the picturesque is completely off the mark because they grew up in a different time, in a different place, have different ideas and morals than I do. Or maybe they have had hardships in their life that have changed their ideas on what is picturesque. All humans have a different understanding of life, humanity, and the world we live in, which leads to diverse understandings of art and even religion.

The non-definability of the word “picturesque” is relative to a religion that practices individual freedom. Unitarianism is a belief that arose in the 16th century that was inspired by the Protestant Reformation. Unitarians have an open-minded and open-ended approach to religious beliefs. They believe that there is not any specific religion that is right or wrong. They believe that every person has the right to search for religious truth by creating their own conclusions about life, morals or God. These believers could be anything from Jewish to atheist to Buddhist. Some do not believe in any god, some believe in many gods, and they all believe that there is no one right answer to religious truth (Unitarianism). This is similar to my own theory of defining picturesque. There is no right or wrong, in fact, there aren’t any answers at all. There is only what we decide and discover about the picturesque that makes it so.

The first photo I took explores William Gilpin’s theory of the picturesque. In his opinion, qualities of beauty and the picturesque are very different. To him, beauty is the depiction of clean lines and smooth edges. It is the essence of simplicity and the natural state. Symmetry is beauty. It is the idea that beauty can truly be experienced in person, as you stand before that which is beautiful. Picturesque on the other hand, indicates what is complex, rugged, and elaborate. It is asymmetrical. It is essentially something that can be appreciated most in the form of picture or painting more than in real life. Gilpin exemplifies this in his essay. He explains that although a horse can be appreciated in both life and painting, a goat can be appreciated more in a painting than in life because the medium glorifies the goat which is otherwise uninteresting and unappealing as compared to a strong and beautiful horse. Gilpin also uses the words “variety” and “contrast” to define picturesque. Something that is picturesque is something that takes time to be examined, interpreted, and explored (Gilpin). However, Gilpin was from another time where photographs did not exist (Gilpin, William). Also, his time was a period when it was still not entirely encouraged to think beyond what is generally perceived as true, meaning that most people would probably agree with his opinion simply because he has more ethos for being somewhat of a scholar. This idea of the picturesque could have been the truth to the people of the 19th century. The following photos are an experiment of beauty, picturesque quality, and artistic perspective in history and the modern day.

The first photo is an example of Gilpin’s concept of the picturesque because of the intricate detail in the scenery as well as the variety of shapes and sizes of the objects in the frame. The viewer’s eye is immediately led to the left where the white bark contrasts against the darker barks of the surrounding trees and the lush greens at its base. The different plants and trees on the hill are all different heights, creating different levels that draw your eyes vertically through the photograph. The different trees and the sloped hill make the scene more interesting and playful; they even provide a fantasy-like quality that Gilpin might consider to be picturesque. This photograph also plays with light. The light behind the trees is very bright as compared to the dark grey-brown trees in front. The contrast of the stark white bark against the deeper shades of the other plants is also the focus of the picture. The green-blue hues of the picture are tranquil, yet allow room for imagination. Upon examination of the lighting, you might not be able to tell the time of day, but can easily imagine it in full sunlight or under the dark blanket of night. Texture is a very important aspect of Gilpin’s theory of the picturesque. Each of the plants in this photograph have different textures that create interesting depth and shadows. There are spiked leaves, round and smooth leaves, tall stalks, twisted branches, wood knots, and peeling bark. The bark is my favorite part of the picture. Without the dark knots of peeled bark on the white tree, the picture would not be nearly as picturesque. The tree would not be interesting, but too perfect and dull. Perhaps it is imperfection that creates perfection. Though this photograph shows Gilpin’s view on what is picturesque, my point of view is different because we have different perspectives on life and art.

The second photo also explores my personal idea of the picturesque. When I think picturesque, I think of what I like to call simplistic whimsy. This is because I find simplicity and whimsicality to be aesthetically pleasing. I suppose that is because Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorite movies as a child; the epitome of whimsy and imagination. Simplistic whimsy means that something is so mild and uncomplicated that you are subconsciously encouraged to imagine the scene in a whimsical way. When I see something I think is picturesque, it often makes me imagine that it is something greater than it is, just like Alice does. The picturesque should allow you to utilize your mind’s eye. It must provoke deep thought. The beautiful is also interchangeable with the picturesque. Granted, not everything that is picturesque is beautiful and not everything that is beautiful is picturesque. It all depends on a person’s perspective. Photo two is a close-up on the first picture. The blurred plant in front of the tree creates depth. It also causes the viewer to feel like they themselves are peering from the leaves to examine the bark of the tree. The bark is the main focus. This photo only has a few noticeable elements: the blurred plant stalk, the tree with its contrasting bark, and the green foliage in the background. Because there are not many distractions in this picture, it is fairly simplistic. The whimsical elements, however, come from my own imagination. 

This edited version of photograph two is an example of how I perceive photo two when using my mind’s eye. I see color and light. My artistic eye turns photo two into a fantasy world. By changing the vibrance, contrast, hue, temperature, texture, and lighting of the picture, I was able to capture what I visualize without the edits. When I think of the picturesque, I imagine another world full of greater color, mystery, delight, whimsy, and fantasy. To me, the picturesque should invoke the use of all of your senses. A painting, drawing, or photograph should allow you to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel what it is portraying. My interpretation of this photograph allows me to experience it through all of my senses. I can hear the birds whistling as the slight spring breeze rustles the leaves and the snapping of twigs beneath my feet. I can feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun. I can smell the earth, still fresh from yesterday’s rain. I can taste the tart wild blackberries I just picked moments before I arrived here. I can see and appreciate the beauty that lies before me in all of its grandeur; full of color, full of life, full of wonder. It is our experiences that allow us to truly appreciate and define what we call the picturesque. I, for example, have fond memories of climbing the hill that was an abandoned logging road behind my house. I would walk along the steep path between the trees and see all sorts of plants and insects and the sun glinting through the canopy above. It is clear to see that it is easier for me to write about and express my own idea of the picturesque because I believe in it deeply and it has emotional value to me. That is why when I was writing about Gilpin’s definition of the picturesque, I was strictly analytical. I have no attachment to his definition. His opinion is based on his own experiences in life. My definition reminds me of one of my most cherished childhood movies that I still enjoy today. When we have created our definition for the picturesque, we can become passionate about it, just as Gilpin had done. The difference between the way I explained Gilpin’s point of view and the way I explained my perspective proves just how different opinions will be on subjective themes. Opinion is the decider of personal truth for each individual.

I cannot say that Gilpin’s definition is right or wrong. I cannot say that my definition is right or wrong. There is no correct or incorrect definition of the picturesque because it is only an opinion to be formed by each individual. When defining the picturesque, there is no black and white— only grey.

View my Glogster interactive poster here.

Works Cited

Gilpin, William. “Essay I. On Picturesque Beauty.” Eighteenth Century Texts Online. Text Creation Partnership, n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2012. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004863369.0001.000/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

“Gilpin, William.” Dictionary of Art Historians. n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. http://www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org/gilpinw.htm.

“Picturesque.” Merriam-Webster. Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/picturesque.

“Unitarianism at a Glance.” BBC. 16 Jan. 2004. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/unitarianism/ataglance/glance.shtml.

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