The Picturesque and The Sublime

Picturesque; beauty; ruin; pain; the sublime; each word evokes a different thought, definition, and image to each interpreter, and that is because these words are subjective. They mean different things to different people, and the feelings and memories one associates with them are different to different people, depending on our past experiences.

With these words- picturesque, sublime, beauty- simultaneously rolling through my head, I wandered the fields of my family farm on a weekend visit home in early September, camera in hand. Seeing the cotton candy clouds illuminated behind the stark silhouette of towering western Washington pine trees, I snapped a shot. Using the tree covered hill to the right, the two tall pines to the left, the field as a base and the darkest gathering of clouds at the top, I framed the photo to focus on not only the clouds, but the greatest space and source of light in the center. At the time I was thinking primarily of the definition I had in my head of the picturesque; rough, interesting, complex, as William Gilpin defines it, but still aesthetically pleasing; I was excited by the appearance of the photo I now had, as I felt it fit this definition well. As I came to look at it more closely and reflect on the feelings it evoked it me, it came to mean much more.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, spending every Sunday reading centuries-old texts by the light through hundred-year old stained glass. When I was thirteen, I traveled with my parents and sisters to Europe, where we visited museum after museum and church after church. Sometimes the churches were museums and sometimes I think the museums also churches. Three weeks of gazing at paintings and sculptures and ceilings, and I never grew tired. What I loved most about these artifacts was the history, and more importantly, the story, behind each one. It is difficult to put into words the thoughts and emotions I felt and now associate with this memory; perhaps it would be equally as difficult to understand, as each person’s experiences in life differ and color their perception of all things. The paintings I saw on this trip are, for me, the greatest examples of what is ‘sublime’. As I have interpreted it, the sublime is a state of being where pain is felt and observed at such a distance that it is almost enjoyable and beautiful. The paintings chronicling the stories of the Bible and the history of the Catholic Church are, to me, sublime. These paintings, such as Michelangelo’s The Fall of Man and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the Sistine Chapel or Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cerasi Chapel, are beautiful renditions of tragic tales. They evoke feelings of pain and suffering, yet they are fantastic works of art that thousands of people flock to see with their own eyes. Some go so they can tell their friends; some go to be part of the Roman experience, but for many Catholics, viewing and revering these paintings is a part of our beliefs. Part of faith is learning and respecting the sins and struggles of our ancestors in the church. The Fall of Man is beautiful because we learn from it; Adam and Eve were cast from Eden because of their mistake, and that story is told over and over so we don’t make the same one. Crucifixion of St. Peter is beautiful because of St. Peter’s sublime martyrdom. He suffered pain for his beliefs and for others, and this act is immortalized in Caravaggio’s painting, to be forever respected.

These paintings were commissioned by the Catholic Church so that each Sunday as churchgoers fill the pews, they can be reminded of the sins of their predecessors and the sacrifices of saints. Oftentimes Catholic paintings also exhibit glorious skies filled with light and clouds. This sight reminds the admirer of their reason for attending church each Sunday; the promise of eternal glory. As I wandered the fields of my own personal heaven back home, these are the feeling that filled me as I enjoyed the light and clouds of the dusk. Who can possibly say what lies beyond death, or if in fact anything lies beyond death? The afterlife is to many a great unknown, but the promise of that bright cloudy sky, of light and life everlasting, is a belief that so strongly motivates people, it fills chapels and paintings the world around.

Just as I cannot tell someone what they should think or feel when reflecting on the sublime, I cannot tell them what to think or feel when looking at a photograph or painting. Because of my experiences in life- my travels through Europe and my upbringing in the Catholic Church- I tied this photo to my memories of Catholic paintings and the feelings I felt when reflecting on them. Though it may differ for another, these paintings and this photograph are everything that is sublime to me.

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da. The Crucifixion of St. Peter. 1610. Oil on Canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Simoni, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti. The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 1508. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

The day after I took my first photograph, I returned to the fields in search of another. After taking a photograph that I thought basically encapsulated the picturesque, a scene of rugged trees and edges with a beautiful contrasting sky, I decided to do something a bit different for my second. For this, I didn’t want just another landscape; I wanted something interesting; I wanted something that evoked a different emotion. However, I still wanted the land and the nature of the fields to be part of the piece. When I came across our cows lazily grazing in the field, I took a moment to admire them. For my entire life, the most picturesque view I knew was that of a black and white spotted field. I found a cluster of Holsteins calmly grazing near the fence and made them the obvious subject of the photograph, still including others in the background. As it was with the first photograph, I was first pleased mostly with the appearance of this photo. As I studied not only the picturesque but the sublime and ruin more, I learned to focus more on my feeling toward the scene. When I look at this photograph, I see something different than perhaps a teen raised in suburbia, or an adult working in a high-rise in the city. My past experience and my memories cause me to feel differently, and make different connections when looking at it.

I grew up as the youngest of four girls, the daughters of a small town dairy farmer and a middle school English teacher. I spent Sunday mornings before church in the barn, feeding calves and cleaning stalls beside my sisters. I learned hard lessons about honest labor, and about life and death in nature. As I grew older, I came to understand the other struggle that comes with being a small family farm- misfortune and financial burden. After years of burning barns, bouncing checks, lazy employees, and lousy equipment, I am in awe of my parent’s ability to maintain not only the business, but their own sanity. My favorite view in the entire world is my back yard; the sight of tall corn fields and forty spotted Holsteins and caramel-colored Jerseys. However, when I look at that field now, I also see what a visitor never really can; I see pain, toil, labor and struggle. I see two hundred years of my own ancestors, plowing fields with horses, hired hands, and more recently tractors and tills. I see birth, death, growth, and sometimes lack thereof. More importantly, I see my parents; I see them stressing over the summer dry spell or the rising cost of off-road diesel, and I see them keeping other careers so that my sisters and I might pursue an education. They do this because it is what they believe in- hard work, honesty, and family. Like a Catholic to a chapel, our beliefs are what motivate us; they are what make what we do worth doing.

When I took the photograph of our cows in our field, I took it thinking only that it was beautiful, and thus by my personal definition, picturesque. When I paused to reflect on what this photograph truly meant, what value its contents held to me personally, I was struck by how much history and emotion I felt in it. While it may be to someone viewing it with a different perspective, this scene isn’t just picturesque, and it isn’t just beautiful. It is full of everything that I think to be sublime- it shows the source of so much joy and suffering. Those cows unknowingly represent centuries of struggle, success, ruin, and livelihood, for my family and for that of many others. This mixture of beauty and ruin, joy and sorrow, is as sublime as a painting of a martyr or a disgraced man and woman. What makes this vision of the sublime most interesting, however, is that is it my own vision, my own memories, and my own interpretation.

As I worked through this project, I also had the good fortune of discovering the photo-editing option of my Word processor. By manipulating this photograph to take on the appearance of a painting, my idea from the first photograph evolved into something related to this second photograph on another level. I came to realize that the paintings I grew up admiring and revering in the Catholic Church were beautiful because they were paintings, and were therefore not only a glimpse at a tragic bit of history, but an artistic masterpiece and earthly evidence of the artists toil. After editing my second photograph, I felt a desire to order a print of it and hang it on my wall, just to admire its picturesque beauty. I then realized that this idea of turning a bit of tragedy into artwork is the very embodiment of what is sublime. After hours of reading and staring at paintings, I finally came to understand what the words ‘picturesque’ and ‘sublime’ meant to me. They are the meeting place of beauty and despair; they are the overlap of joy and pain, and by turning tragedy into art, these artists found that in-between.

These photographs I had collected were not just beautiful, they were painful, and they were joyful, for every memory they raised in me and every emotion they gleaned. When another looks at them, perhaps their thoughts and feelings will differ, but from every memory that conflicted and crossed my mind whilst studying these images, this is what I discovered the picturesque to be.