Exercise 3.1: Reflecting on the picturesque

What is the ‘picturesque’?

SMITH (2003) describes the picturesque as “the middle ground between the extremes of the beautiful and sublime – evoking a sense of reality of the landscape”. Discussing Gilpin’s notion of ‘picturesque’ in the British Landscape, the Victoria and Albert Museum, describes how 18th century travelers “learned to look at the British countryside as an interesting subject for painting. We see this mind-set in the ‘Claude glass’, which travelers used to reflect actual landscapes as if seen in a painting”.

RABB (2010) states that picturesque “refers to the charm of discovering the landscape in its natural state” and “The artist and the viewer delight in unspoiled panoramas: sunsets behind majestic mountains, an egret taking off from a quiet marsh, a deer bathed in a shaft of light in the woods”. She describes how Gilpin encouraged people to “engage in picturesque travel” – where the traveller endeavoured to “discover beauty created solely by nature”. The National Gallery considers that “As an aesthetic concept applied to painting, it looks back to the ‘classical picturesque’ style seen in the works of Claude and Poussin, and the Romantic picturesque derived from Elsheimer and Salvator Rosa”.

My own view, certainly upon starting this course, is that the term picturesque derives from a traditional form of aesthetic pleasure displayed in an ‘attractive’ landscape. What makes an ‘attractive’ landscape, the framing and composition of the scene will play a great part in defining this, as will the subject matter itself. Generally speaking I would consider the typical Claude Lorraine painting to portray a picturesque landscape.

Landscape with shepherds; Claude Lorrain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The painting is in the romantic tradition using both linear and ariel perspective to give a sense of depth to the scene. It contains all the elements that I would use to describe picturesque; rolling landscape, stretching into the distance, a calm rural scene.

I think that much of my landscape photography to date has been an attempt to capture and convey images of the picturesque. This was brought home to me last year when on holiday in Corfu. W e were approaching the top of a hill with a spectacular view over the bay below. I had been taking some photos when a tour group arrived at the same point. The tour guide addressed the group in French, which I understood a little of, but it was his final words that stood out “le photo!”, at which point the group dutifully took out their cameras to capture the scene.
I guess I had been indulging in ‘picturesque travel’ up to that point. I had taken other images (some for a previous module for this course) on that holiday, which were not picturesque, but this did bring home to me just how how normal it seemed to be to seek out and photograph the picturesque.



Rabb, L. (2010) 19th Century Landscape – The Pastoral, the Picturesque and the Sublime. At: http://artmuseum.arizona.edu/events/event/19th-century-landscape-the-pastoral-the-picturesque-and-the-sublime (Accessed on 24 February 2018)
Smith, L. (2003) Beautiful, sublime . At: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/beautifulsublime.htm (Accessed on 24 February 2018)
Victoria and Albert Museum, Online Museum, Web Team, webmaster@vam.ac.uk (2013) Topography: Portraits of Places. At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/british-watercolours-landscape-genre/ (Accessed on 24 February 2018)
National Gallery: Glossary. At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/picturesque (Accessed on 24 February 2018)