Seascapes: The Romantic Sublime

“Human beings living on lands nevertheless prefer in their imagination, to represent their overall condition in the world of a sea voyage.”

John R. Gillis

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Only the beholder is aware of what pleases his eye. However dreadful a sight may be to one, the eye of another may be consumed by nothing but pleasure by the exact same spectacle. In other words, beauty exists for everyone. Yet contrary to what Oscar Wilde believed to be the purpose in life and art through his deification of this very beauty, could there be something more that dwells in art – and ultimately life; something that strikes chords rarely stricken, that speaks an unspoken language through penetrating our souls to the very core? The sublime is rumoured to be able to do so, which is why this subject has been one that many have attempted to demystify through characterising. My attempts are relatively rudimentary due to being limited in certain aspects, and set a specific focus on the art of William Turner and Ivan Aivazovsky as the great artists of the East and West. These are separated by land and sea, but unified in the ideas and unspoken emotions prevalent in the age of Romanticism.Though both were quite proficient in their work (each completing well above a thousand pieces), their collection of works pivoted around the sea. They were the explorers of that unknown area of Earth at a time when the relationship between people and the sea was particularly familiar.

Artists and writers flocked to the sea as an area of mystery. Jules Verne, for instance, characterised it thus: “the human mind delights in grand visions of supernatural beings… the sea is their very best medium, the only environment in which such giants… can be produced and developed.” Turner and Aivazovsky were no exceptions in this through personal expressions via their medium. Their work demonstrates an incredible ability to twist and exaggerate the nature of the sea in heart-wrenching combinations of fantasy and reality. There is plenty of awe, dread and wonder in the paintings of the two artists– something that Kant maintained was a prerequisite for the sublime to be present. The massive proportions of the canvases, especially in Aivazovsky’s most popular works, immerses the viewer deep into the action of monumental dimensions due to the seemingly unlimited nature of the sea. The movement is caught at the height of its climax, in this resembling Bernini’s sculptures in which he masterfully captured the figures at the pinnacles of emotional experience.

The two painters try their best to present nature as it was to them. The realism of their art is different, though nonetheless present in their own ways. Turner, as the rumour goes, chained himself to masts of ships and travelled into the midst of storms. Hence his works resemble swirling vortexes that one would see if they attached themselves to the swaying mast of a ship. The sharpest lines – symbolising agitated atmosphere of a storm- are achieved through indentures created through fingernail painting, and add to the swaying experience. Aivazovsky, though less extreme, participated in navy battles and painted in the midst of the action, preferring to finish off in peace on the shores later. He captures the suffering of humans as the sea mercilessly consumes boats whole, dragging the desperate sailors down with it. They convey realities of their own, but nevertheless retain in their painting all the necessary qualities of sublimity through encapsulating its necessary emotions by transferring their relationships with the sea to canvas.

In attempts to narrow down and pinpoint the sublime further, Burke is useful through his analysis of how negative emotions are stronger than positive emotions; dread, terror, fear, etc. hold greater strength than joy, happiness, or hope in stirring the sublime to life. The two artists’ paintings hold a unique quality in this aspect, for they convey emotions from both sides of the spectrum. Whilst the darker tones plant a feeling of terror and fear, the emerging sunlight in the background for which sailors reach before the sea devours them, brings hope. This double personality is more evident in Aivazovsky’s piece because Turner was of a darker character in life, but the unmistakeable characteristic is nevertheless present in both artworks.

However as Kant has argued, art is too ‘hygienic’ as a medium for the sublime experience to be powerful. Not only does more thought need to be put into viewing these paintings, but also being a second-hand experience rather than first-hand is, to a certain extent, less effective in stimulating the most solid of emotions. Had the viewer been able to participate in the depicted events, beauty would have merged itself in a more harmonious relationship with the sublime, thus allowing awe, wonder and dread to take their place much closer to heart. The viewer is left outside the painted events, and this is why beauty, and to some degree – naturalism and realism, are necessary to bring the viewer as close as possible to the painting.

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