Romantic Art

And The Sublimity of Nature

Romanticism is an intellectual, literary, and artistic movement that was prominent in the 18th Century, especially after the French and American Revolutions. It is characterized by individuality, intuition, loneliness, imagination, melancholy, and subjectivity. In Romanticism, there is a sense of rejection of Neoclassicism as the artist tries to comprehend their own identities by focusing on subjectivity, individuality as well and loneliness.

Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People - Depiction of the French Revolution

Romanticism was triggered by the philosophical text from the 1st Century BCE by Longinus in his work ‘’On the Sublime’’ which see nature as a greater force that can affect human emotions due to its beauty and delight. ''On the Sublime dates from the 1st century AD, because it was a response to a work of that period by Caecilius of Calacte, a Sicilian rhetorician. About a third of the manuscript is lost. Longinus defines sublimity (Greek hypos) in literature as “the echo of the greatness of spirit,” that is, the moral and imaginative power of the writer that pervades a work. Thus, for the first time greatness in literature is ascribed to qualities innate in the writer rather than in the art.'' (Britannica). Longinus argued that it is not possible to recreate nature yet it can be learned and practiced through art. ‘’we must remember that the very fact that there are some elements of expression that are in the hands of nature alone can be learned from no other source than art.’’ (Longinus 81).

Later, history was shaped drastically by the events of the French Revolution which gave individuals a better understanding of the self. In the 18th Century, the British Philosopher Edmund Burke further expanded the argument of Longinus with his inquiry. According to Burke, ‘’ The sublime emotions belonging to nature will affect the target audience greatly by freezing his/her mind and scaring. Yet being in distance and witnessing it from the distance is delightful. ‘’Whatever therefore is terrible, about sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror is endued with greatness of dimensions or not’’ (Burke 245).

Edmund Burke (1729 -1797)

The sublime emotions that can be found in nature according to Burke are thunder, the peak of a snowy mountain, space, and a vast ocean. Romanticism, as a result, aimed to demonstrate nature as a master source that is sublime and beautiful as well as terrifying by its vastness. It is such a powerful source that it precedes human existence.

The Shipwreck J. M. W. Turner - the terrifying ''sublime'' aspect of nature

From the events historical events and philosophical ideas that formed the Romantic movement, artists started to experiment in this form in art, literature, and musical composition. In the painting by David Friedreich Monk by The Sea it is clear to see how the idea of sublimity by Longinus and Edmund Burke functions;

DavidFriedreich'sh Monk by The Sea

The nature around the monk in the painting is depicted as serene but also terrifying, thus, it is sublime. ''There is some debate as to who that strange figure, curved like a question mark, actually is. Some think it Friedrich himself, others the poet and theological Gotthard Ludwig Kosegarten who served as a pastor on Rügen and was known to give sermons on the shore. Kosegarten’s writings certainly influenced the painting. Von Kleist, for example, refers to its “Kosegarten effect”. According to this pastor-poet nature, like the Bible, is a book through which God reveals Himself.'' (Pollitt). In addition to this Christian symbolism, Friedrich also concentrates on the power of the natural climate and so charges the landscape with divine authority, one which seems to all but subsume the figure of the monk. With nothing but land, sea, and sky to measure him by, his physical presence is rendered fragile and hauntingly ambiguous. Also, there is a metaphor for the unpredictable aspect of the future in the painting. Yet, nature also gives a sense of security through its excessive beauty which corresponds with the idea of Sublime of Longinus. There is also a solitary monk and the viewer sees nature through his perspective. As a result, such a scene gives a sense of singularity as well as loneliness.

In conclusion, Romanticism was revolutionary because after the French and American revolutions individuals were changed. There was a great emphasis on individuality and the Philosophy of Sublime by Longinus and Edmund Burke gave nature more importance as it was seen as a greater force beyond human understanding. Romanticism can also be seen loosely as a starting point of Modernism due to its focus on individuality and inner feelings. Modernism peaked after the First World War, there was a focus on the psychology of the characters, influenced by Freudian theories, PTSD as well as war trauma and depression. The individuality and singularity of the Romantic movement were further expanded and artists started to work on the psyche of their characters. Thus, Modernist Art can be seen as rather fragmented and open to interpretation. 


Ben Pollitt, "Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed September 13, 2023,

Burke, Edmund. ‘’A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’’. Oxford University Press. 2019.

Friedreich, David. ‘’Monk by The Sea’’. Khan Academy.

 ''Longinus: Greek literary critic''. Britannica. The editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed from 13 September 2023

 Longinus. William Harmon (editor). “On The Sublime” (CA. A.D. 100; excerpt). Classic Writings on Poetry. Columbia University Press. 200