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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 413-437

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The Problem of the Picturesque

David Marshall

"The art that I profess is of a higher nature than that of painting, and is thus very aptly described by a French author. '-- il est, à la poèsie et à la peinture, ce que la realité est à la description, et l'original à la copie. '"

Humphry Repton, Observations on The Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening

Works of Nature and Art

The problem of the picturesque in eighteenth-century criticism and aesthetics--and I will suggest why it is a problem--might be approached through a tableau that appears in the conclusion to Uvedale Price's Essay on the Picturesque, first published in 1794. In a note, Price recounts the following anecdote:

Sir Joshua Reynolds told me, that when he and Wilson the landscape painter were looking at the view from Richmond terrace, Wilson was pointing out some particular part; and in order to direct his eye to it, "There," said he, "near those houses--there! where the figures are." --Though a painter, said Sir Joshua, I was puzzled: I thought he meant [End Page 413] statues, and was looking upon the tops of the houses; for I did not at first conceive that the men and women we plainly saw walking about, were by him only thought of as figures in the landscape.

Price's use of this story about Richard Wilson seems odd in the context of his polemic against the "improvement school" of landscape design. Reynolds the portrait painter appears to be somewhat scandalized that Wilson the landscape painter should regard men and women as if they were figures in a painting. Yet Price seems to cite the story approvingly as an illustration of his claim that painting "tends to humanize the mind." Whereas the improvers practice despotism and destruction, he argues, "the lover of painting, considers the dwellings, the inhabitants, and the marks of their intercourse, as ornaments to the landscape." 1 Price is arguing that landscape design and gardening should be based on the principles of painting. In advocating the picturesque both in theory and practice, he is extending Gilpin's admiration of "that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture" or is "capable of being illustrated in painting" to a way of looking at the landscape (and indeed composing the landscape) as if it were a painting. 2 Despite Price's identification with Wilson's point of view, however, the story raises the question of what it means to see a scene from nature as if it were a work of art, what it means to look at the world through the frame of art.

Raymond Williams observed that the "very idea of landscape implies separation and observation." In the late eighteenth century--a time when "the proscenium frame and the movable flats were being simultaneously developed" in the theater--the idea that the landscape itself could be a scene became inscribed in the language. 3 Writers like Uvedale Price had to refer to "natural scenery" and "real scenery" in order to distinguish the views they were describing from the realm of art, but the terms "scene" and "scenery" implied a theatrical perspective from the outset. 4 In Austen's novel Mansfield Park (1814), Fanny Price (who, like Uvedale Price, argues against the improvers and advocates picturesque principles) speaks of her tendency to rhapsodize when she is out of doors, but the speech in which she experiences the "sublimity of Nature" in terms that recall the picturesque is spoken while "standing at an open window" beholding what is described as a "scene." 5 Her stance only literalizes the theatrical metaphor contained in the aesthetic category of the picturesque. The controversy about improvement and landscape design in the novel parallels the controversy about the theatricals, just as in Goethe's novel Elective Affinities (1809), characters discuss landscape design and pose in tableaux vivants. 6

The picturesque represents a point of view that frames the world and turns nature into a series of livingtableaux. It begins as an appreciation of...


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