Inside the Milberg Gallery: What is the picturesque?

Posted: Wednesday, 22 January 2020 - 3:23pm

Mountain scene

This scene of San Agustín de las Cuevas (then south of Mexico City) mixes rustic terrain together with the community. Against the backdrop, hundreds in indigenous dress are depicted attending the annual festival. By Daniel Thomas Egerton (1839).

 

This series highlights collections included in the exhibition, In Pursuit of the Picturesque – British Color Plate Books: 1776 to 1868, now open through March 1 (daily, noon to 6 p.m.) in the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery.

Written by Emma Sarconi, Reference Professional for Special Collections

At the turn of the 19th century, advances in technology, science, and engineering made way for new possibilities in empire, colonialism, and travel. Art, too, benefited from these advances—printing became easier, cheaper, and significantly more colorful through the advent of lithographic printing.

Now, for significantly less cost than the price of transcontinental travel, large books with lavish, vibrant prints could transport the British public from the Scottish moors to the Indian peninsula. These “color plate books,” however, were not just beautiful objects; they also created a vision of empire that could be exotic, romantic, and picturesque. 

Notoriously slippery, the picturesque can be hard to define. There are certain features of the genre: paintings will depict a natural scene abundant with variety, detail, and texture. Moreover, the picturesque is about how the art makes the viewer feel.

Born from the emerging Romantic sensibilities of the 18th century, philosophers like Edmund Burke proposed that reactions to the aesthetic world were not rational, but instinctual. The middle ground between the pastoral ideals of beauty and the horrors of the sublime, picturesque landscape lifts up and inspires the senses with a feeling of awe, but not terror. It instills serenity but not complacency. It is at once alluring, ideal, and wild. 

Note: The In Pursuit of the Picturesque exhibition is featured online at dpul.princeton.edu.

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications